The paradoxical ability of dance to transcend language and yet tell stories stirs the imagination. This fascinating quality was ever-present in “Kaksori”, Mi Young Kim Dance Company’s first full-evening program at Harbourfront’s Premiere Dance Theatre. Incorporating traditional Korean choreography, dancers from the b-boy group Sekma, and the deep-rooted Korean rhythms of musical ensemble Samulnori Canada, Kim is able to kinetically relate stories about the evolution of Korean dance: those of traditional legends, those of contemporary Korean culture and her own.
The program included shorter group works and solo pieces, each of which used a set of signature movement vocabulary unique to traditional Korean dance. “Jeuk Heung Mu”, a group work for five female dancers, had as its premise the traditional beauty of Korean women, performed through understated movement, expressive hand gestures, and calm rhythms. Accompanied on stage by the drums of Samulnori Canada, the dancers moved in a satisfying unison, their arms gliding cursively while carving delicate circles with articulating fingers. The slow, gentle bending of their knees was hidden by colorful, floor-length silken gowns, which created the illusion of the dancers floating on the stage. Occasionally, a flexed foot would bashfully emerge from under one of the dancer’s massive skirts. The numerous layers of fabric spilling over the dancers’ bodies was fascinating to watch; it also focussed our attention on the physical nuances of these dancers’ storytelling: piercing eyes, arms which seem delicate but surge with a sustained strength, and a subtle undercurrent of weight shifting in the lower body.
“Jang Go Chum — Drum and Ribbon Dance” is noted in the program as Mi Young Kim’s most cherished piece, an award-winning dance in three sections. Costumed in a lavish silken gown, Kim enters in dim light, an hourglass drum (a Cang’gu or Chang’go) hanging in front of her from a cord around her neck. As she maneuvers her body and the drum, we see that she is equally virtuosic with both; when she is not using her drumsticks to strike a complex rhythm, she draws spirals in the space. Travelling fully across the stage, she spins, retreats and leaps with ease; she incorporates the drum flawlessly, as if it were just another appendage.
As she exits, three drumming female dancers now enter the stage to a recorded instrumental soundtrack, the sound of a saxophone rising above an intense percussive pulse. When not striking their drums, the dancers subtly pulse their arms with small jolts which seem to energize them toward further movement. Their time on stage is fleeting, and as they glide past us, four male dancers appear and the audience collectively gasps and claps at the sight of them. Attached to the crowns of their heads are batons with long streams of ribbon flowing from them. The men curiously bobble their heads to animate the ribbons into mesmerizing splashes of color. Their physicality is joyous and impressive, punctuated with barrel turns and light jumping, which excites the responsive audience. In the denouement, all the dancers fill the stage and fuse their movement, ribbons and drums together in a celebratory, harmonious rhythm.
For the evening’s pivotal work, “Kakseori Taryung” (as titled in the program), Kim fuses tradition with contemporary sensibility by incorporating traditional Korean dance and b-boys (from Sekma). In addition to this idea of fusion, two traditional stories are at work: the first tells of a Buddhist who, unable to unite with his true love, becomes a Kakseori (beggar) and composes cryptic songs that, even now, have symbolic weight among Korean people; the second tale describes how the beggar’s songs allowed Korean people under Japanese rule to criticize the ruling forces. With these many factors in play, the piece resounds with a recorded soundtrack of a quivering male voice paired with percussive instrumentation. A solo figure enters, retreating in billowing fabric, swaying and looking longingly for some unknown entity. Glowing in powdery blue lighting, she seems defeated, but is always drawn upward and outward by some sense of hopefulness.
I am immersed in this ghostly scene, but am shaken from it as post-modernity sounds: the four Sekma b-boys enter to the reverberations of Korean rap, wildly contrasting the traditional sounds that have pervaded the program thus far. They begin with improvisation, each showcasing individual acrobatic tricks, and then progressing into choreographed duets and unison work. Fundamentally, the Sekma b-boys are impressive movers, spinning on their hands, balancing in contorted positions, and expertly patterning their feet. Yet, their tricks are unintentionally dangerous; a handful of near-misses cause audience members to jolt in fear. The b-boys’ involvement in both the piece and the program is a wonderfully inclusive idea, yet their performance seemed to blur against the articulate, physical storytelling offered by Kim’s company.
Sekma is only onstage for a short time before being forced to exit by the presence of four quick-stepping female dancers, catapulted by a recorded accompaniment of upbeat drumming. They are joyous, lightly jumping while softly pin-wheeling their arms. More performers enter, travelling voraciously with soft but energetic qualities, their arms rising slowly against the rebounding rhythm of their legs. A unison display of clapping and hopping satisfies like a happy ending, and I lean forward as a triple circle begins to materialize: on the outside are traditional dancers enclosing the b-boys in their own small circle, and Mi Young Kim, surely the nucleus of this evening, in the centre.
The dancers and musicians of “Kaksori” have mastered certain subtleties and nuances of storytelling that, although seemingly gentle, require the utmost strength. Although I am new to the vocabulary of Korean dance, I was still able to read the languid gestures, the bodily flourishes, the articulate dancing and musicianship, and Kim’s deep understanding of choreography and performance. These central elements combined to tell the audience a host of performed tales about where Korean dance has been and where it is now, rendering “Kaksori” an example of dance’s potential to enunciate.