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One Dance

In Seoul, South Korea, at the Jongmyo shrine, a royal ancestral ritual of prescribed music and dance is performed annually. The tradition to praise and honor the ancestors of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) has been kept for over 600 years. This dance form, called ilmu, which translates as “line dance” or “one dance,” requires 64 dancers positioned in eight lines of eight moving as one in restrained unison. Wearing long, full, colored robes and carrying symbolic props in their hands, the dancers perform the slow, controlled, set sequences reinforcing Confucian ideals—order, harmony of yin and yang, and filial piety—in the service of societal stability. Similar rituals were originally practiced in China as well, but the practices were discontinued there with the abolition of the monarchy.

 

Performance

Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre: “One Dance”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, July 2023

Words

Karen Greenspan

Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre's “One Dance.” Photograph by Hwang Piljoo

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Fast forward to Lincoln Center’s “Summer for the City,” a nine-week festival celebrating the vibrant cultural communities of New York City, Korean Arts Week is featuring a series of events that will stretch out all summer long. At various locations around town, the Korean cultural experiences include an immersive video art installation, an exhibition of contemporary Korean art, cuisine, fashion, music, and dance. Chief among these offerings was “One Dance,” a contemporary reimagining of the treasured ceremonial Korean dance from the Jongmyo shrine known as “Jongmyo Jeryeak.”

The dance spectacle, presented by the Sejong Center (Seoul's premiere culture and arts institution established by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 1978) featured 39 dancers from Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre, the nation’s flagship dance company. Under the direction of artistic director Hyejin Jeong, one of three collaborating choreographers for “One Dance,” the company, has been actively staging modern reinterpretations of traditional forms in its commitment to preserving Korean heritage. This production is the combined endeavor of choreographers Hyejin Jeong (traditional Korean choreography), Sung Hoon Kim (modern dance choreography), and Jaeduk Kim (modern dance choreography and music composition) under the artistic and creative direction of Kuho Jung, a creative force in both fashion and the arts. The seventy minute program was a grand negotiation between Korea’s rich traditional dance and music forms (actively preserved and supported by the country’s National Treasure System) and the high energy, fast-paced sensibilities of 21st century Korea. 

Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre's “One Dance.” Photograph by Hwang Piljoo

“One Dance” began with a staging of the two main dances of the Jongmyo ceremony: Munmu—the dance of the civil servants and Mumu—the dance of the military. Lined up in two long rows, the white-robed women dancers filled the black-draped capacious stage of the David H. Koch Theater carrying the ritual implements of the civil servants—a small bamboo flute in the left hand and a jeok (implement made of pheasant feathers) in the right. Outlined by spare, movable metal frames, the two rows of dancers split into four and with that, the stage was fully populated with grand optics produced by multiplied bodies and extensive fabric. Their measured, unison movements flowed with the pacing of a Tai Chi form occasionally punctuated with a forceful gesture.

The dance of the military servants followed, performed by men dancers in flowing orange robes and round, black-brimmed hats. Wielding long wooden swords, they danced a slow choreography of bows, pivots, and various arm motions while moving through a series of kaleidoscopic formations. At one point, as an electronic, metronome-like pulse became audible, the dancers formed a long diagonal that rotated from the central point of the stage like the hands of a clock. The program notes explained that the manipulation of formations was a new variation on the traditional dances to make them more theatricalized and interesting for current audiences.

Another traditional dance reimagined with stunning elegance and remarkable visuals was Chunaengmu or “Dance of the Spring Nightingale.” This court dance was composed in the early 19th century by a crown prince as a birthday commemoration to the queen and is traditionally performed by a solo dancer standing on a small woven mat decorated with floral designs. Redesigned with two initial female performers rising and sinking on their small mats, the stage soon filled with a multitude—all clad in emerald-green robes with long white sleeves. Standing on individual wine-colored mats laid out like giant playing cards, the dancers continued the rising and sinking motion as they manipulated their billowing sleeves holding hidden drumsticks to extend their reach. The dance movements accentuated the swish and flow of the ample fabric as they condensed and expanded their group formations. The visual display was further heightened as the colorful mats (attached to red wires) were lifted into the air to form a moving design in the vertical space above the dancers.

Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre's “One Dance.” Photograph by Hwang Piljoo

The all-male, dance “Jukmu,” billed as a demonstration of “exquisite regimentation and masculine strength,” was exactly that─a choreography of martial arts strength as well as grace. The men, wearing long, flowing, burgundy skirts and white, sleeveless tops danced organic phrases of slow movement with masterful control. Group patterns grew into beautiful distinction as the dancers (sometimes individually) moved amidst and manipulated long, sleek poles representing a bamboo forest. The newly conceived piece, drawn from the symbolism of bamboo in Korean culture (qualities of integrity, fidelity, and loyalty), served as a bridge between the previous traditional dance interpretations and the contemporary finale. 

The final number called “Sin-ilmu” (New ilmu) was a jolt into the contemporary moment. With an updated unisex costume design integrating form-fitting navy blue sleeves, white top, and flowing burgundy pants, the full cast of 39 dancers energized the stage in a nonstop explosion of motion. With precision and athleticism, they powered through changing floor patterns and numerous entrances and exits adding leaps, jumps, and floorwork to the previously established martial arts movements. The score with its electronic, pulsing drive injected more energy and speed into the mix. And the projection design streamed a procession of vertical lines along an ever-widening strip across the upper segment of the stage. In an intensifying choreography of their own, the vertical lines replicated the colors of the dancers’ costumes and moved across the strip faster and faster as they divided and subdivided in a multiplication frenzy.    

The finale overwhelmed with its endless energy of modernity. I would have preferred an interspersion of moments of intentional stillness. Nonetheless, the show dazzled with its opulent visuals and the powerful pageantry of vast numbers of dancers moving with synchronized precision. What is apparent in “One Dance” is the immense pride and creative inspiration these highly skilled artists have inherited from a society that values its dances—both old and new.

Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre's “One Dance.” Photograph by Hwang Piljoo

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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