“North Korea Dance”
Eun-Me Ahn Company
October 15, 2022
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2022 by Ilona Landgraf
Last season, Eun-Me Ahn Company’s visit to Ludwigsburg fell victim to COVID-19. This October, the South Korean troupe made up for the cancelation by offering two performances of “North Korea Dance” at the Forum Ludwigsburg.
The Seoul-born Eun-Me Ahn studied dance in her home country and in New York. After returning home, she took the reins at the Daegu City Dance Company, Korea’s first national contemporary dance ensemble. In 1988, Ahn founded the Eun-Me Ahn Company, which has been a regular guest on western stages.
Little is known about dance in North Korea. To change this and to explore the common roots of North and South Korean dance, Ahn consulted the internet. Based on the dance videos from North Korea available online, she created her own interpretation of the neighboring country’s dance culture. The final product: a ninety-minute revue-like journey through time.
We begin in the 1950s. A woman stands on a small pedestal center stage, her sparkling golden garb and opulent headdress creating an aura of light around her. Her arms and hands move slowly, seeming to follow ritualistic patterns. Haunting melodies from a gayageum – a traditional Korean plucked zither – accompany her (played by Soon-a Park). Crouching behind her instrument at the front of the stage, Park weaves a soundscape from trickling tones and brisk (and occasionally thunderous) rhythms that calm the mind.
Any sense of tranquility cultivated in the first section disappeared the moment the video on the back wall fast-forwarded to a montage from 2022 – to which the remainder of the show was dedicated.
How does North Korean dance, as seen through Ahn’s eyes, look today? The cheerful men and women in golden dress uniforms, buoyantly parading back and forth, smiling and waving at the audience, are likely to represent the “relaxed propaganda ballet” that she mentions in the program. Large letters spelling out “Nice to see you” greet the audience while the dancers swing brightly colored pom-pom batons and hop in sync with the beat. Fans – most of them huge and garish – and ribbons are featured prominently, too. Several numbers rely on their visual attractiveness. The bright and cheerful colors of the costumes (some of them fluorescent) prove another surprise. The sheen of the uniformly gray-silver set (backdrop, side curtains, and drapes) creates the impression that we are in an artificial, closed-off world – a choice that make Ahn’s brash color palette seem especially daring. The generous amount of glitter that she adds on top of all this occasionally strains the eyes. As I watched the lightning-quick break-dancing performed by men in glistening frocks, I was reminded of a flurry of disco balls rolling across the stage. Their caricatured machismo clashed comically with Jinyoung Jang’s sweetly pink lighting. Satirical, too, was the lip-synced performance of a Schlager; the recording featured a chanteuse whose bird-like warbles presumably hinted at the topic of the song.
Other numbers included more break-dancing, bold acrobatics, plate spinning, and robotic jerking. One featured two women on stilts sharing one dress like conjoined twins.
East and West do not seem to differ when it comes to so-called modern music. Young-Gyo Jang assembled a score from pounding, squeaking, electronic noise complemented by bell-ringing, screaming, clapping, and a howling horn.
Two key scenes were marked by extended silence. In the first, Ahn’s feet cautiously measured the span of a white spotlight that later turned blood-red; the color faded under her careful steps. I was reminded of a boiling fury gradually extinguished. In the second scene, men and women slowly appeared from either side of the wings, joining one of two lines facing one another. A rectangle of light separated them. At first, nothing happened – until a fine crack of light appeared on the backdrop. This prompted one man to step forward. Others followed. It didn’t take long until these former opponents were engaged in exuberant dances in pairs. Though the audience didn’t follow the dancers’ instruction to join in their counting (“1, 2, 3, 4 – all together!”), the message of the scene was obvious.
Towards the end, the surprises felt tired and the numbers began to appear repetitive. That didn’t stop Ludwigsburg’s audience from applauding the twelve dancers – Ahn included – intensely.
Still, I think “North Korean Dance” is a delicate project. In my view, countries should present their culture themselves first and foremost to determine how the world perceives them – especially when this culture differs fundamentally from the audience’s. There is a risk of unintended misrepresentations that cannot be ignored. That’s why I was especially happy to see the ensemble’s unbridled joy in being received warmly – and it was clear that what was most important for them was successfully celebrating their neighboring country.
|Website of the Eun-Me Ahn Company / Gadja Productions
|Website of the Forum Ludwigsburg
|Ensemble, “North Korea Dance” by Eun-Me Ahn, Eun-Me Ahn Company 2022
|Sihan Park, Donghun Go, and Seunghae Kim, “North Korea Dance” by Eun-Me Ahn, Eun-Me Ahn Company 2022
| Youngmin Jung and Hyunwoo Nam, “North Korea Dance” by Eun-Me Ahn, Eun-Me Ahn Company 2022
|Jeeyeun Kim, “North Korea Dance” by Eun-Me Ahn, Eun-Me Ahn Company 2022
|Hyunwoo Nam, Jihye Ha, Seunghae Kim, and Juyoung Shim, “North Korea Dance” by Eun-Me Ahn, Eun-Me Ahn Company 2022
|all photos © Jean-Marie Chabot