Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Loneliness of the Long-Distant Courtesan by NY times

The Loneliness of the Long-Distant Courtesan
From left, Mihyun Lee, Yuree Bae, Soyeoun Lim, Jiseon Kwon and Jeongeun Yang.

Published: February 20, 2009
AS Dean Moss knows from experience, it’s lonely to be an artist. For his newest work, “Kisaeng becomes you,” to be performed at Dance Theater Workshop starting Wednesday, he explores that isolation through the poetry of the kisaeng, Korean courtesans who were trained in the arts of entertainment, from the 10th to the 20th centuries.

Shoko Letton
Dean Moss and Yoon Jin Kim
In 2006 Mr. Moss, a New York choreographer whose travels had taken him to Korea (he was also dating a Korean woman at the time), found himself perusing the shelves of St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village when his gaze fell upon a title, “Hwang Jini & Other Courtesan Poets From the Last Korean Dynasty.” His curiosity was piqued. “I thought, who are these people and what did they do?” he recalled.

Highly educated and accomplished in the fine arts and poetry, the kisaeng, being courtesans, were relegated to the bottom rung of society, a circumstance that Mr. Moss, as a dance artist, found familiar. Above all, their poetry captivated him. “They’re not sweet love poems,” he said. “One starts out with: ‘So, what is this love? Is it round or is it flat?’ And it ends with, ‘Mine breaks to a sharp edge within me.’ That feels like my life and the kinds of things I’ve gone through. It feels modern.”

In “Kisaeng becomes you,” Mr. Moss and Yoon Jin Kim, a Korean choreographer who collaborated with him on the project, underscore the similarities between the kisaeng’s poetry and today’s social networking to explore isolation and connection with others. “The kisaeng poems were also like diaries,” Mr. Moss said. “Nowadays we write our diary on a blog, on Facebook. It’s the same thing. It’s just our contemporary style.”

An impressionistic, multilayered work, “Kisaeng becomes you” intends to establish a feeling rather than tell the story of a courtesan. “We’re relating the contemporary artist’s life to the poetry of the kisaeng’s life,” Mr. Moss said. “It doesn’t tell you how to think about it. It tries to allow itself to be seen in a number of different ways and to use these poems, which amazingly have within them a critical mind.”

Mr. Moss met Ms. Kim in Seoul in 2005 when he was invited to present a talk at a Korean dance festival. “I saw her work, and it was the only piece that seemed to show an absorption of Korean culture, in that I did not understand it,” he said. “I couldn’t predict the rhythms, the actions, the relationships and the juxtapositions. I thought: Ah, this is Korean — this use of the breath and the traditional with a mix into modern. After I read the poems, I realized that I could work with her and bring a Korean cast to do this piece.”

Ms. Kim, speaking with the help of a translator during an interview on Skype, laughed as she recalled Mr. Moss’s proposal that they make a dance together. “I cannot understand English very well but back then, it was worse,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out exactly what he was saying, but I could understand the depth of his idea, and I knew that I could add onto his ideas with my own. It was like we were connecting and melting through each other. In this project I realized a lot about my own identity. Dean talks about isolation and loneliness, but for me, as a Korean woman, I found inner strength.”

“Kisaeng becomes you” features five female Korean dancers, three poems, music by the experimental composer Okkyung Lee and luminous projections of flowers, to represent the mute beauty of the kisaeng. Audience participation — the dancers select two women before the show to appear in the work — is integral to the production’s choreographic fabric. “They also interview a man in the lobby,” Mr. Moss said. “One of the dancers’ first jobs is to interview a guy for three minutes about his past loves or some pain in his life. We project that as part of the video in the piece. So men are always like a shadow. It’s really a women’s world, but they have a voice.”

The two women chosen in the lobby highlight the sense of otherness that the kisaeng experienced. One participant is given a video camera to shoot the action, which is projected onto a screen in real time. The other is absorbed into the group, essentially becoming a part of the cast. The dancers place a wig on her head and instruct her in how to recite the poetry. When it all works — and both Mr. Moss and Ms. Kim admit that involving a nonperformer is a risk — the production successfully captures the vulnerability of a kisaeng as she looks back at her life.

“There’s an understanding that this is serious,” Mr. Moss said of the audience participation. “We understand that the people who do this want to do it well, and we push them to do it well. Sometimes there’s a real self-consciousness, a real lack of understanding and then, as a director, you get nervous. This is a big part of the piece. Getting the dancers to recognize when somebody’s not comfortable and trying to make her comfortable is important, because the flow of the work depends on them having an interaction with the guest. The guest has to look good. She is the star.”

Currents of Desire, With an Assist From the Audience

G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
Kisaeng becomes you: A scene from Dean Moss and Yoon Jin Kim’s piece at Dance Theater Workshop about the undercurrents of emotion.

Published: March 2, 2009
Who knows where Dean Moss ends and Yoon Jin Kim begins in “Kisaeng becomes you.” The inner workings of the collaboration between Mr. Moss, an American choreographer, and Ms. Kim, a South Korean, is just one of the marvelous mysteries of this remarkable work, which had its United States premiere last week at Dance Theater Workshop.

How did they develop the idea of the kisaeng, Korea’s answer to the geisha, with their intense and isolating training and lowly status, into a surprisingly natural metaphor for contemporary-dance artists? Which decided to roll the dice every night and gamble the entire show on several dazzling, sophisticated bursts of audience participation?

Who selected the five striking Korean performers, and who thought, Aha!, let’s throw a Janis Joplin song into a mix that includes biting kisaeng love poems, original music by Okkyung Lee and what appear to be Korean pop songs?

You get the sense, while watching, that these choices were made on a gut level; such is the strength of the sensual logic governing this work, which draws us into a private, deeply female world of often unidentifiable emotional currents and desires. (Save for a brief video, in which a man describes an almost love affair with a woman from another culture, the only male desire we see is reflected in the action of these women.)

At one point the five women turn ragged little circles on their tiptoes. Their heads are thrown back, mouths hinging open and shut, like goldfish grasping for sustenance at the water’s surface. They are mute in their need, and inscrutable.

At other times they are vulgar, making suggestive use of a microphone, or rowdy, downing copious amounts of alcohol. They screech at one another in excitement and anger and grief. These raw emotions and unpolished behaviors are placed against the seductive, perfected armor of the kisaeng, whose skill as the ultimate purveyors of fantasy is belied by the almost caustic loneliness threading through their poems.

Both the strength and chinks in this armor are made clear when audience members (on Friday, first an elegant older woman, and later two very young women) are drawn into the work. At times they are completely protected, given ceremonial costume touches while their every word and action is coached, and filmed.

Elsewhere they are left vulnerable, without instruction, made to play roles they cannot grasp. On Friday something terribly fragile and beautiful bloomed within these awkward transformations. The gamble paid off.

No comments:

Post a Comment