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[Herald Review] 'One Dance' embodies grandeur through contemporary mis-en-scene

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : May 29, 2023 - 18:50

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Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform "Chunaengmu" during “One Dance.” (Yonhap)

The Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre wrapped up its four-day performance of “One Dance,” or “Ilmu” in Korean, at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts from Thursday to Sunday.

Directed by Jung Ku-ho, the iconic performance presents a modern reinterpretation of a traditional dance from Jongmyo Jeryeak, a royal ceremonial performance encompassing singing, music and dance that took place during the royal ancestral rites at Jongmyo Shrine.

Jung, a fashion designer-turned-stage director, returned with a production that was more daring than the one that premiered in May of last year.

Among the most noticeable changes were the costume colors. The dark navy attire of “Munmu” was replaced with white, while the dark red of “Mumu” was exchanged for vivid orange. The vivid colors complemented the dance aesthetic and contemporary mise-en-scene.

The performance opened with “Munmu,” a dance honoring the cultural virtues of ancestors.

Dancers dressed in white costumes glowed in the dark -- the whiteness emanating a pious and solemn mode.

Beginning with a relatively slow rhythm, the synchronized dance felt as if one was looking into an infinite reflection within a mirror. The minimal stage lighting made the audience focus on the dancer’s movements.

Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform "Munmu" during “One Dance.” (Yonhap)
Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform "Mumu" during “One Dance.” (Yonhap)

In the second part of Act 1, “Mumu,” which celebrates the martial arts of ancestors, it was striking to see 18 dancers in vibrant orange military uniforms emerge slowly from the dark.

The powerful yet disciplined sword dance featured sequences of swinging swords and graceful spinning. The wide sleeves of the dancers fluttered in unison, resembling an undulating orange wave.

Act 2 showcased “Chunaengmu,” which took a unique turn. Originally a solo court dance, it has been transformed into a group performance. It is said that Crown Prince Hyomyeong created the dance inspired by a nightingale perched on a willow branch.

The graceful sight of 24 female dancers swiftly turning and twirling exuded elegance through their vivid green costumes. The choreography maintained meticulous and symmetrical precision.

The music has been transformed from the original grand music of botaepyeong and jeongdaeeop into more contemporary music by choreographer-composer Kim Jae-duck.

Kim took out all the melodic sounds at the beginning of each act, focusing on a minimalistic vibe created by percussion instruments. Silence also became part of the performance emphasizing the sounds of dancers' footsteps and breathing.

Then as the performance escalated, the beat too slowly escalated with melodic music and singing joining in, creating a feeling of building up to a climax.

Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform "Jungmu" during “One Dance.” (Yonhap)
Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre perform "New Ilmu" during “One Dance.” (SMDT)

Act 3, “Jungmu,” a newly incorporated dance piece this year, bridged the gap from the more traditional Acts 1 and 2 to Act 4, “New Ilmu,” which is completely contemporary.

The choreography involved more vigorous movements with dynamic arm gestures and jumps, emanating intense power reminiscent of an ancient ritual or scene from a martial arts film.

Dancers ran, spun and jumped at high speeds through some 40 poles symbolizing a bamboo forest.

Act 4 presented a highly modern sequence, with unexpected movements, turns and kicks that called to mind street dance styles. Watching all 54 dancers perform together in unison was yet another moment of breathtaking grandeur.

“One Dance” is scheduled to perform at New York’s Lincoln Center as part of Korean Arts Week, one of the highlights of the venue’s annual summer festival, from July 20-22.