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[Eye Plus] 'It feels like I'm the hero in a movie'

By Lim Jae-seong

Published : May 6, 2023 - 16:01

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Nam Chang-dong was 8 years old when he was spellbound by jultagi tightrope walking.

“The jultagi player looked like a hero in a fantasy film for me," he said.

Now 22 and a professional “rope clown,” he is the custodian of jultagi, the tightrope walking art that is officially recognized as part of South Korea’s intangible cultural heritage.

It might be compared to tightrope walking, but in jultagi the performers dance, sing and tell stories while walking, standing and jumping on the rope.

“I can get a bird’s eye view over the audience after bouncing up from the rope. Time slows at that moment. In front of the impressed eyes looking at me, I feel I am in a movie where I play the hero,” Nam added.

Nam began his learning at 8 years old, being taught by the only jultagi master recognized by the South Korean government.

While performing on stages across South Korea and even overseas, he has been adding his own touches to the traditional performance -- Hoeorijaebi, a horizontal 360-degree spin, Salpan and Apgongjaebi, back and front tumbling.

Nam, however, stresses that he always needs to be modest on the rope.

“An instant of vanity and carelessness can lead to a dangerous mistake on the rope, which is three meters high,” said Nam.

“Training in jultagi skills is a continuous fight against fear,” Nam added, saying the fear bothers him once a week or even every day, frustrating his efforts to try new skills.

With hopes of greater global appreciation of jultagi, Nam is studying Korean traditional music at Seoul National University.

“The public tends to recognize jultagi as a just acrobatics or sport. I want to entrench the idea that jultagi is a ‘comprehensive art,’ where a performer sings, dances and communicates with the audience,” said Nam.

“As a traditional art highly affected by the situation and circumstances around the stage, jultagi leaves much room to change and develop. My mission is to make jultagi known widely so that the art will flourish by performers across the world,” Nam added.

Photos by Lee Sang-sub

Written by Lee Sang-sub, Lim Jae-seong