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Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre's iconic 'Ilmu' returns

A blend of tradition and the contemporary, show marks fourth run since 2022

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : April 22, 2024 - 17:53

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Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre dance Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre dance "Ilmu." (Sejong Center for the Performing Arts)

The Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre is set to perform its iconic work "One Dance" -- "Ilmu" in Korean -- at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts May 16-19.

This is the fourth run since its premiere in 2022, following a second run in Seoul and a performance in New York in 2023. In July last year, the SMDT was invited to perform at New York’s Lincoln Center during the “Korean Arts Week,” one of the highlights of the Lincoln Center's annual summer festival, “Summer for the City.”

The production is directed by fashion designer-turned-stage director Jung Ku-ho, in collaboration with SMDT choreographer and artistic director, Jung Hye-jin. Modern dance choreographer Kim Sung-hoon and choreographer-composer Kim Jae-duk also participated.

Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre dance Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre dance "Ilmu." (Sejong Center for the Performing Arts)

“Ilmu,” meaning “to dance in unison,” is a modern interpretation of a ceremonial dance from Jongmyo Jeryeak -- a royal performance encompassing song, music and dance during ancestral rites held at Jongmyo, a shrine where tablets of Joseon kings and queens are preserved. Jongmyo Jeryeak is protected as National Intangible Cultural Heritage and UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

In "Ilmu," a total of 50 dancers will perform a synchronized dance, portraying balance and harmony in the classic Joseon court dance.

In Act 1, the production draws direct inspiration from Jongmyo Jeryeak performances, which were traditionally composed of two dances: “Munmu,” a dance honoring ancestors' academic and cultural virtues, which is accompanied by the music of botaepyeong, and “Mumu,” which praises ancestors' martial arts and military achievements with jeongdaeeop music.

In the second act, 24 female dancers perform “Chunaengmu.” Originally a solo court dance created by Crown Prince Hyomyeong and presented to Queen Sunwon on her birthday in 1828, it has been transformed into a group dance.

While the upcoming production is the same version as the July performance in Lincoln Center last year, the creative team behind "Ilmu" has refined the piece in detail since its premiere. The "Jungmu" in Act 3, which was previously a dance of 10 male performers, has been changed to a dance of three male performers.

The final Act 4 presents a highly modern sequence with unexpected movements, turns and kicks that call to mind street dance styles.

Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre dance Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre dance "Ilmu." (Sejong Center for the Performing Arts)
Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre dance Dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre dance "Ilmu." (Sejong Center for the Performing Arts)

"Act 1 and 2 are more on the traditional side while Act 4 is completely contemporary. We wanted a kind of ‘tense’ stepping stone bridging from the traditional to the contemporary," said Jung during an interview with The Korea Herald last year.

Starting his career as a fashion designer, director Jung has ventured into film art and stage director in recent years. His previous works, including “Mukhyang” (2013), “Hyangyeon” (2015) and “Sanjo” (2021), received rave reviews from critics for infusing modern aesthetics into traditional dance.

“My goal has been to show how modern and contemporary a traditional dance can become,” said director Jung. “In that process of evolution, ’Ilmu’ is the most contemporary work yet of my career.”