My trip to Seoul was a quick weekend getaway packed with fun and adventure. Over the course of three days I learned a lot about Korean history, went to the top of Seoul Tower, tried Korean Barbecue, went to the DMZ, and met some amazing people along the way; but, by far the highlight of my trip was seeing a traditional folk dance performance at Korea House. To say it was just a dance performance doesn’t nearly encompass all that this show had to offer. Within the hour performers were drumming, singing, painting, danced while using traditional props and costumes and on top of it all were able to tell a compelling story.
The show presented an adaptation of a famous Korean folk tale “Sim Cheong”. It is the story of a daughter who chooses to sacrifice her life to the sea in order to give her blind father the gift of sight. However, the fairies of the sea reward Sim Cheong for her bravery by saving her life and sending her back to shore in a lotus flower. A King finds Sim Cheong in the lotus flower and is so captivated by her beauty that he asks for her hand in marriage and in turn helps her to reunite with her father. It was wonderful to witness a story that holds such a special place in Korean history and so well demonstrates their culture’s morals.
The opening number of the show depicted a stormy night at sea. There was a scrim at the front of the stage projecting the storm while four female performers were in formation behind and playing drums that were stacked on either side of them with intricate choreography. Projection was used repeatedly throughout the show to depict different backdrops, and was implemented appropriately into every scene making a very traditional folk tale come to life in a modern way.
There was one particular scene where a performer entered the stage with a white-canvased background behind her. She began by dancing gracefully throughout the space then made her way upstage. With a piece of black pastel she began to draw in large exaggerated strokes on the canvass in front of her, all the while continuing to dance. Only a few moments later a male performer entered the scene to join her. They were both drawing different images while also taking moments to dance together, moving from upstage to downstage in sync with the music and then rushing back to the canvass to work on one another’s pictures. At the end of the piece both performers stepped away from the canvass to showcase a scene of beautiful mountains in the distance in black and white, and then slowly a projection was shone over top to bring colour and life to the canvass. The scene was absolutely breathtaking.
The audience was comprised of both Koreans and foreigners, which gave the performers the difficult task of overcoming any language barriers. Music, body language and choreography played a big part in telling the story, and narration was also used and projected on the scrim in both Korean and English to share the drama that took place off stage. The actors would also exaggerate their emotions to convey tragedy or bring even more humour into a comedic situation.
The blind father was particularly funny when he entered the stage from the audience looking for Sim Cheong. He stumbled in with his cane sniffing the audience members one by one until he smelled my friend sitting next to me and shouted in triumph thinking she was his daughter. When my friend corrected him and told him her name was Angie the father cried out and slowly began making his way back up to the stage, but not without dropping his cane several times and calling out for Angie to retrieve it for him.
The blind characters continuously got themselves into trouble, and made use of musical cues in their comedic timing, so even without the use of dialogue the audience was able to have a good laugh. The actors also continued to break the fourth wall throughout the show to involve the audience into some of their antics.
Sim Cheong and the female ensemble were all absolutely stunning. They moved so elegantly with big gaping traditional garments and used fans and flowers that they manipulated to create shapes within their choreography. The lead actress playing Sim Cheong experienced a lot of heartache throughout the story, which was reflected in her slow movements and mournful expressions, while her ensemble dancers always seemed to be her guiding light. The female ensemble played roles like the fairies of the sea saving Sim Cheong from drowning, or palace officials celebrating the wedding of Sim Cheong and the King. Regardless of how hopeless Sim Cheong’s fate would seem the ensemble kept hope for the story with their beautiful soft movements and smiling faces.
At one point in the show three male performers all came onto the stage holding drums and wearing slightly different costumes. Two costumes had ribbons attached to a headpiece and the other had a large feather headpiece. All of the male performers were playing in synchronization and taking turns stepping forward to show of their skills circling and flicking their headpieces. It was incredible to see how they were able to manipulate the ribbons and feathers like rhythmic gymnasts all the while playing their drums, and leaping around the stage.
For the final scene a singer took to the stage as Sim Cheong and her father were finally reunited. She sang a powerful ballad narrating the scene before her, while Sim Cheong and her father were mouthing the singer’s lyrics. It was an interesting choice that emphasized the characters’ shared pain in their loss of time apart, but also highlighted their joy in finding one another again. To celebrate their happy ending all performers entered the stage for a final musical number.
If you ever find yourself with a free evening in Seoul, go and see a show at Korea House! Their performance combined Korean tradition with modern technology and contemporary humour. The performers exhibited unbelievable talent in a variety of art forms that will continue to blow you away from scene to scene. I assure you, you won’t be disappointed! There is a link down below for Korea House’s website so be sure to check them out before your next trip to South Korea!