An Evening at Korea House

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

https://www.koreahouse.or.kr/en/main

 

DANCING IN THE MIDDLE EAST

In September of 2015 I had the privilege of performing in Doha, Qatar during the Eid al-Adha Festival. It was my first real professional job out of school, and I was so excited to finally be paid to do what I love to do most. It was also my first time travelling to the Middle East and I had no idea what to expect, and had never even heard of the Eid al-Adha Festival.

It was overwhelming to think of performing in a place and for a culture I knew so little about. I mean, everything I knew about travelling in the Middle East I had learned from watching Sex and the City 2… so it was safe to say I had a lot of research to do before hopping on a plane.

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Here are a few of the obvious questions that came to mind…

Where is Qatar?

Qatar is a small country on the northern border of Saudi Arabia, and it is about an hour flight from Dubai.

What is the Eid al-Adha Festival?

The Eid al-Adha Festival is an Islamic event celebrating Ibrahim’s commitment to Allah, and his willingness to sacrifice his own son. It is a celebrated holiday in many Muslim countries, and observed slightly differently around the world.

What are some of the Cultural Expectations?

In Qatar, modesty is more so a necessity than a virtue. It is common for local men to wear thobes and many women wear abayas (both are lose fit garments that conceal the body’s shape). However, tourists are expected to cover themselves more or less from shoulders to knees.

Physical contact between men and women in public is strictly prohibited. This includes kissing, hugging, holding hands and everything in between.

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My Cast mate Josh and I doing our best not to get too close for a photo

As a travel enthusiast I always hope to respect each new country’s history, culture, and traditions regardless of how different they may be to my own. I believe that is the joy of travelling, to witness a new way of living and learn from it. But I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous about performing as a dancer in a country with such a strict moral code.

Growing up as a dancer in Canada, I was always encouraged to show off my body. In fact, teachers in most of my classes didn’t allow students to wear baggy clothing. Almost all of the styles of dance I studied included some type of partner work, and teachers often used physical contact to correct my posture or to offer their support. And now I was going to be dancing on stage with both men and women, performing tricks that show off my flexibility, and wearing what might be considered revealing costumes, all at a religious festival in one of the most conservative countries in the world…

 

The Show

The show was Alice in Wonderland, and I was cast as a member of the ensemble playing roles like a flower, the Dormouse, and one of the Queen’s Cards. It was a forty-minute children’s show with dialogue, dance, and pop music songs meant to string the story together.

The Venue was a built up outdoor stage in the Souq Wakif in Doha. We performed the show twice a day, which was not an easy task considering the desert heat in early September averaged around 40°C. After each performance we were asked to parade around the souq, and interact and take photos with the audience.

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The Costumes

The costumes were designed to be conservative. All of the performers were covered from elbows to ankles, which felt a little overbearing considering the desert heat. But the costumes were still form fitting enough to grant us all full range of motion to kick, leap and turn (think leggings and a long sleeve top).

The Shared Dressing Room

Believe it or not we shared a dressing room…yes, in a country that doesn’t allow unmarried men and women to share a hotel room, our whole cast shared a dressing room. It was a small, enclosed, air-conditioned room with no room dividers or bathrooms to change in.

Growing up as a dancer in Canada I lost all sense of propriety when it came to my body (at least in a performer friendly environment), so the thought of changing in front of my cast mates wasn’t a problem. But it seemed a little ironic that in a place where I was suppose to cover up everything between my knees and shoulders, I was also expected to change in front of my coworkers.

 

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Audience Reaction

Considering the official language of Qatar is Arabic, and our show was performed in English, I wasn’t sure how much of the story the audience would be able to understand, but the they seemed to really enjoy it nonetheless. Throughout the show the children were clapping and dancing along to the music. When the performance came to an end there was a loud round of applause and before we were even finished with our bows there was a line of guests waiting to greet us by the side of the stage.

I was so excited and ready to meet all of the young fans in the audience. The whole cast went out together and we had a few of the local entertainment staff accompany us as security, to ensure nobody got lost in the crowds.

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I quickly realized that even though I was technically covered from wrist to ankle our costumes were still considered scandalous for Qatari culture. I wasn’t sure how the local women would react to seeing us so exposed and performing for their children. I was afraid we might be judged for our revealing costumes.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

All of the women were so lovely. We were greeted with smiles, and words of encouragement as we walked through the souq. Many women were asking for photos and fighting for a spot in line, and I was even handed a few babies to take pictures with. I felt like a celebrity.

The local men were also eager to take photos with the all of us foreign performers. Unfortunately, a few of my female cast mates said they were felt up while taking pictures with some of the male audience members in the crowd. In that moment it was clear that some of the men felt a sense of entitlement to the female dancers  “showing off” their figures; but of course, this is an issue that many dancers (and women in general) face regardless of what they are wearing or what country they are in. However, I personally was approached by a lot of respectful male guests, many of which were taking photos with their children.

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What I Learned

On one of our days off, the cast took a group trip into the desert. We were able to ride camels, drive over sand dunes and take a swim in the Persian Golf. Across the water we were able to see the border of Saudi Arabia, where women are granted very limited rights in comparison to the rest of the world. A woman in Saudi Arabia is not allowed to accept any job without the consent of a male guardian, and female Saudi Arabian performers are hard to come by. In that moment while looking over to the Saudi Arabian Shore, I couldn’t help but feel so incredibly blessed for the freedom I have been given to pursue my dreams.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Doha. It was such an honour to perform at such a significant festival in Qatari culture. Even though I was halfway across the world, dancing for people that didn’t necessarily speak my language, or share my same principles I was still able to create a connection through storytelling, and I am so thankful for that!

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