Like many court ceremonies, the Confucian ritual that was performed for centuries at the royal Jongmyo shrine in Korea, is scrupulous and measured, majestic and restrained. In the stone courtyard of the shrine, a large group of women stand in place, arranged in rows, holding symbolic objects such as bamboo flutes and wooden swords and periodically changing the position of their arms in perfect, unhurried unison. This part is called il mu, which can be translated as “line dance” or “one dance.”
“Some people find it very slow, very boring,” said Korean director Kuho Jung. “I love it, but I also want to modernize it. I want to translate it into the language of our time.”
That’s what he did in “One Dance,” a theater production that Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theater, making its American debut, brings. Lincoln Center from Thursday to Saturday as part of the center Korean Art Week. Where the original ceremony was designed to honor and entertain royal ancestral spirits, “One Dance” aims to hold the attention of audiences around the world.
“It’s a contemporary take on what’s traditional,” said Shanta Thake, Lincoln Center’s chief artistic officer. Korean Art Week, she added, is “our first experiment” focusing on one culture for a week, exploring different aspects. “While it’s important for people to see themselves on stage, it’s also important for people outside the culture to learn that maybe that culture isn’t so different from their own,” Thake said. (Other events include a K-pop silent disco, a literature panel and concerts of surf rock and progressive metal.)
Jung, a director-designer who also worked in film and fashion, collaborated on “One Dance” with three choreographers. Hyejing Jeong, the art director of Seoul Metropolitan, is an expert on traditional Korean forms, while Sung Hoon Kim and Jaeduk Kim (who also composed the music of the show) comes from contemporary dance. As they all explained during a recent video call from Seoul, speaking through a translator, creating a show that seeks to balance custom with current fashion was a team effort.
The structure they came up with is somewhat dialectical. The show begins with a traditional version of il mu, juxtaposes that against a section of contemporary dance, and then ends with a kind of synthesis, an updated il mu. What remains consistent throughout are the principles of unison and multiplication. As in military drills and choir lines, a single dancer almost never moves alone.
Even the traditional version was however staged. Where the original remains, this one, using the same movements and objects, continues to change formation: not only lines and rows but squares, zigzags and circles. The line rotates. The forms break. Sometimes, the dancers move in bursts of rapid succession, domino style.
Il mu is not the only court dance included. There is also Chunaengmu, or the Dance of the Spring Nightingale, traditionally performed by a woman who stands on a woven mat and gently waves her long sleeves. In “One Dance”, it is performed by 24 women whose individual mats, arranged like cards for Concentration, can rise on wires. The sleeves are longer and wider, and when the dancers turn with raised arms, the lower part of the fabric lags a bit, causing the sleeves to spiral. When they all spin, the stage looks like a field of floating windmills, or an extremely fancy car wash.
“One Dance” goes for mass effects like that, but the stage design is generally spare. Instead of castle architecture, Jung substitutes a movable framework of white poles that can outline the stage like giant goalposts or hover over it like a roof. The contemporary sections take place in an abstraction of a bamboo forest made of whiter poles. The outfits are mostly in bold single shades. Compared to the original ceremony, “One Dance” is both less and more.
The music was similarly stripped down and augmented. “We tried to tear it apart and then reinterpret it and put it all back together again,” Jaeduk Kim said. The court music was minimized, he said, with what he called the rough sounds removed. The contemporary sections introduce Western instruments, but also use traditional Korean in unconventional ways. The eo, shaped like a tiger with a serrated back and scratched with a stick, is beaten like a drum. A zither called the ajaeng is played in the manner of a double bass. “And sometimes we use a double bass like an ajaeng,” he said. “We try to be ambiguous.”
But the biggest change in the music is rhythmic. In the original ceremony, percussion is a form of punctuation marking different parts of extended sentences. Much of the music on “One Dance,” in contrast, has a pulse, a beat — like many Korean folk forms and what most of the world now thinks of as dance music.
This gives the contemporary sections their drive, as the low-hanging dancers spin, swing and throw with a martial arts attack. But the pulse also underlies the current feel of the updated il mu, making it sharper, more percussive, more on the music
“In traditional Korean dance,” Jeong said, “you take it very slowly and elongate it so that it just flows and continues to flow. It’s almost like you’re breathing out for a very long time without cutting it off. This is the essence of Korean dance.”
“With traditional dance,” she added, “we wouldn’t take our foot very far from the ground. It’s very subtle.” But in the updated il mu, the dancers don’t just lift their legs high; the women’s bare legs slip out through slits in skirts.
The updated il mu is also faster and sportier. The dancers run, roll, jump. The finale, like that of many classical ballets or Olympic opening ceremonies, continues to add and subtract bodies that advance in waves, eventually filling the stage. But, Jeong said, “although the speed is fast, you can catch traditional aspects in it, some of the traditional Korean breath.”
Everything in “One Dance,” Jung said, has special meaning in Korean culture. The traditional ceremony has origins in China, although it lasted longer in Korea, and both it and “One Dance” are rooted in Korean philosophy. There is an il mu dance for scholars and one for soldiers. The formations are like “reading the sky to predict the future,” he said, analogous to Western astrology. Bamboo is a symbolic tree: “In Korean scientific culture, your mind must be like bamboo.”
“I tried to modernize the dance for better global communication,” Jung said. But when he first encountered the original il mu, he thought it looked modern, “like an experimental performance,” he said. “The traditional dances of many cultures are more unique than globalized modern dance, and we have to preserve some of these diverse traditions to be modern, somehow.”
“I want people to know how modern this dance is,” he added, “but I also want people to see that this is the spirit of Korean culture. These are the two opposite paths that I want people understand.”