Friday, March 7, 2008

breathing is the same for everyone

"Peace joins us. Breathing is the same for everyone."
Hearan Chung

I first met Hearan Chung six years ago. The dancer, recently arrived from South Korea, was living with her two children in an apartment in Millbrae, and I drove down to interview her in person. It was late spring, and I was writing an article about the upcoming Ethnic Dance Festival where she was to appear. Girded with only a smattering of knowledge about Korean dance inhaled quickly from a few sources, I plied her with basic questions; she talked with depth. At one point she graciously offered to demonstrate some of the dance’s fundamentals—the arc of movement, the trajectory of the breath, the courtly 4/4 meter. It didn’t matter that she was in jeans and tee shirt or that her floor space was limited. I could see why this modest woman was designated “a holder of important invisible properties.” She made the invisible visible.

Some weeks later the movement fragments she showed me appeared in Salpuri, an exacting shaman dance that Chung performed in the Festival. It was a work full of heroic restraint, channeling deep, emotional tides and complex thought about time and reality. Movements seemed to arise from far away then return to their source. A wrist, a knee, a step—each gesture was performed with chiseled deliberation and internal sweep. I saw her again in the Festival last year and was astonished all over again. Chung is a master.

Late in February on one of those nights the rain came down so hard it was like being inside the car wash during the rinse cycle, I joined a packed crowd gathered at San Mateo Community College to revisit Chung’s dance in a program entitled “Eternal Korea (Dance and the spirit of death)”. Accompanying the dancer was a band of performers, middle-aged women from the Korean community learning about and celebrating their heritage, and a well-trained group of young assimilated Korean-American teens, including Chung’s now teenaged daughter.

This mix of professional and amateur is often freighted with the earnestness of a school recital, and there was some of that about the evening. Every family had a bouquet of flowers for their mother/wife/daughter, filling the theater with rustling plastic and the lovely scent of flowers. Even the gracious emcee Jong Hyuk Lee spoke of pride in his wife’s performance and admired the 50-year-olds for their fortitude.

But the evening was far more than a recital, and more than a celebration of an honorable culture rooted in animist practices, Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. Chung is foremost an artist, and even when some of her cohorts looked unsure or only half filled out a movement, the “holder of important invisible properties” shaped the evening into an event of and about Korean dance and music. The cultural celebration flowed from that source.

What made this possible, and what kept this night from descending into a nostalgic yearning for home, was Chung’s replication of the master/disciple relationship and the depth of her artistic practice. Rather than professional versus amateurs, an opposition that seems designed to make the pro shine and the non-pro look mediocre, Chung embodied the sublime and transcendent, her students apprentices on the path toward that goal. Rather than second rate, their efforts became deeply honorable achievements on a long journey difficult to master. The relationship was philosophical more than theatrical, and it mirrored the process of being and becoming (and the eternal cycle of life and death) fundamental to traditional Korean music and dance.

Although less adroitly performed than some of the other sections of the night, the segment entitled “Realization that death is not the end and desire to lead the soul safely to Heaven” made these relationships crystalline. At one point the dance resembled a May Pole dance, with a white robed Chung herself functioning as the fulcrum, her five dancers winding ribbons around their mentor accompanied by a wordless chant. While the floor patterns designed to help the spirit on her way needed greater clarity both in space and in intention, the women were participants in a sublime rite. That much was very clear.

As a group, their greatest prowess showed in Gum Mu, a dance from the Shilla era (100 BCE) in which the women were garbed in bright yellow blouses under red gowns draped in blue-green panels, and small, black bowler-style hats with feathers. Together they performed an eloquent sword dance accompanied by a high nasal drone and flute. Used in shamanic rituals to prepare for battle, it was a lesson in bounded movement and flow and sat at the crossroads of religion, art and politics. Each dancer’s focus was magically inward even as the ensemble moved as a unifed whole, circling, slicing, and turning.

Sogo Cheum, a hearty drum performance as aerobic as it was rhythmic, was wonderfully rendered by Chung and the teens, whose gestures shared some of Chung’s own precision and elegance. But it was Chung’s solos that, in the end, created the deepest spell. The 27th Intangible Cultural Asset called Seung Mu opened the second half of the program. Considered the most artistic of all Korean dances, it is a folk dance originally performed by Buddhist monks, later developed into an expressive solo. Wearing a robe, a white hood, a red neck sash, with a dash of blue sleeve slipping into view, Chung rhythmically stepped, turned, tossed her arms, dancing the joy of being delivered from karma and the eternal cycle of rebirth. And like the best of dancers, she used the movements as exquisite vehicles for forces much larger than herself alone.

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