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Contemporary dance liberates
Publication Date : 16-09-2013
Korea National Contemporary Dance Company’s new director Ahn Ae-soon talks about her vision for the troupe
Choreographer Ahn Ae-soon started ballet lessons when she was in elementary school, but her first dance performance as a young child almost traumatised her.
“I had worked so hard, really hard,” Ahn, who was recently appointed to head Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, told The Korea Herald. “But then when I was on stage, I forgot everything that I had prepared. I could not perform at all. I was mortified. So I stopped going to lessons the next day.”
Korea’s dance scene is fortunate that Ahn eventually started dancing again in high school. Founder of the Ahn Aesoon Dance Company, established in 1985, the 53-year-old is known for works that uniquely combine Korea’s traditional dance and contemporary movements.
“I guess the ballet performance was the first society that I ever experienced,” Ahn said, when asked why she decided to return to dance in high school. “It was the first competition and first world that I got to learn about, and I felt the experience was left incomplete. I thought I needed to go back to it and continue.”
In July, Ahn was appointed the artistic director of the state-run Korea National Contemporary Dance Company (KNCDC), following its first director Hong Sung-yup. The troupe founded in 2010 is the only national troupe that performs contemporary dance.
“11 Minutes,” KNCDC’s first production since Ahn’s appointment, staged earlier this month, was sold out for its four-day run.
Based on the celebrated Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s novel of the same title ― it is the story of a young prostitute and her adventure to find true love ― the dance was a humourous, kitschy and often a dark exploration of self-discovery, sexual awakening and personal growth.
“No one loses anyone, because no one owns anyone,” Maria, the protagonist in Coelho’s novel, says in the book. “That is the true experience of freedom: having the most important thing in the world without owning it.”
The line summarises Ahn’s philosophy in contemporary dance. She says the main goal of contemporary dance is to free the body ― liberate what has been oppressed and expose what has been hidden.
“In contemporary dance, you dance to be free,” she said. “Ballet offers fantasies and fairy tales. Ballet dancers try to stay in the air, jump as high as they can. But contemporary dance reflects the shared reality, and therefore our moves are directed toward the ground, and we use our joints instead of making fine, graceful lines.”
“Contemporary dance talks about what is happening now, and really comments on the current politics, culture and the society,” she continued.
“So it inevitably reveals the agonies and problems of the current times, and as you express such problems, you eventually become liberated. In contemporary dance, you see bodies that yearn to become free from what’s controlling them. Unlike ballet, it does not go for accuracy of the movement. It breaks the rules. That is why it is often painful to watch, whereas ballet seems rather surreal and fantasy-like.”
Prior to Ahn’s arrival, all KNCDC performances were strictly project-based. Dancers were hired for each performance through auditions, and had re-audition if they wanted to participate in other projects. Ahn announced last month that she will increase the length of the troupe’s employment contract to 11 months, in an effort to protect the dancers’ job security.
For future projects, Ahn said she wants to create works that are cutting-edge and highly experimental, as well as ones that are easier to approach and understand. She is interested in creating site-specific performances at art galleries, in collaboration with painters and installation artists, as well as works that have been inspired by Korea’s traditional culture. This winter, the troupe is staging a piece that features the contemporary Korean family, its shared problems and conflicts.
“Korea’s traditional, shaman ritual ‘gut’ has everything that we now consider postmodern,” Ahn said, when asked about her thoughts on Korea’ s traditional art being incorporated in her works.
“It improvises, deconstructs and has playful characteristics. Those are the qualities of our traditional art, and only recently started to be labelled as postmodern by the west. I think it is important to study what is in us ― as well as what shaped us ― when we create works that talk about the contemporary. We need a basic philosophy and I think our tradition can be that.”
Though Ahn started to dance again in high school, it was during her middle school years that she discovered her talent and passion. Her alma mater, Keumran Middle School ― affiliated with Ewha Womans University ― was not an art school, but had an extensive art-oriented curriculum, Ahn recalls.
One of the mandatory school projects for all students, for example, was choreographing a dance piece and performing it at Ewha Womans University’s assembly hall. Her close friend at the time was the famed German-based composer Unsuk Chin, who is also the sister of popular critic Chin Jung-kwon.
“I think I missed dancing at the time, but also was afraid to try it again (after what I went through in elementary school),” Ahn said.
“But since it was a mandatory assignment for everyone, I had no choice but to do it. And the experience changed my life. That is why I think one’s artistic experience as a kid is important, so is art education in schools. Unsuk later told me she always knew I would make a good choreographer.”
Ahn, who said she hopes to found an educational institute for contemporary dance, said a good dancer must have a “language of his own,” since contemporary dance isn’t all about technique.
“Contemporary dance requires keen, observant eyes, as well as thought through insights on current affairs,” Ahn said. “They also have to be imaginative and have original vision. In contemporary dance, viewers often and inevitably witness each dancer’s personal history (because that’s where their insights originate). That’s why I think all contemporary dancers must be intelligent dancers.”