ritual entwining

philipa rothfield: soo yeun you, [gu:t] [work-in-progress]

[Gu:t], Soo Yeun You, Malthouse Theatre

[Gu:t], Soo Yeun You, Malthouse Theatre

[Gu:t], Soo Yeun You, Malthouse Theatre


Dancers have performed in royal courts, on rice fields and in city restaurants. Dance is valued and celebrated throughout Korean culture, its greatest exponents participating in the UN cultural heritage register. Shamanism is also part of the Korean spiritual everyday.

So, it’s no great surprise to see a traditional dance performance in Korea opened by a female shaman. (Jin Ok-sub’s Festive Land company opened Cheoyong-gut with a female shaman’s blessing for the Seoul International Dance Festival, Hoam Art Hall, Seoul, Korea, the 11th Seoul International Dance Festival, October 2008.) Korean audience members appear to adapt well to the shift from spiritual spaces to the domain of performance. They run onto the stage, tucking money into the performers’ clothes and props for good luck, laughing and smiling. Shamanism has a context in Korean society, even in its biggest city, Seoul, where shamanistic spaces are made within Buddhist temples in the centre of its business district.

Soo Yuen You is privy to this legacy. Her mother is a traditional Korean dancer and she maintains close relations with a shaman in Korea, who oversaw the spiritual elements of [Gu:t], Soo’s work-in-progress. Her collaborator, Australian Indigenous dancer Albert David, understands this spiritual legacy. Allied to two different Aboriginal communities, David has access to a spiritual domain which underlies the community’s cultural everyday.

How then to bring these two spiritual traditions together in the context of adapting Korean spiritual culture to the stage? [Gu:t] is already well developed in terms of its staging. The showing we were witness to had lighting, stage and costume design and musical composition. It also established certain elements from the two traditions of its key performers, Soo Yeun You and Albert David. Korean characters, selected by Soo’s Korean shaman and spiritual advisor, were painted on wall hangings suspended from the ceiling. David used ochre, performing a finely nuanced set of Aboriginal dance movements, perhaps totemic. Soo also performed elements of traditional Korean dance.

In narrative terms, these two spiritual cultures were drawn together through ritual notions of death, spirit and mourning, arising from David’s experience of helping his grandmother die. The beginning of [Gu:t] was incredibly potent, not merely evocative, but somehow drew together elements to create an atmosphere onstage. Perhaps the notion of death, which we all share, enabled this beginning to summon something powerful.

Since this is and felt like a work-in-progress, I will respond to what I saw onstage in relation to the challenge of turning [Gu:t] into a finished piece. It seems to me that Soo and David each have a strong spiritual and movement legacy which exists in the context of each tradition. As choreographer, Soo has to make decisions about the transformation and adaptation of these traditions to the stage and for audiences who probably have little experience of the underlying traditions. It is not that it isn’t possible to make the move. A number of Korean artists have made wonderful pieces both for Korean and international audiences. Each has made decisions about how to shift their work onto the stage, and what to do with traditional elements within a contemporary or modernist frame.

Soo is in a unique position, having moved to Australia, and also collaborating with an Indigenous dancer and cultural exponent. [Gu:t] explored a number of different ways of staging this relationship within a distinctively Korean spiritual setting. David danced his own heritage, including the ritual of covering his own body with ochre. Soo performed elements of traditional dance. The two dancers also came together in duet form, with David partnering Soo in a ballet style of lift and lowering through a variety of postures. Narrative elements of illness and healing were enacted. Finally, Soo used David’s ochre to trace a number of characters in a circle onstage. Some of the actions, props and spatial structures had symbolic significance.

The showing raised a number of questions from a choreographic perspective: how to bring these elements together? What to keep and what to leave behind? Then there is the question of shamanism and the stage, which is both choreographic and something more than that, and finally, the relationship between spiritual practices, an evolving and collaborative project. Dalisa Pigram (Gudirr Gudirr) resolved the question of cultural differences within her own body. [Gu:t] will need to find its own resolution. The question of value also arises, whether the aim of [Gu:t] is to give audiences a spiritual experience, to produce a work of artistic value, to foreground one culture over another or to make a work whose value arises from its hybridity.

Dance Massive, Malthouse: [Gu:t], concept, performance Soo Yeun You, Albert David, choreography Soo Yeun You, design Priya Namana, lighting Alexandre Malta, composition Gus Macmillan, Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, March 21-22; http://dancemassive.com.au

22 March 2013