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JUNG Young-doo, Choreographer and Doo Dance Theatre founder
JUNG Young-doo, Choreographer and Doo Dance Theatre founder
Interviewer : 슈퍼관리자 2010.11.17 Asia > Korea

 
Body and Mind: The One and the Same
Choreographer and Doo Dance Theatre founder JUNG Young-doo


CHOE Suna, Cultural Producer


Many young promising artists are featured in this year’s PAMS Choice works, the sixth such celebration of exceptional Korean performance art. Thirteen out of 112 entries were selected during an open competition in April. Among the chosen was Jung Young-doo’s “A Seventh Man.” Jung gained worldwide recognition as a choreographer after winning the grand prize at the Yokohama Dance Collection in 2004 with “Craving for More.”  His 2004 piece “Unsweetened Air” brought many audience members to tears, a rare feat for a dance performance. Each of his following works, such as “Hollow, Pure White, the Body” and “Incompatible Yet One,” has attracted keen interest and wide recognition from home and abroad. His latest piece, “A Seventh Man,” introduced this March, was also applauded for its balanced mix of social and artistic elements.


I was to interview Jung after “A Seventh Man” was showcased at PAMS in October, but the interview was moved up since he had to leave for Japan soon after the performance. I met him at a coffee shop near LG Art Center in Seoul at 9 pm. He had an hour free before another rehearsal.


The Gap between the Body and Mind or between Theatre and Dance: Still Boils Down to Human Relationships

 

You used to work in a theatre company that specialized in plays with labor or social themes. What prompted you to transition into dancing?


I moved from theatre to dance to expand the notion of the human body. The most important asset to an actor is his body. As I got interested in my body, I began to realize that dance is a discipline that studied and used the body in the most profound way. Also, I enjoyed dancing. This is why I made the transition – not a move from one place to another, but an expansion of interest. To me there isn’t much difference between the theatre and dance. Many people tend to think of it as a changeover between two genres and try to read into that, but it’s just an enlargement or a reduction of my interest. Their interpretation of my experiences should go farther back into the past than the time I was participating in traditional outdoor or labor-oriented plays. My motivation for joining that particular theatre group or how I had lived my life until then should be explored as well. But my past is not all that important. Those experiences may hint at what I’m trying to do now, but I don’t believe they made me what I am today or constituted the framework of my work.


What people talk about or expect answers to is not why you switched from one area to another, but how you stimulate interest and bring a different and fresh perspective to two areas that use the same physical language.


I agree. But that perspective is so individual that even if a dancer didn’t have a theatre background, he would think hard about how to depict a society in the way he sees it. Theatre and dance are not two disparate areas.


From what I can see in “Incompatible yet One,” “Unsweetened Air,” and “Craving for More,” your focus of interest expands from a small story to a larger one. What do you want to say through these pieces and what do you think is interesting in them?


Incompatible yet One

Unsweetened Air


There is no specific interest per se, but I do tend to be taken up by whatever grabs my attention at the time. My interests are many at all times, but when working they become more concrete. I’m still fascinated by human relationships and symbols. Advances in modernization have undermined community living, and I ponder how to empower city people. Religious or any type of symbolism might be of help to ordinary people. I sometimes think the disappearance of symbols has caused the difficulties of modern life. It’s hard to pin down which symbols, though. Perhaps it has to do with one’s identity. Then what kind of identity can individuals and communities have? Does life become a little bit emptier when identities disappear? Agricultural societies used to have many symbols existing simultaneously in everyday life. Whether religious or connected to occupations, a variety of symbols could once be interpreted by people. But as lives grew more individualized and personal, symbols became less representational and more ostentatious and forced, like “look at this” or “go there.” So an art piece would look very superficial if comprised of symbols given to an artist, instead of the ones independently discovered.


“My Sky” urges people to be self-assertive even in a reality that causes them to be submissive, and “Unsweetened Air” tells of the life and death of destitute lovers. Your pieces contain very clear movements and messages that are delivered directly to the audience and induce sympathy through concrete movements. The audience shed tears of compassion at the death of poor lovers in “Unsweetened Air,” but at the same time, it is you, the choreographer, who has superimposed the stifling reality onto the dance sequence.


That sense of helplessness is here to stay. Systematic oppression and violence in some form or other exist everywhere. All artists in every discipline must feel that sense of depression and seek ways to dispel it within their respective genres. There will be no end to such attempts.


But on the other hand, even if the conditions were to become ideal, not all dancers would be completely satisfied with the workings of the dance world. They would all ponder incessantly about how to express themselves more beautifully and try to find answers to their problems. Whether those concerns are manifested in form or in stories, artists, in most cases, try to experiment with those solutions within their productions. I think all work processes are similar, even in “A Seventh Man.” The format or stories may not be evident in the work, but even hidden relationships among dancers backstage are all attempts to break through the confined reality of the dance scene.


The Language of the Body, My Language

 

In addition to dance, you are still very much involved with theatrical plays as a producer, choreographer, actor, even as the director of a musical. You choreographed and acted in “The Trap – A Meditation of Hamlet” (written and directed by Kim A-ra). That cast’s unusual body movements made quite an impression, speaking louder than the actual dialogues. From your current point of view, having returned to the theatre after doing dance, do you find that work methods or sentiments have changed a lot over time?


That piece was meant to put the sensitivities learned through my body onto the stage. I was able to confirm that dance and theatre were not that different. When working in a wide spectrum of genres I get to have a fresh perspective for each circumstance and production. I tend to become more accepting of what kind of approach would work for this person and what kind of production method would be best. Choreographing or directing a piece is a chance to combine and experiment with a variety of different methods and experiences. I think I had fun with most of my productions, whether they made money or not. I was able to experience various production environments and learned quite a lot. Theatre people in general think about fundamentals, whereas people in dance express those fundamental concerns and fill in the gaps.


The idea for your duet piece, “Craving for More,” was interesting in that it uses a person’s body to express a desire to continue climbing without ever touching the ground. This seems to be a dance that is devoted completely to the subject of the body.


Craving for More


This piece was made to take interest in the human body a bit deeper. Words alone cannot describe the depth or degree of how to center one’s body or how to touch or lean against another body. These movements, however trivial they may seem, are very communicative. They show how much to touch and pull, et cetera. I became quite comfortable with the idea after this piece. I came to understand how to use the bones in the body to anchor the movements and such.


In that respect “Hollow, Pure White, the Body” is also a work that showed intricate movements and bare bodies. It held our attention even when it was performed solo on a huge stage for 60 long minutes.


Hollow, Pure White, the Body


While working on that piece I thought about how to combine pauses and movements in the most natural way. The piece had a narrative, but I focused on the pursuit of movements and body beyond the written narrative. I tried to bring the two together in the most natural way without any awkwardness.


You have used music in a manner that goes beyond the concept of accompanying background. How does music affect choreography?


Music is very important to choreography. Even in the absence of music, it’s imperative to think about how to use sounds or create visual rhythm. We don’t usually say that we “understand music.” Either you instantaneously react to music or don’t. You either like it or dislike it. In many cases music can deliver what dance can’t. In that respect music is important in all productions.
 

In most of your productions the stage is emptied out. Perhaps a minimal stage makes people focus more on the human body. But one of the recent trends in performing arts is to mix in different elements like videos or live music. What are your thoughts about these additional elements?


There may be some uses for them in some works. You said that my productions appear to embrace minimalism, but that’s not because my productions are minimal, but other productions have grown too extravagant. If I really wanted to pursue minimalism, my works would be more visually sparse. Of course it would help to have good lighting and elaborate sets. But those additional elements would follow once a production has a self-sustaining life of its own even without the lights and props. I sometimes think what would be left if everything was taken away or how I can dance when there are no lights or stage props. But it’s possible to dance without those elements. I do think about sets, although sometimes I do without them because I can’t afford them. But my intention is to focus on the body. When I study a lot about the human body, not having a set or lights or music does not faze me. It may seem reckless for me to dance solo for 30 or 50 minutes without music, but regardless of whether it was a success or a failure, there is no other way to learn the know-how of dancing without additional elements. It’s not an issue of being confident, but of seeing far into the future. There will be more opportunities to use that know-how. I may be tempted to make up for my shortcomings with the props and other elements, but I am ultimately left to my own device when those elements are gone. Only by struggling to gain something without outside help can I make something completely mine. I can bring some other elements to make up for my flaws, but if I continue to work that way, I would ultimately resort to something else other than the human body to compensate for the insufficiencies.


Your choreography gives the impression that movements are not elaborate or skillful. The movements may be small and simple, yet insistently inquisitive. Rather than making them explosive or completely revealing, you seemed to have exercised restraint to conserve motion and not waste any meanings. What are some of the elements you consider important in choreographing or designing body movements?


I just start working on it. For instance, if you are building a brick house, regardless of its size or appearance, you should start with sturdy well-made bricks. Dance is just like that. Each movement should be complete in itself, and that requires a set of techniques. But then, the technical part should be concealed. Of course, technique deserves to be presented in its entirety. By itself, it is capable of moving people’s hearts, but it looks rather unpolished if the technical aspect is so blatantly on display. It would be a different story if I got skilled in taekwondo and wanted to show off my martial arts techniques. But it’s more important for us to show something through those techniques. It would be a grave mistake to present those techniques up front. A house should be comfortable and pleasant, not plastered in gold. Of course, it’s alright if a dancer can tell one’s story comfortably through familiar techniques. It would be even better if those are one’s own techniques.


A Requiem for the Marginalized: “A Seventh Man

 

A Seventh Man




“A Seventh Man” which debuted in March was selected as a commemorative production for the 10th anniversary of the LG Art Center opening and its production was overseen by LG Art Center. How did you come to create the piece?


I started working in earnest on “A Seventh Man” about a year ago. “A Seventh Man” is the title of one of Hungarian poet ATTILA Jozsef’s poems as well as that of a non-fiction work co-written by John BERGER and Jean MOHR, which depicts the lives of European workers in the 1970s. I read this book in 2006 and vowed to put the story on stage someday. Although the lives of migrant workers are the topic of this book, it’s not confined to that subject. It’s a story of people who were forced to leave their homes, families, jobs, and countries. It talks about the human body and mind shaped by the social and personal phenomena that occurred during the forced relocation process.


In this piece fourteen dancers perform relentlessly for 100 minutes. Compared to your previous works, its choreography is quite complex and fast-paced and its subject matter rather serious. During the preparation process you are said to have read some books on social issues and discussed them with the dancers you hand-picked in an audition, and even went on field trips. How do you share your sense of identity and direction and ideas as a choreographer with your dancers?


I explain as clearly as possible and try to convince them of my ideas as much as possible. Dancers are not there to produce their own work or get involved in a joint production. Their job is to express my choreographic ideas delivered to them. That’s why I need to be as intelligible as possible. Even if I have something in common and shared values with my dancers, I still have to carefully explain my ideas. If they don’t like them, they don’t have to come to the audition or can quit midway. Everyone’s ideas and experiences are different. What I can do is to talk to them about my ideas without giving up. I never give up on my dancers.


“A Seventh Man” contains many social tales mirroring real life. In addition to the stories of migrant workers, it has very detailed stories about the survival and struggles of the people who are pushed out to the margins of society by authorities, such as those displaced from their homes by urban development programs. Did you ever feel overwhelmed when you were trying to tell their stories? Also, what is the idea you really want to get across through this piece?


Since ideology was central to the piece, I found it hard to deal with people who felt uncomfortable with ideology. Not all my productions are about ideology, but I tend to speak whatever is on my mind at the time through a piece. Ideology just happened to be the main theme of this one. That’s why I included so many ideological elements. I hosted a number of workshops with my dancers. Those who were interested in ideology chose to work in this production because it coincided with their ideology. Those who were not interested tried to put on a polished performance with an ideological theme purely for the purpose of putting on a beautifully structured piece. People always talk about diversity, but choreography is a personal process so it’s not easy to reach a social consensus. Nonetheless, I think it’s not bad to have such a story put on stage.


Overseas Exchanges Are Meaningful Only When I Myself Am Centered and Have a Clear Purpose and Reason

 

“Craving for More” garnered the Grand Prize at the 2004 Yokohama Dance Collection, and you were given a chance to study in France. In 2006 you participated in the Little Asia Dance Network which took you to a number of cities in Asia. In the years that followed you spent a lot of time overseas to organize choreographic works or workshops. What outcome have you seen from these efforts and how did it affect you?


I mostly worked in Europe and Asia. The Asian projects gave me a chance to see what kind of bodily memories are shared among Asians and their dance skills. I was also able to see the differences in their bodies and thoughts. Meanwhile, in France I was impressed by how much shared time and values had gone into building an art system that naturally infused everyday life. That’s not to say that I blindly envy what they have or think of them as superior.

I have to admit that I am not fully involved in or too keen about international exchanges. However, collaborations will continue to take place because I need to discover something new and find myself through those discoveries. In many cases, though, exchange programs themselves become the means and the end. Some people just go abroad to enjoy themselves and see things. If any meaning or legitimacy can be found in such shallow exchanges, it would be that you and I have met and we have become one and that two different cultures have come together to find something new. I think only few international exchange programs produce good results. There needs to be a clear purpose and reason to expand into the global arena. Discovering something new is a natural byproduct of a clearly defined exchange effort. The values and sincerity of an artist eventually shine through for all to see. That’s why I find these exchange attempts so frustrating.


Judging from the situation in Asia, Korea seems to be the only country where cultural subsidies are left unspent. That is why Korean artists continuously seek foreign partners for international exchanges and publicize their foreign collaborations to the government. Their efforts certainly merit positive responses, but many other artists, regardless of their international exchange efforts, should receive the spotlight as well. Then, artists will be motivated to work harder in their discipline and initiate exchanges, instead of being driven out to the global stage by envy or competitiveness. Only when an artist can take a deep and objective look at himself and his work is he ready to work together with foreign counterparts.


Guiding the Next Generation


Choreographer and Doo Dance Theatre founder JUNG Young-doo


It has been about seven years since you established Doo Dance Theatre. You’ve been serving as its president and artistic director. How do you operate the company?


I still can’t run the company properly for many reasons. I haven’t really jumped into its operation because I’m aware of its cliquish nature as an organization and its merits and shortcomings. Another reason has to do with subsidies. Most Korean dance companies cannot function without subsidies. Some people, even subsidy givers, seem to equate the amount of financial assistance with the quality of a dance company. But that’s not how I see it. Obviously, there should be a steady stream of subsidies and I also think we need subsidies to continue our work, but we cannot work for subsidies.


I was fortunate enough to receive steady assistance from festivals and theatres to continue my work. But they have invited me, not my dance company, so the subsidies were not enough to run an organization. I’m confident that I will be able to manage an organization well if I put my mind to it, because I’m well aware of the organization’s nature. There are a few apparent differences between plays and dance. For instance, plays tend to emphasize teamwork rather than individual performance, while dance companies are far more individualistic, which may be typical of the genre. As for similarity, members are constantly changing in plays and also in dance companies. But I still believe in the power of teamwork. I do think about devoting myself to managing the dance company someday.


What has influenced you the most since you started focusing on the body in your dance work?


All the dancers around me: Since my interest in the body was not triggered by an external factor, it didn’t matter who exactly. If I’m interested in something, I take care of it. So everyone around me influenced me.


What are your plans or hopes for the future?


I’m planning on launching a few personal projects. On a more societal level I hope to guide the next generation in the right direction. We should be dependable supporters so that the next generation can head toward the right path.


That seems to be an awfully big hope.


It does, doesn’t it? I don’t know how I’m going to keep my word. (laughter)


His phone started ringing incessantly as the hour allocated for the interview quickly came to an end. His dancers must have all gathered for the late night rehearsal. A few days following the showcase of “A Seventh Man” at PAMS, Jung had to travel to Kyoto for a workshop with Japanese dancers and to choreograph a production. His work seems to transcend the boundaries around disciplines and nations. His movements are delicate yet fearless. They are not elaborate or exaggerated, nor wasteful of emotions. At the same time, the movements resonate with the honest physical language that transects life. I thought of an old video clip I had seen of Jung telling his dancers not to worry about falling out of step. He probably wanted to emphasize that bodies will naturally follow the fundamentals when pursued; that our body and mind are not separate, but one.


Jung Young-doo


Choreographer, Founder of Doo Dance Theatre 


Jung’s career started in the 1990s as an actor in a theatre group that specialized in socially conscious plays. He became interested in the possibilities and expressive capabilities of the human body and eventually made the transition to dance. He was once a guest dancer of the Gyeonggi Provincial Arts Groups. In 2000 he was admitted to the School of Dance in the Korea National University of Arts, and founded Doo Dance Theatre after graduating in 2003.


Jung won the Grand Prize for the solo and duo competitions at the Yokohama Dance Collection and the Laureat du Prix de L’Ambassade de France for young choreographers (2004). He toured five Asian cities as a part of the Little Asia Dance Network with his “Grazing By” (2004), and presented “GIDO” with French dancers and multinational contemporary musicians in a Royaumont Foundation production (2007). From 2006 to present, he has been very active worldwide as indicated by his participation in the Kyoto International Dance Workshop Festival as an instructor.


Selected as the Artist and Choreographer of the Year by monthly dance journal Momm (Body) (2005).


His major choreographic works include “Jekyll or Hyde (2002),” “Incompatible yet One (2003),” “Craving for More (2003),” “Unsweetened Air (2004),” “My Sky (2005),” “Variation (2005),” “Hollow, Pure White, the Body (2006),” “Walking, Standing, Stretch One’s Arm (2006),” “GIDO (2007),” and “In the Pause of the Wind (2008).”


He has participated as an actor or choreographer in such plays as “The Tragedy of Agamemnon,”  “Kholstomer,” “The Trap – A Meditation of Hamlet,” “4:48,” and “Time at a Slaughterhouse.”

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