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Body Concerto Performed on Stage AHN Sungsoo, Art Director of Ahn Sungsoo Pick-Up Group
Body Concerto Performed on Stage AHN Sungsoo, Art Director of Ahn Sungsoo Pick-Up Group
Interviewer : Suna CHOE _ Director of Sungmisan Community Theater 2011.03.04 Asia > Korea
Body Concerto Performed on Stage
AHN Sungsoo, Art Director of Ahn Sungsoo Pick-up Up Group
By CHOE Suna (Culture Producer)
Since the beginning of 2011, performers have been busy preparing this year’s productions. The Ahn Sungsoo Pick-Up Group (APG) staged four performances in early February at the Arko Arts Theater entitled “The Best of Ahn Sungsoo Pick-Up Group.” Choreographer Ahn Sungsoo founded the group in 1991 and went on to perform with many multi-cultural New York-based dancers at the Joyce Theater, Lincoln Center, Central Park and DTW. In 1998, the group relocated to Seoul and ever since has released numerous highly acclaimed productions featuring exquisite and sophisticated choreography and musical sentimentality. At the latest performance, the group performed its signature productions “Rose,” “Bolero” and “Mating Dance” as well as its new production “Piazzolla Study.” The four productions all feature speedy yet elaborate dance moves that resemble movie scenes. We went to find out more about Ahn Sungsoo and his artistic career and found the director intently watching a performance from the back row.
You began your dancing career in a quite an unusual way. Tell us more about that.
I majored in Mass communication in college, but after I finished my military service, I went to the U.S. to study film. Attending lectures was hard and boring because we had to learn too much theory, so I decided to learn something more interesting. I studied photography and Marine biology, and exercised a lot. I was quite good because it was fun. I took sports-related courses like ballet and stretching. I made new friends, participated in art performances, and performed improvisation. Back then, I had little control over my studies and money because I was too young. But I had full control over my body. The idea of creating something using my brain and expressing it with my body enticed me. So I decided to transfer to the Department of Choreography and later enrolled in the Julliard School, where I studied dance in earnest. I think I took interest in film also because filming something, editing it and creating my own story was appealing to me.

I was very busy when I just graduated from college. I was invited to the American Dance Festival with other dancers where we staged a production over four weeks. My experience of practicing and working with other dancers in New York was of great help. But when I came back to Korea, I didn’t want to dance in a group anymore. Because dancing was the only thing I could do, I ended up teaching in university and later founded a dance company. I usually implement by plans. When I came back to Korea, I devised a ten-year plan, and after it was realized, I set up another ten-year plan. In the first ten years, I wanted to teach dancers using my expertise that I had gained overseas. Later, I wanted to create productions according to my dancers and debut with them overseas. I didn’t push for anything; I just carried out my plans step by step, and here I am now.

| Ahn Sungsoo Pick-Up Group, ’’life_Bolero’’ 2005
Your productions are based on an elaborate combination of music and movements. Why are you drawn to this style?
It’s like a tradition that I have learned. I didn’t study dance as a child; my educational background includes just the Julliard School, where students perform well-known works. In fact, creating performances based on music is not uncommon at all. To people who have studied ballet since childhood creating images through music comes naturally. But for me, music is a concept of time. For instance, when I like a certain tune, I send a gesture to my dancers-let them know that this is right time for doing something-or express the music in my own way. Western choreography is divided between ballet and contemporary dance without boundaries. My college dean and mentor Benjamin HARKARVY is also the founder of the Netherlands Dans Theater. He always emphasized the importance of making the impossible possible. Thanks to that spirit, I learned dance in an unrestricted way. Sadly, choreography in Korea is preoccupied with certain techniques, but it has come a long way.

In that point of view, I think Korean traditional dance is advanced type of dance. The concepts of “breath” and “weight” are alive in Korean choreography. Sometimes I can feel its powerful charm and aura. That’s why I like it. The majority of our members, including the leader LEE Joo-hee, majored in Korean dance.
What inspired you to create “Rose”?
The composition “The Rite of Spring” was popular among students and teachers alike during my college days. When I first saw the video of Pina BAUSCH’s “The Rite of Spring,” I was mesmerized by her interpretation of the techniques that I had learned at the Julliard School. “The Rite of Spring” was later made into various versions by Western dancers since premier of Nijinsky. They always attracted me. In the beginning, the music sounded very unfamiliar, but later I grew to like it. All choreographers dream of producing “The Rite of Spring.” It was once the only thing worth trying. In 2006, my dance company had a tight schedule. But the following year, we suddenly had nothing to perform. I took that as an opportunity to stage “The Rite of Spring” with my dancers. We planned to invest two years in its production and even stage it overseas. We used to be pressed for time before this but things got better. And since two male dancers joined us one day it got much better. We completed part of the production and even presented it on stage, and had a chance to present its incomplete version as well. In July 2009, our production premiered at the Arko Arts Theater. Following the two-year production process, our performance was staged for two years in Korea.

*** “Rose” is a dance version of Igor Stravinsky’s composition “The Rite of Spring.” It is about worshiping the god of earth through the sacrifice of a man, rather than a woman, since earth is represented as a woman.
In “Rose,” you talk about “role creation.” Does it refer to choosing the right role for each dancer?
When creating roles, I hold inner conversations with my dancers to find out what role they can play. When producing “Rose,” I did that throughout the entire production process. For example, one of our male dancers played a scorpion king, because he looked like a “scorpion king” with his big muscles. But he quit, so I had to create a new role. Rather than filling vacancies, I employ people’s energy. That’s why “Rose” is more challenging than any other production. We had many funny stories associated with it, too. I don’t know how that happened but it’s very hard both physically and mentally. “Bolero” is about enjoying life, while “Rose” is about making sacrifices. Its plot is about dancing until the day you die. But finding one’s death is not easy mentally. My dancers dance until they run out of their energy. I enjoy watching them perform on stage, so I watch every time. Watching “Rose” is hard but fun. Perhaps that’s because of the dancers’ roles.

| Ahn Sungsoo Pick-Up Group, ’’Mating’’ Dance
“Bolero” is a beautiful and dynamic performance where dance moves are repeated and modified according to repetitions and amplifications in the music. The elaborate moves and stop motions were very impressive to me because they capture Korean sentiment.
It must be the power of the arm movement “palsawi” that made that possible. I can’t dance in the traditional Korean way, but my dancers have the power to perform special arm and wrist movements and breathe the right way. “Bolero” contains my mischievousness and memories. One of the lines contained in the script is what I used to say many times when I was learning to dance, “Shut up and dance." It is represented through gestures. The performance also contains scenes from fairy tales like “Snow White.” “Bolero” was a chance to learn. I transformed existing shapes and filled in existing frames as wanted. It was like learning about composition. Over the past ten years, I have tried out diverse versions, but now I want to include it in the repertoire. The 2005 version that we staged recently will be the final version. But I will still make changes if we come across interesting scenes while rehearsing.
“Rose” and your other productions contain many stories about tenacious women. “Piazzolla Study” has two women dancing the tango together. How do you pick your subjects?
Life always offers current material, but I seem drawn to sympathy for women and their power. I’m not a feminist, I just worship women. Women inspire awe in me, just like nature does. That’s why my productions don’t tell much about men. (laughs) I’m not interested in anything in particular. I just do what’s on my mind. In 2007, I produced the 70-minute performance “Going There,” but when I watched it again two years later, I realized the production process had actually been very intricate. I used a seven-minute segment from it in a new production about nature – trees, water, landscapes.
In your production, what does “study” mean?
It’s just “study.” I used this word in “Piazzolla Study” because Piazzolla’s music is like a comprehensive art. When you listen to it, you come to think about movie scenes, and there’s no space for me there. Benjamin Harkarvy asked me once why I only used baroque music and didn’t learn anything about other genres. I found that dumbfounding because I wasn’t interested in other genres. But I wanted to try them. I wanted to learn how a production is composed so that it permeates the original story. When working on that performance, I learned how to create movements according to feelings received from music. Studying with my dancers is also “studying” in the true sense of the word. It takes my dance company six months to come up with ways to make Stravinsky’s music sound our way. Stravinsky’s music is fast but it takes a long time to learn how to compare tempo with tunes. “The Rite of Spring” contains many irregular parts.

When starting a project, we must memorize the music first. Only after that can we make words that we can learn. Music becomes words. That’s how we create our own language and make promises to one another. Then we induce the dancers to produce their own moves. That’s why it’s like studying. It’s always interesting to see how my dancers study and how they interpret things.
You said finding good dancers is the most difficult part. What kind of dancers do you want to work with?
Being able to work for a long time brings great joy. But finding dancers who fit and understand me is not eawy. First off, I want to work with dancers who don’t wear rose-colored glasses. People who think they are always right can’t see the world. I want to work with dancers who trust me and work hard. I also like dancers who are not too attractive in terms of looks. Very good-looking dancers only draw audience attention to their looks. Often, I choose dancers at first sight. I have my own “ideal” about dancers. I met one of my dancers seven years ago when she was still in high school and knew even back then that someday we’d work together. Perhaps that’s why my dance company is called “Pick-Up Group.” (laughs) But it’s sad when I can no longer teach talented dancers. The most difficult part is when a dancer is preoccupied with something else besides dancing. That’s when I have to let them go. Otherwise, I become “lovesick.”

| Ahn Sungsoo Pick-Up Group, ’’Piazzolla Study’’
| Ahn Sungsoo Pick-Up Group, ’’Rose’’
“Rose” and “Bolero” have been staged abroad many times. How were they received?
To be honest, I was surprised by the feedback from foreign audiences. First of all, I was surprised by the audiences: in Poland, the audience was mostly made up of dance involved, but in our latest European tour, many families and older couples came to see us. I was moved when they gave us a standing ovation. We received very positive feedback from Swedish and German audiences as well. The art director of the theater where we performed said few groups receive such a positive response. Thanks to that warmth, we will perform in Europe again in 2012. One of the most memorable people in the audience was a musician who said that we presented “The Rite of Spring” in a completely new light, because we expressed parts that are hard to recognize in music with dance moves. Demand for dance is on the rise in Europe. That’s why our moves and muscle use were so appealing there. We’ve also been participating in the “Korea-Finland Connection Project” sponsored by Korea Arts Management Service. If we have a chance to collaborate with Finnish artists, I’d like to collaborate in terms of lighting and design because I like their design and color choices.
What are your plans?
This year, I only want to focus on producing a new performance, just like I did when I was working on “The Rite of Spring.” Our repertoire will include “Rose,” “Mating Dance” and “Piazzolla Study” until 2012. We will also make a shorter version of “Body Concerto,” which we staged last year, to present it overseas in 2012.
Thank you for your time today. I hope domestic audiences will have many opportunities to see “Rose.”
*** “Mating Dance” is a dance version of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.”
*** “Piazzolla Study” is based on Astor Piazzolla’s classical version of the Argentine tango. It features basic dance moves and a simple rhythm that is interpreted by a female couple.
*** “Life Bolero 2005” is a self-study tool for choreographers. It depicts the joys and sorrows of life and interprets Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” through diverse moves.

*** AHN Sungsoo
Art Director of Ahn Sungsoo Pick-Up Group, Professor at Korea National University of Arts
Won the 17th annual Dance Art Award from ChangMu Arts Center for “Rose” and “Mating Dance” (2009)
Won Best Performance Award at the 12th Dance Art Awards (2004) and Art Award of the Year for “Choice” (2005)
Won 6th Dance Critics’ Award for “Point of Time” (2001)

Suna CHOE _ Director of Sungmisan Community Theater

Suna CHOE produced Seoul Fringe Festival and diverse arts and culture programs at the Seoul Fringe Network. Currently, she is doing various works such as programming arts and culture events, and doing research on multidisciplinary arts and etc. Also, she seeks for the possibility and the vision of ‘community arts’ while working for a community theatre. She serves as steering group member of Forum for Independent Arts Works.

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