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A Tradition-Loving B-Boy Opens New Horizons in Street Dance
A Tradition-Loving B-Boy Opens New Horizons in Street Dance
Interviewer : Ko, Jae-yeon (reporter for Korea Economic Daily, Culture Desk) 2016.09.27

A Tradition-Loving B-Boy Opens New Horizons in Street Dance

Korean b-boys are something special. They compete in contests held in the United States, the birthplace of hip hop, not to mention the UK, France, Germany, and Italy, and don’t return until they’ve won first prize. They all say the same thing: "Koreans are fierce. We can’t stand losing." Maybe that explains the evolution of Korean breakdancing over the past 20 years. It took tenacity and passion. In 2005, a non-verbal performance titled Ballerina Who Loved a B-boy blended ballerina movements with breakdancing. Still performed over 10 years later, the long-running show was also staged on Broadway in 2008.

In 2013, Mnet released a dance survival program called Dancing 9, a dance survival program that awakened the masses to the lure of breakdancing. Street dancers like HA, Hui-dong, PARK, In-su, SHIN, Gyu-sang, KIM, Ki-su and HONG, Seong-sik suddenly earned public recognition. But that wasn’t all. Street dancers started fusing elements of ballet, modern dance, and dancesport to create new forms. Recently, b-boys have collaborated with modern dancers to pioneer a genre often described as a mix of b-boying and acting.

The members of People on Stage, a b-boying performance group, have combined video technology and street dance with Korean cultural elements to further develop their art. Their creativity and artistry have been lauded by audiences around the world. I met director LEE, Jun-hak last month to discuss the group’s preparations for their upcoming performance in the 2016 PAMS Choice (October 4–8).   

▲ The writer with Director LEE, Jun-hak © LEE, Kang-hyeok

▲ The writer with Director LEE, Jun-hak © LEE, Kang-hyeok

Would you briefly introduce People on Stage?

It’s a dance group that was formed in 2014, when the breakdance group Gamblerz Crew joined with the popping group Animation Crew. Members of both teams had befriended one other, and since it was the age of convergence, we figured we’d also join forces. Plus, we helped each other with rent. Both teams kept performing under our respective names, but we also did several collaborations. We have since formed a gugak team and a modern dance team, and have been invited to perform by various public organizations. Sticking exclusively to street dance is restricting, but adding gugak and modern dance gives us phenomenal synergy. In 2014, we performed in Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Portugal and Croatia as part of the Eurasia Festival. In 2015, we performed at the Dubai Fashion Festival, the Hong Kong Chinese New Year Parade1)  and "Korean Night"2)  at Iceland’s Arctic Circle Assembly3),  and at events to commemorate Korean relations with Bosnia, Cyprus and Algeria.    

Would you elaborate on Gamblerz Crew and Animation Crew?

Animation Crew, representing Korea, made it all the way to the finals on the show America’s Got Talent. I suppose you could call them the "idols of popping." I was originally a member of Gamblerz Crew, which was formed in 2002. In 13 years of competing in contests around the globe, we won around 50 first-place prizes. Korean b-boys are the real thing, even if Korea isn’t the birthplace of hip hop.

As you mentioned, street dance isn’t exactly Korean tradition. Why do you think you’re constantly summoned to perform abroad, and to such positive reception?

We took street dance and added some traditional color. After winning a contest held by the Dokdo Foundation in 2014, we produced a non-verbal performance called The Era of Dance. In the story, a band of samurai invades a peaceful island. They put masks on all the inhabitants, except for the protagonist, and demand their unconditional surrender. The hero, however, refuses to be masked and eventually restores the island’s freedom. To reduce the number of props, we replaced a lot of stage items with video images, and that’s how we developed a breakdance show that incorporated video.

In 2016, we made the production Five Colors, which was selected for PAMS Choice and has become one of our premier shows. The five colors represent the value of balance so upheld by our ancestors, which is what we tried to express through our dance.

1) The highlight of Hong Kong’s lunar New Year festival. Launched in 1996, the parade made the Lonely Planet Bluelist of "Best Value Entertainment Around the World."
2) A gathering of influential figures in government, academia, and media to discuss issues concerning the Arctic Circle. Established in 2013 under then President Grímsson.
3) The first of such events in the Arctic region, Korean Night took place at the special request of President Grímsson on October 17, 2015.

▲ Director LEE, Jun-hak © LEE, Kang-hyeok

▲ Director LEE, Jun-hak © LEE, Kang-hyeok

You’ve performed in more than 10 countries around the world. What was one of your most memorable experiences?

Our show in Bosnia and Herzegovina last year comes to mind. The population of the area was predominantly female, as much of the male population was drafted to fight in the Bosnian War. The response was fantastic, and members of the audience even made signs that said "I love Korea" and "Thank you" in Korean. It was a thrilling moment, when a simple movement of the body shattered culture barriers.

Last year, we did a street dance performance in the parade of the 20th Hong Kong Chinese New Year Parade. Some forty artists affiliated with People on Stage went to Hong Kong to perform. Over 400 million Chinese watched, in person as well as online. We danced along three kilometers of roadway in Tsim Sha Tsui, which was blocked off for the event. After all, street dance was originally done on the street! For the first time in a while, it felt like true street dancing. Someone at the Seoul Design Foundation saw a video of the show and requested a performance. We condensed the performance for a 300 meter roadway and performed it at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) Street Arts Festival.

Unlike conventional street dance, your performances incorporate theatrical elements. Is this to make them more accessible to audiences that aren’t familiar with street dance?

Street dancers are often referred to as "those people that spin on their heads." People in contemporary dance and ballet can often express themselves with ease, but it’s not so easy with street dancers. That’s one of the limits of our form, but the appearance of the four Gamblerz Crew members on Mnet’s Dance 9 helped us reshape our identity. PARK, In-su, KIM, Ki-su, SHIN, Gyu-sang and HONG, Seong-sik were the ones who appeared in the broadcast, which featured the very best in not only street dance but all forms of dance. They collaborated with dancers from a variety of backgrounds, and were influenced by sportdance, ballet, and contemporary dance. We benefited a lot from that.         

We also performed for the Youth Mic4) program sponsored by the Presidential Committee for Cultural Enrichment, where one audience member asked one of our dancers if he wasn’t a contemporary dancer. They didn’t imagine that something besides the usual hard and angular movements of conventional breakdancing could be called b-boying. That’s when I realized it. We were creating a new genre that combined breakdancing with contemporary dance. (Laughs)   

It’s b-boys who can act.

Yeah, that’s right. People who work in film and advertising often say that b-boys are excellent dancers but lack expression and acting chops. That’s why they always act as stand-ins when appearing in films or commercials. I’d always wanted to escape that image. Park Ji-hoon, director of Gamblerz Crew, enrolled in the film department of Konkuk University in 2010, and enrolled in the Korea National University of Arts after graduation. He fell in love with the acting part.

The more b-boys learn how to act, the more breadth they give to our art, and the more opportunities there are to create new forms. That’s because we can add a story. Stories allow us to communicate so much more than exclusively breakdancing. The classic example is Synfonia, a production we made with contemporary choreographer KIM, Seol-jin when Gamblerz Crew was the official b-boy group for the Seoul Metropolitan Government.   

That was a groundbreaking attempt. What drives you to continue seeking such collaborations?

Korean breakdancers are among the best in the world, and have gotten worldwide attention through various broadcasts. But everyone always wonders, "What are those b-boys doing now?" There have been a lot of incredibly famous teams that just faded away. Local governments have created a lot of support programs for such teams. Gamblerz Crew was the official dance group for the city of Seoul, while a team called the Jinjo Crew5) was granted five years of complimentary studio space under the city of Bucheon. Bucheon also joined the crew to host the Bucheon Bboy International Championships, so it was a win-win situation.       

4) A program from fostering up-and-coming artists, part of the government’s Culture Day project. 88 artists (teams) were selected through the Youth Mike project to perform on the last Wednesday of every month in venues across the country, creating a celebratory opportunity for artists to interact with residents. [Source: Presidential Committee for Cultural Enrichment]
5) Jinjo Crew, whose name means "rising fire," was founded in 2001, befitting their name with a passionate mindset, original movements, and the drive to create new cultural content. In 2012, they took prize in five major international competitions, becoming the first grand-slam breakdancing team and climbing to the top of official world rankings. They were recognized at home with the 2015 Love Korea Award, the 2015 Korea Record Certification in the arts category, the 2014 Hallyu Hip-Hop Culture Prize (Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism), the 2014 Dasan Prize (culture and arts category), and the 2010 B-Boy Culture Prize (grand prize). [Source: Jinjo Crew official homepage]

▲ Five Colors © People on the Stage

Five Colors © People on the Stage

Tell us about your production Five Colors, which has been selected for PAMS Choice 2016.

Five Colors started from the inspiration we took from modern dance. We wanted to create something that would resonate with audiences around the world, and colors create impact no matter where you go. We took five basic colors—blue, white, red, black, and yellow—and added inflections from Korean culture.

Blue represents creation and life. It also dispels wicked spirits and brings good fortune. We took images of self-realization from a Buddhist ceremony known as the "Five Incense Chant," which is performed in the morning and at night. White represents innocence, truth, life, and purity. Koreans used to be called "the people in white." Based on a theme of solitude, we portray the joys and sorrows contained within the dreams of a man dressed in white.

Representing the sun, fire, blood, creation, passion, and ardor, red is also representative of the four seasons. Black is the birth of darkness, which we depict through the darkness of the universe, which is where wisdom originates. Lastly, yellow is the noblest among the five colors, and plays a central role. Yellow represents humanity, which acts as the mediator between the material and the digital, which we express using a tron dance.    

From the video I’ve seen of the tron dance, it’s quite flashy and mysterious.

A tron dance is performed while wearing suits fixed with EL wires. Turn off the lights and flick a switch, and the lights appear just as we designed them. The dance originated as pure spectacle, but current trends focus on "emotional tron." This is all part of the "softer" or more "sensitive" side of b-boying and street dance.  

Your dances performed in elegant hanbok were also quite memorable.

An older friend of mine has a mother who runs a hanbok shop. She helped create the outfits for the TV series The Legend. We visited her shop and just asked if we could borrow some hanbok outfits for overseas performances, and she heartily obliged. (Laughs)   

Why do you strive to create distinctively "Korean" performances?

After The Era of Dance, which was produced to create awareness surrounding Dokdo, I became interested in spreading Korean culture around the world. I also want to run my own production company after building a substantial repertoire of pieces that blend street dance with traditional elements. To make People on Stage a truly professional production company, I even worked for a year at a company that produces non-verbal performances to learn how operations work. I spent about three to four hours every day looking for competitions and applying for them. I tell my team members all the time that my goal is to offer an environment where they can focus exclusively on dance.     

In a way, you’re striving to harmoniously balance "art" and the "market." In that respect, how did it feel to be selected by PAMS Choice?

I applied to KAMS to perform at PAMS Choice for four consecutive years. I practically shouted for joy when we finally got accepted. It’s a chance to present our performance to the market and to meet industry affiliates, so I’m very happy and excited. It’s also an opportunity for more overseas performances. Performance groups like us need a channel that connects us to the market and helps us better communicate with audiences. PAMS provides that channel.      

Members of smaller b-boy groups probably end up quitting because they can’t make a living. What can b-boys do outside the performing arts?

The first generation of b-boys spent all their time on three things: performing, practicing, and competing. Now, they perform, practice, compete, produce, go on TV, and film advertisements, and the list keeps growing.

We at Gamblerz Crew are becoming increasingly interested in workshops and lessons. This means collaborating with public institutions to teach dance to people in youth centers and on military bases. I always encourage my dancers to broaden their horizons.

The original spirit behind hip hop goes along the lines of "rebellion" and "freedom." A lot of dancers were originally classified as criminals, as they had so much rage that had nowhere to go, or they were soldiers under a lot of stress that needed to be expressed. These were kids that always had attitude, always thinking "Why should I?" or "Hell no!" But it’s been fascinating to witness them change throughout the years. At first, I had to buy them a lot of food to calm them down, but now they’re in love with dance. This year, we regularly visit three youth centers and five army bases.

We are also offering online counseling for kids in mountain villages and remote islands, with support from the Ministry of Education. That’s because kids who grow up in small towns don’t have the opportunity to meet people in specialized trades, like b-boys. The service has been well received thus far.   

I’ve heard that more and more b-boys are earning their university degrees.

There are even b-boys who are adjunct professors. They head the street dance department at places like Seoul Arts College, Kookmin University, and Sejong University. That’s why there’s been a recent "academia" wave among b-boys. Even if you’ve won world competitions and are the best, you still need a college degree if you’re going to lecture at a university. I’m also preparing to go to graduate school next year. A lot of people in the dance industry are starting to look at education as an alternative career path.

The ideal scenario would be street dance becoming accessible to the average person. It would be a normal hobby or exercise, not some exclusive practice for people competing in international contests. 

▲ LEE, Jun-hak © LEE, Kang-hyeok

▲ LEE, Jun-hak © LEE, Kang-hyeok

On a concluding note, what is the reason Korean b-boys are the best in the world?

My predecessors often answered that question jokingly: "Because our lives are shorter. We have to go to the army, so we have to work harder to develop our careers in a shorter time period." Basically, it was because they were tenacious. First off, Koreans can’t stand losing. I get so angry after losing a contest that I actually cry. Our foreign competitors often have day jobs, and dance purely for fun. But they’re still good. They often say that the core of street dance is "freedom," and taunt us for sacrificing sleep to practice.

In the past, I even quit drinking when preparing for a contest. B-boys don’t drink before a contest. That was a basic motto. These days, I’ve become more relaxed. I even have a drink or two before competitions. It’s hip hop, so you need to be free, right? (Laughs) 

Ko, Jae-yeon (reporter for Korea Economic Daily, Culture Desk)
Ko, Jae-yeon (Reporter for the Culture Desk at the Korea Econonomic Daily)She became a reporter because she enjoyed telling stories about people’s lives, and was drawn to the stage for its ability to store them. 
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