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Choreographer Jeon Misook Brings Steady Introspection to Life in Dance
Choreographer Jeon Misook Brings Steady Introspection to Life in Dance
Interviewer : Kim In-ah (reporter from Dance Webzine) 2016.10.07

Choreographer Jeon Misook Brings Steady Introspection to Life in Dance

For 30 years, choreographer Jeon Misook has been recognized both inside and outside of Korea for her perceptive insight, one which translates her personal story into her work, her refined moves and meticulous staging. Her full-fledged career as a choreographer and dancer began with the foundation of the Tam Dance Company in 1981. In 1998, she was listed in the International Dictionary of Modern Dance, and in the same year began teaching as a professor in the School of Dance of the Korea National University of Arts. She also proved her steadfast position as a seasoned choreographer by winning several awards for her work Amore Amore Mio, performed in 2010 and 2015. 

This year Jeon performed onstage at PAMS Choice, the official showcase of the Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS). She explored her individuality and the boundaries of choreography in the fundamental physicality of dance. On Oct. 7, PAMS 2016 premiered Bow in Korea. The piece was also an official showcase selection for the Internationale Tanzmesse (NRW) in Germany in September. In the following interview, Jeon discusses her work with a self-reflective attitude and allows us to gaze into her humility and dignity as an experienced dancer. Her world of dance is one that is built on sheer effort over natural talent. 

▲ Choreographer Jeon Mi-sook © Hwang Seung-taek

▲ Choreographer Jeon Mi-sook © Hwang Seung-taek 

You have worked as a contemporary dance choreographer since the 1980s. It must be challenging to summarize your 30+ year career, but please tell us about your work thus far.

Looking back, the focus of my work changed about every 10 years. Until the middle of the 1980s and 1990s, I focused on my identity and social issues. It might not show on the outside, but I have an unyielding spirit that defies existing irrational systems. And that is naturally reflected in my work. I became known for my choreography in Finding a Face, which was performed at the Korea Dance Festival (now the Seoul Dance Festival) under the title Tam in 1987. The piece initially received an award from the organizers. Then critics questioned the fairness of the judgement. After reviewing the works on their own, they gave the grand prize to the piece I choreographed, and that became a hot topic. 

You carefully staged your early works to reflect the social atmosphere of the time by examining individuals and groups in their social surroundings. Was there something that triggered a change in your work after the middle of the 1990s?

I had an opportunity to study at the London Contemporary Dance School in the UK. Since I had to work up the courage to go over there after working in the field for more than 10 years, I was firmly determined to acquire something technique-wise for my contemporary dance. But it did not take long for me to realize that I was wrong to hope to learn something there. What mattered was a shift in my thought process, as opposed to learning new techniques. After I left the UK, my work became more lyrical and natural. 

How would you define your work since the 2000s? Reviews often describe your work in terms of “mathematically calculated, dynamic moves” and “refined and organized staging.”

I’m good at self-examination. (Laughs.) I don’t have the visual quality of a great dancer nor characteristics to call myself an artist. I am too logical and reasonable to be agitated by emotions, which is unbecoming for an artist or a dancer. Yet I was doing solo work and creating pieces as an experienced dancer. I often questioned why I was still dancing. Is it because I lack courage? What is the real me? And a conclusion I came to was that dance is like a heaven-sent fate for me. And I wanted to perform my duty with honesty and honor. 

It must be the same for others, that you can do better work when you reflect on your spirit. If I lack qualities as an artist, I thought I should create shows with a logical and mathematical perspective and composition based on my rational nature. Please Don’t Go and Nice to Meet You were created with that in mind. The final products did not turn out to be all that meticulous or conceptual. And so I realized the difference between what I like and what I am capable of. A piece made with that sense of skepticism was Amore Amore Mio, which premiered in 2010 and was then performed again last year. I expressed the common subject of love with movements that excluded the form and vocabulary of dance. I guess I am still searching for pieces that are more like me. 

▲ Choreographer Jeon Misook © Hwang Seung-taek

▲ Choreographer Jeon Misook © Hwang Seung-taek 

As the dance arena is teeming with terms like interactive, convergence, and genre deconstruction, I often see idea-intensive performance-oriented works. But your work seems to focus on movement that lacks any special technique.

It has been a long time since the boundary of contemporary dance faded. Your question can be linked to another question: What fundamentally differentiates genres or fields when we tell stories through dance. I believe it comes down to how the creator thinks of the body in dance. 

Then what do you normally emphasize in your choreography?

The center of my work is movement. I try to moderate my use of movement, but there is still a lot in my work. Overall, I put a great deal of thought into the aesthetic value, image and impression of a show. People tend to have an overall impression of a work rather than remembering every detail afterward. Naturally, I came to value the beauty of form, impression or color. Fortunately, I believe I was born with a visual sense or code. I also use objects for image composition. Having said that, I try not to use them as a signboard, and instead use them fully until they cannot be used any more. I try to expand and faithfully express the connecting points between physical movement derived from objects and the impression made in the mind of the audience.

You also mentor dancers as a professor in the School of Dance of the Korea National University of Arts. I’m curious about your educational philosophy.

I’m not sure whether or how my working method directly affects my students. Rather, I always tell them never to do it my way. There is a 20-year gap between myself and my students. If they do as I do, then it’s far from their sense of calling as artists who should express what is contemporary or suggest what is beyond contemporary. 

In the apprenticeship style of Korean education, most students are compliant with their teachers. So they can be immediately led in the direction I want, and quickly reach their goal. However, what matters above all is to build their strength to pioneer their own path in the tough arena of dance. Instead of stimulating them with my tendencies or methods, I trust them and wait for them, even if it takes a long time. As such, I help them find their own way and I believe that is what my objective should be. 

▲ Rehearsal of PAMS Choice work Bow © Hwang Seung-taek

▲ Rehearsal of PAMS Choice work Bow © Hwang Seung-taek 

Let’s turn to Bow which was selected as this year’s PAMS Choice. The title means “greeting” in Korean. How did it come about?

Until now, my creative process was to set a goal and steadily follow a stable structure. And the end-products felt like a well-prepared meal, an orderly textbook or a well-made product. But the way we think and create is very different from the past. We unfold or throw what is inside of us, and this turns out to be unexpected end-products, thereby expanding the possibility of creation. With Bow, I gently put together what I perceived around me, instead of using my previous full-on approach. Visiting professors from overseas are very taken by the polite greetings of Korean students. They say that it’s amazing and rather shocking. I wanted to do something that reflected Korean etiquette, an aspect of the culture which foreigners find exotic. I wanted to work with various greetings in Korean culture, ranging from an unobtrusive attitude of humbleness to formal acts that are close to worship. 

How did you put various Korean ways of greeting into the piece? What are some of the interesting points from your perspective as the choreographer?

A greeting is a physical gesture expressing how you feel about another person. Unlike in the West, Koreans passively and humbly express their joy when meeting others by taking a step back, or through a kneeling bow indicating extreme respect. From time to time, you can find movements that use objects such as a folding fan which hints at a full-size folding screen, short steps, and a straw mat that is unrolled for a kneeling bow. The music was composed by choreographer Jae-deok Kim, who runs the Modern Table Dance Company. The musical piece was originally used in his solo performance, and I requested its recomposition for Bow. Kim’s music is very Korean, with the power to captivate one’s mind. 

▲ Choreographer Jeon Misook © Hwang Seung-taek

▲ Choreographer Jeon Misook © Hwang Seung-taek 

Most support programs in Korea have focused on new choreographers and new works, concentrating their assistance in those areas. In recent years, shows chosen for PAMS Choice have mainly been by young choreographers. You participated in PAMS as a judge last year and as a selected choreographer this year. As a seasoned choreographer with a diverse background, do you have any special insights for us regarding this year’s PAMS Choice selection?

PAMS Choice functions as a platform for international exchange. Since it is an opportunity to distribute your show, it is very important for creators. When I worked as a judge last year, I noticed that the choreographers were younger and that the working methods for pieces which drew the judges’ attention were different from mine. Since there was a generation gap and the essence of their work was starkly different from mine, I thought I might not be an appropriate candidate. Still, I wanted an objective assessment of how my work would be seen overseas and to determine if there is a very small group of people who would recognize my work. Because of the ideas I had back then, I was much happier to hear the news of this year’s PAMS Choice selection. Because of this recognition, my show can be presented overseas. I’m also excited by the fact that I can focus on my work without worrying about other issues, such things as airfare, which is covered for a work selected by the delegates. I would like Bow to be seen as a pleasant dance piece which demonstrates the emotions of Koreans. I hope the PAMS Choice selection will lead to many overseas performances. 

What are your hopes for the future?

In fact, I don’t think I have a lot of time to choreograph dances. While other dancers become more active after retiring, I think it will be difficult for me to create more work given my strong tendency towards self-criticism. In the time I have left, I would like to do my best as a choreographer and a teacher. Bow is scheduled to be staged at the Internationale Tanzmesse in Germany in September and PAMS in October. Nothing to Say is to be performed at the Seoul International Dance Festival around the time PAMS is held. For now, I plan to focus on my work so that these shows are as successful as possible.

Kim In-ah (reporter from <i>Dance Webzine</i>)
Kim In-ah works as a reporter specializing in dance for Dance Webzine, a monthly publication. Kim mainly interviews dancers and reviews dance works with a focus on the various values in the process of their creation and acceptance. Kim also teaches dance theory at Korea National University of Arts and the Seoul Institute of the Arts. e-mail
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