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The Body and Self: Choreographer Choi Eun-jin’s Thoughts on Dance
The Body and Self: Choreographer Choi Eun-jin’s Thoughts on Dance
Interviewer : CHOI Jae-hoon (Manager of the Seoul Dance Center at the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture) 2016.10.07

The Body and Self: Choreographer Choi Eun-jin’s Thoughts on Dance
 


There are those who move their bodies to articulate a philosophical thought, while others reveal philosophical thoughts through gestures and movement of their bodies. Choreographer Choi Eun-jin replaces thought with movement, and demonstrates how those movements become dance. At times, words interrupt the natural flow of the body, and they clash. It may be because of this, but Choi’s performance relays more stories when she is still. It is then that her normally unrestrained body movements clash with the story that wants to come out and causes her to momentarily pause. Choi says that she is currently looking for a word other than “choreographer” to describe herself, something akin to “performance artist”. She adds that she is solely concerned about “dance” and “choreography”. It was truly refreshing to see!

▲ Choi Jaehoon and choreographer Choi Eun-jin © Lee Kang-hyuk

▲ Choi Jaehoon and choreographer Choi Eun-jin © Lee Kang-hyuk

First, let’s talk about Theory of Useful Dance which was selected for PAMS 2016. PAMS Choice performances are not just designed for a Korean audience, but for all those in the performance industry, both here and abroad. What is the message you want to relay to them through your performance?

I didn’t start this project with the international market in mind. I was looking for an opportunity to perform Theory of Useful Dance again, and the Performing Arts Market in Seoul was accepting applications. So, the timing was just right. The story I wanted to convey was the conflict that was raging within a worker, a laborer. I wanted to show the clash between the physical body and the inside of a person. The story doesn’t change just because I’m performing for an international audience. Theory of Useful Dance is an impromptu performance, a farce, that is in opposition to how effective everyone expects their bodies to be. 

You’re talking about the body, both as a choreographer and someone who uses their body to work for a living. How to you differentiate between the dancing body and the laboring body?

As an adult, I felt like you could tell those apart by simply thinking about where your priorities lie. I was in despair because I thought if my body can’t be removed from this capitalist way of life, if my toils are not translated or converted into financial gain, my body is useless. Of course, I felt the need to constantly escape from the way the body is “meant to be” in modern society, and find new value or worth for my body. But at the time, I couldn’t accept the concept of being a “performance artist”, that is, simply looking at this as my job. Those around me told me to find a path and stick to it, but I had no idea that my perseverance in one field would not help me at all in modern society. From my perspective, those around me were simply smiling bitter smiles and dealing with these contradictions the best they could, continuously doing tasks that no one had told them to do in the first place.
 I wanted to rid myself of these self-deprecating thoughts, ones that were saying that I was stupid to be chasing the arts when I couldn’t even look after myself or make a living. And to do that, I needed to be able to embrace the contradictions in my life. 

▲Theory of Useful Dance © Choi Eun-jin

Theory of Useful Dance © Choi Eun-jin

PAMS performances are like a showcase, so I gather it would not have been easy for you to pack all your thoughts into a shorter performance.

To be honest, we just made the cut without much time left until the date of the performance, so we haven’t been able to practice much. When I first applied, I wanted to deduce different meaning and relay my thoughts in a manner different from what I had done during my first performance. Two years have passed since my first performance of this project, and in that time, I’ve experimented with many different things during my everyday life as it relates to this topic. Ultimately, I wanted to incorporate it into my new performance. But I came to the conclusion that I should perform it the way it was in that first performance, not just because of time constraints, but because I feel like it holds a certain charm in its original form. My performances <Movement Decoding> and <Yuyongmuyongron - Theory of Useful Dance> must be able to show some sort of change in the body within the given amount of time, so I’m trying to come up with a way to take everything from a 45 minute performance and express it in just 20 minutes.

Earlier this year, you were chosen as the first choreographer to participate in SPACE RED’s (Research and Exchange for Dance)1) residency exchange program run by the Seoul Dance Center. You also got to take part in the residency program at the New York-based arts organization Movement Research. Will this experience be reflected in your performance?

The experience affects ‘me’ as an individual, so I can’t say it won’t affect the performance at all, but it won’t affect the performance directly as I won’t be making changes to it based on what I learned and felt during the exchange program. But I will say that the overseas residency program had a very positive effect on me, and it affirmed thoughts that I had before I went, which gives me strength and confidence. As a performer, I believe it is also my duty to make the conditions of my working environment, this performance ecosystem, if you will, better. It may sound like I’m trying to be a hero, trying to help others and overstepping my boundaries, but this is really for myself. I want to be able to perform well, and perform for a long time. So, really, what I’m trying to say is that the details of the performance itself haven’t changed, but the way I am approaching the performance has changed.

You have a very interesting background. How did you become a choreographer?

I think I slowly became conscious of my work being in the field of choreography when I was attending the Korea National University of Arts School of Dance and working on projects both in and out of school. Every Saturday, artists would get together to perform at the Mullae-dong ‘Saturday Dance’ that was organized by the On&Off Dance Company. I went there with Jang Hyun-jun, Yun Jeong-ah and Kim Jeong-ah as the group ‘Seo-oh’, and we’d do site-specific solo performances in the Mullae-dong area. When I first came across performance arts through theater, I wasn’t thinking about becoming a choreographer or a director. I simply liked performing and loved being on stage. But the more I went on stage, the more I became aware of my body, and got the urge to experiment with movement. 

Becoming a dancer requires skill and a lot of experience, so most aspiring dancers major in dance. But in the case of choreography, an individual can have experience in a different genre and then become part of the group. Where do you think you stand in the world of dance?

If the world of dance is centered around and comprised of dance majors, then I’m definitely part of the group that came from the outside. I actually majored in Computer Science. If you’re asking me whether I consider myself a dancer, then I must admit that it’s something I’ve questioned a lot in the past. I like dancing and I wanted to become good at it, and at one point I dedicated a lot of my time training my body. But I didn’t want people to think that I say things like this because I can’t dance, so I wanted to become a dance expert. At the same time, though, I was annoyed by the fact that only those with the body and skills of a dance expert were able to occupy the fields of dance and dancing, so I insisted that “everything was dance” while continuing on with my projects. These days, I’m a little tired of always explaining myself or asserting that what I’m doing is dance, so I’m trying to move away from the definition or extension of that definition and find a totally new direction. These days, I’m trying to find a way to describe myself as something other than simply a “choreographer”. 

This may be slightly difficult to answer, but what sort of dancer do you prefer? In order to relay and display the deep thoughts of a choreographer, surely you need the help of a skilled professional dancer?

Well, first of all, impromptu means that dancers must make split second decisions on stage. During practice sessions, they must decide on the scope and type of movements they will make, then narrow it down to a few and through practice make those movements become second nature to them. They will need to focus on grouping and practicing similar body movements and gestures. My explanation was quite long, but in the end, you’re not limiting the overall form of the performance but limiting the number of movements through which thoughts and ideas are expressed. So, communication is key. Wi Sung-hee and Yun Sang are exceptional partners in dance, but this is possible because they’re good friends of mine with whom I can communicate freely. We’ve also worked on more than two projects together, and have come to establish a common vocabulary, a common way of speaking and expressing ourselves. I have no idea how the way I work will change in the future, but I’m sure that there will be no problems when it comes to communication. That’s the most important thing. 

1) Space RED is Seoul Dance Center’s international exchange business project centered around movement research. The Seoul Dance Center aims to become an international dance center that allows movement research artists and artists from other genres exchange their research with artists from overseas institutions, as well as provide support through international workshops and archiving projects. Source: Seoul Dance Center website.

▲ Choreographer Choi Eun-jin © Lee Kang-hyuk

▲ Choreographer Choi Eun-jin © Lee Kang-hyuk

You express thoughts through movement, and those movements become dance. And in choreographer Choi Eun-jin’s performance, there exist ‘words.’ What exactly does this mean?

At first, I thought the body was more honest than words. When I started experimenting to come up with ways to make “the now”, the current, more pronounced, I came to use the impromptu to create change in the condition or state. I then considered that the change in value and movement of the body which becomes a particular state could in turn become choreography. Choreography in the project Movement Decoding showed movement that derived from the distance/time differences between body and language. The language in Theory of Useful Dance is aimed at combining two contradictory body identities (work and dance) into one identity. The thing to focus on is how the body can’t make its mind up because of this conflict, and how the body stops/there’s friction right before some movement just slips out. 

From what you’ve accomplished thus far, the words “young,” “experimental,” and “philosophical” really suit you. It’s amazing and quite admirable to see you always thinking and experimenting as an artist. But I also think there would be those who expect change?

There have been critics who have said that I have not been able to move away from workshop or experimental level performances. I may appear to be in an “exploratory stage”, but I’m always working on and contemplating how the projects that have formed between experimentation will translate on stage. I believe a performance that has been created during the preparation process is drama/theater and a complete performance in itself. Of course, it’s also good to be in the learning and experimenting stage. 

I’m curious to know what the audience is to a “thinking” choreographer. Are they something that one must study? Or are they something one must understand through experience?

But it’s up to the audience to study or experience. I’m happy with having an audience just sit through the entire performance and listen to what I am trying to say. It’s even better if they show an interest in what I have to say even if they can’t understand it, but I can’t stop them from leaving half-way through a performance. As for me, when I’m a member of the audience, I do both; I study and I experience. But I think I study a bit more. 

▲ Choreographer Choi Eun-jin © Lee Kang-hyuk

▲ Choreographer Choi Eun-jin © Lee Kang-hyuk

I think you’ll have the opportunity to perform overseas through PAMS 2016. Please tell us a bit about your past overseas experiences and your plans for the future.

I’ve performed overseas three times. My first overseas experience was made possible through ARCO’s AYAF (Arco Young Arts Frontier) program where I got to see performances at the ImPulsTanz Festival in Vienna, Austria. My second time overseas was when I participated in the National Theatre of Wales – Summer Camp, and the third time was when I went to Movement Research in New York through an exchange program organized by the Seoul Dance Center. The first time I went overseas to Vienna, I was confronted with the question of my identity as an Asian woman and what my current state was. The second time was an amazing opportunity that reminded me of my freedom to express myself as an artist. But at the time, although I did perform, it was in front of fellow participants. So, the first time I performed overseas in front of an audience where the majority were strangers, people who had no idea who I was or what I was trying say, was in New York.
 After answering your question, I am reminded of how lucky I am to have had all these amazing opportunities through the support of various organizations and government-run programs. Thankfully, these programs did not require that I show immediate results through my work, but were more for me to experience and broaden my abilities. I believe I have gained a great deal of inspiration and “food for thought” to continue as a performer. 

CHOI Jae-hoon (Manager of the Seoul Dance Center at the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture)
“I believe the road always starts after the journey ends.”
 After graduating from the Korea National University of Arts’ School of Drama, Choi Jae-hoon went on to become a writer and reporter for the (online magazine Cine Seoul and a performance planning manager at the Korea National Opera. Choi is currently with the Seoul Dance Center at the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, planning various projects aimed at supporting dance artists. He is also a movie columnist for the portal Yes24.
Visit his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/noldol
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