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Dance the Questions, Live the Answers
Dance the Questions, Live the Answers
Interviewer : Kim Sangmi (Producer) 2016.10.11

Dance the Questions, Live the Answers
 


What kinds of impressions can be conveyed using only the pure language of the body? This question was what got Ambiguous Dance Company started almost ten years ago. What does it mean to run a dance company for a decade in Korea? Despite garnering attention with unconventional interpretations of the body and unique choreography, Ambiguous is struggling to earn respect for dance as a profession. I met with members of the company, who are currently preparing for the 2016 Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS), hoping to gain insight into what a return to a “pure body” might look like. 

▲ The author (left), Ambiguous Dance Company choreographer Kim Boram and producer Jang Kyeong-min © Lee Gang-hyeok

▲ The author (left), Ambiguous Dance Company choreographer KIM, Bo-ram and JANG, Kyeong-min © LEE, Gang-hyeok 

I understand you are widening your horizons through multi-genre collaboration. What are your recent interests?

We’re interested in incorporating traditional elements in our work. Although the public might not notice right away, we believe there will be a point when such traditional elements are recognized for their appeal in connection to our work. We’re thinking about how to reinterpret traditions, instead of using them as they are. We’re exploring various methods to that end with our crew.  

What is the gap between the directions you pursue in your work as a choreographer and as a group? And what are the respective methodologies?

As a choreographer (KIM, Bo-ram), I definitely focus on expressing sound. I’d like to continue my study of sound; there’s really no end. It appeals to me because I have no idea where it ends, even after using and studying the body every day for a year. My goal is to make a performance that shows the ultimate form of the body while expressing the fundamentals of dance and the sounds of dancers. But that’s my personal inclination as a choreographer and an artist. I don’t think the company’s goal and vision can be limited to an insistence on music or to a single trajectory. This is why I’m expanding the scope of the company’s work through various kinds of experimentation, including collaboration across genres, strengthening our dancers’ choreography skills, and doing community work with the public. 

What is the focal point of your various attempts and experiments, and what would you say is the driving force behind them?

It takes a range of ideas, and also a lot of agonizing, to adapt to an unfamiliar work environment in order to steadily put shows on the stage, generate profits and develop wide-ranging repertoire and temporal and spatial settings. By inviting the crew into this process, and giving the dancers independent and subjective roles, the individual members benefit along with the company. Building a relationship with the local community through community projects is part of this vision. 

Right now, the arts circle subsists on artist-led projects. We aim to establish ourselves as a company and establish dance as a real profession. In this environment, the only way for a company to survive is to become sustainable and be a “group as a profession.” While it is important to produce quality work, we believe it is time to find a realistic and future-oriented methodology as well. This is because producing good works and expanding our repertoire are not directly linked to survival. To achieve all of these goals, dancers cannot remain as individual dancers within the company. They need to be members who can lead and take responsibility. And so we operate by sharing our thoughts about the role to be played by each member. 

What do you mean by being a group as a profession?

We normally operate with five dancers, and occasionally cooperate with outside dancers. A minimum level of subsistence requires doing at least three shows per month. To maintain and this level and build on it, we are working on a lot of projects. In reality, respect for artists as professionals is not the norm, and the majority of artists work for less than the minimum wage. Moreover, a lot of artists don’t even object to the lack of security and compensation, which has a huge impact on the issue. We believe we need to build an environment in which what we do is regarded as a profession. The development and potential of a company begins with respect, regardless of the degree of completion of the work. We sincerely hope we can continue what we are doing as a profession.    

▲ Ambiguous Dance Company choreographer Boram Kim (left) and producer Kyeong-min Jang © Lee Gang-hyeok

▲ Ambiguous Dance Company choreographer KIM, Bo-ram (left) and JANG, Kyeong-min © LEE, Gang-hyeok

Ambiguous has been around for nine years. Were there any turning points or events that triggered change?

We believe a big turning point came when we became a resident company of Ansan Culture and Arts Center. When we were selected for PAMS Choice two years ago, we were project-oriented. We were going to give up dancing, given the uncertainty of keeping our company running and generating enough profits to survive on our performances. At that time, we crossed paths with producer Kang Eun-yeong and agreed to look into how we might work together as a company. Kang really spearheaded this, but he passed away all of a sudden, and we became seriously doubtful about whether we should continue. After a lot of deliberation, the members agreed to work together to fill her absence. And beginning the residency really changed our attitudes.   

The residency and relocation to Ansan must also have influenced your work.

The fact that we now have a measure of stability in our production process as well as a space to practice in is a big encouragement and advantage for the troupe. At the same time, the tough reality is there’s no audience, even though we have the space and the theater to work with. In fact, our concerns about our audience played a big role in our relocation to Ansan Culture and Arts Center. Back in Seoul, most of our audience were people involved in the cultural sphere and our friends. Interestingly enough, here at the center, our audience is mainly ordinary people with no professional or personal ties to us. This gave us a greater sense of responsibility and passion about presenting dance to the public. Now we always think about ways to stimulate the public’s interest, and as a standing troupe, we try to think of ways to develop a regular audience.
In this respect, we received a lot of help from the Ansan Cultural Foundation and the Ansan Culture and Arts Center in the past. These days, considering the shrinking size of our audience, we spend time thinking about what might not be working and what we can do better. 

How do your concerns about audience development play into your production process?

It’s difficult to always make contemporary dance fun or appealing to the general public. Still, we try to find ways to help contemporary dance take root as part of the popular culture. We are constantly asking ourselves who our audience is, and we try to be as open as possible in our approach when doing our work. 

▲ Body Concert © Ambiguous Dance Company

Body Concert © Ambiguous Dance Company

Aside from developing new works, do you have plans to establish a company repertory?

We are working now to turn Body Concert into various versions for our repertory, and we are also working on outdoor shows. We believe developing a repertory that can be performed in diverse venues and environments is directly related to enhancing our competitiveness and sustainability.
We used to get assistance only from within the dance sector, but our move to outdoor performances appears to have broadened the scope of the project proposals we get and the kinds of performances we can stage. Performing outdoors also helps us to learn how to maintain the attention of the audience. The parallel operation of outdoor and theater shows is mutually beneficial. We’re not sure what kind of a company we will be in the future, but we’d like to experiment with as many ideas as possible. Thus, we need to step up our planning with regard to our overall direction and systematic operation of our company.   

A show becomes more complete as it continues to be performed in front of an audience. Yet even after spending so much time, effort, and money on producing a show, it’s not easy to organize repeat performances. It’s the same for other genres as well, but in dance in particular, there’s a considerably higher number of new dance productions than repeat runs. What do you think might be causing this problem, besides having a system that steadily funds production of new shows?

Every year, a thousand or so new shows are staged, and the problem is especially serious in dance. In Korea, trends change way too fast, and demand for the new is very strong. And there are no educational measures, no environment in place, to tell you about how to work as an independent artist after graduating. To successfully stage repeat shows, the original members must discuss the quality of the production and seek directions for improvement based on their conclusions. But in reality, having new dancers is inevitable. If the dancers change, it’s no different from putting a show together from scratch, which makes doing a rerun much less compelling. 

How do you feel about being selected for the 2016 PAMS Choice, and what are your future plans for Body Concert?

We are grateful to have been selected again this year after our last selection in 2014. Rhythm of Humans, which was selected for PAMS Choice 2014, was performed at New York City Center. And we plan to do a residency with a Japanese troupe in February 2017. Thanks to PAMS Choice, we’re performing in Seoul for the first time in a long while. It’s all the more meaningful because we’re performing at the main hall of Arko Arts Theater, where we premiered Body Concert. Our vision as a company is well reflected in the show, so every time we perform it we feel the same feelings we felt when we first started out. Beginning with PAMS Choice, Body Concert will be performed three or four times until October of this year. Our priority is to present a high-quality show. We also plan to take Body Concert to the musical market. 

The musical market is a new front. Is it part of expanding your horizons? I wonder what changes you would have to make to the production to make it a musical.

It seems like musicals have a more fixed audience compared to other genres. We expect Body Concert to offer a fresh perspective to existing musical-goers. We also want to explore the potential of the show in its capacity to present dancers’ bodies at their apex. We are also preparing to run it for a long term. No change was made to the show to turn it into a musical. Right now, our priority is to strengthen our dancers and their skills through Body Concert. In terms of program composition or commentary, we don’t want to make it too abstract. We muster our courage from the feedback we get about the show’s popular appeal and its growth so far. 

▲ Ambiguous Dance Company producer Jang Kyeong-min and choreographer Kim Boram © Lee Gang-hyeok

▲ Ambiguous Dance Company JANG, Kyeong-min and KIM, Bo-ram © LEE, Gang-hyeok

How are you feeling ahead of the upcoming 10th anniversary of the company?

In 2017, we’d like to organize seven or eight of our works in festival form around the concept of an “ambiguous night.” At present, the trend in the cultural sector is shifting from movement to the conceptual and to a multidisciplinary, collaboration-based structure, without making distinctions between genres. We believe the time will come when the focus returns to the purity of the body and of dance alone. And we are hopeful that this time will coincide with where we are headed as a company and make for a good turning point. Thinking about the 10th anniversary, we realize how remarkable it is that we’ve come even this far.   

Kim Sangmi (Producer)
Following stints with the Seoul Fringe Festival and Chuncheon International Mime Festival, Kim Sangmi worked as a producer at AsiaNow Productions. She is currently a member of Producer Group Dot and the producer for Jeong Ga Ak Hoe. e-mail
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