Mapo Art Centre, Seoul
Dance competitions, excluding the phenomenon that is Strictly come Dancing, are usually the preserve of ballet dancers and continue to mushroom, particularly in the United States and Asia. Contemporary dance has a much less amicable relationship, one often bordering on hostility, to the idea that creative art can compete. However, the Seoul International Dance Festival (SIDC) now celebrating its 50th year, has always maintained inclusivity with contemporary dance, ethnic dance and choreography sharing the platform with ballet.
The choreography section, new this year, was a positive addition with entries from across East Asia and the majority choreographed by women: a counter example to Western perceptions of the clear gender definition in Far Eastern cultures, a situation we believe inhibits women’s career options and progression.
The winning entry The Speech of Body, was choreographed by Wang Jin (王瑾) and performed by herself and two female dancers, Xu Mozi (徐末子) and Xia Yimeng (夏藝萌), all from the Beijing Dance Academy (北京舞蹈学院). It was danced in skilfully designed costumes (by the women) that added interest to an intriguing investigation of an individual’s path through life, alternating solitary and collective movements that translated in turn to effective choreography it an intense, focused performance.
Lin Tse-an (林則安) from Taiwan, choreographed and performed Arabesque, first seen in this year’s Skyline-Fearless (撞牆天團) programme presented by the Focus Dance Company (焦點舞團) of Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA, 國立臺北藝術大學). It’s a lyrical work immersed in Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune that has a keen eye for balanced structure and phrasing, and which gained Lin a second place.
This is diss, a male/female duet by Hee Won Ham highlighted the exuberance and passion of students from the Korean National University of Arts and came in third. The couple, dressed in black suits, invested the choreography with a sharp urban look while the movement was fierce and frenetic built on themes of repetition and minimalism.
I also enjoyed Ecstasy by Korean, Ji Won Choi, another male/female duet. Her dancers were simply dressed in flesh toned dancewear with two props, a chair and a small stool. The plain setting contrasted with the uncertain complex relationship: vacillating between desirous and fractious but always intense. The subtext was visualised in choreography notable for eloquent positioning of bodies and props, finetuned with expressive detail. The movement sparse and pared down, also had moments where the technical competence of the dancers, both from ChungAng University, was exploited.
The high level of technical skills is evident in contemporary dancers from these Far Eastern countries and whereas in the contemporary dance section the gymnastic elements were something of a distraction, in the choreographic section, they were used judiciously and to good effect. A number of the other choreographic entries showed strong ethnic influences. This exploration into ethnic roots was evident in the Portrait in Otherness programme at Sadler’s Wells in London in June where young dancer/choreographers of Far Eastern origin, made persuasive use of their dance legacy. The wealth of material that included high skilled use of props and costume made both this, and the Creative Ethnic Dance sections, exciting viewing.
The Contemporary Dance section was exceptional for the quality in the senior male section. The fact that the South Koreans are exempt from military service if they gain a silver of gold medal in an international competition was an added spur, as one beautifully trained and conditioned dancer followed the other. However, it was Ji Ho Jang, simply dressed in white shirt and blue trousers, whose beautifully phrased low-key solo, more depth than flash, that took the top senior prize.
In this setting, contemporary dance brings added complications for the jury. With no canon of Petipa solos to draw on and great variety in the choreographic quality of those that are danced, there are fewer clear markers to judge standards. In the female section there was also a tendency towards gymnastic display and glamour which tended to overshadow artistic quality. Marie Albert from the Paris Conservatoire, a dancer of quiet intensity, scored with a very different solo. Looking comfortable in the moment and in the movement, she held her audience without resorting to pyrotechnics.
The ballet competition, consisting mainly of dancers trained in the Far East, maintained the expected high standard in the junior levels but was less exciting in the top ranks and it was the young dancers, like Jiyoun Song dancing a brilliant La Esmeralda, who stole the show. I also greatly enjoyed fourteen-year-old Seojeong Yun’s Aurora solo: radiant, exquisitely phrased on the music and technically secure.
Seoul International Dance Competition is special in the range of styles it offers and in presenting a view of dance from a unique perspective. Its strength lies in continuing to expand in new and distinctive directions.