Barbican Theatre, London
September 20, 2023
Dragons by Korean choreographer Eun-Me Ahn is seventy minutes of colour: in light, costume and video design, and movement. As we have come to expect from Korean companies, the dancers are superb, individually and collectively.
Although their intent is far from always evil, dragons in European and North American cultures are often depicted as being creatures to be feared. In Asia however, they are generally viewed as auspicious, magical beings of unsurpassed power and vitality. But there are variations, in looks and personality. In Chinese culture, the dragon symbolises power, good luck and strength. In Korea, while those characteristics are still there, they are just as much associated with joy and optimism. The latter especially are writ large through Eun-Me Ahn’s choreography.
But the dragons we see on stage are not mythical creatures. All the performers, eight live and six on video, were born in the year 2000, which in the Eastern zodiac was the Year of the Dragon. What they share is their vision, their story (which we hear briefly from those seen digitally too); and their energy, drive and vitality in dance that while contemporary and very much of today, also has more than a few nods to tradition.
That six dancers appear on film is a consequence of the Covid pandemic. From Indonesia (two), Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan and South Korea, they simply could not be present in person for rehearsals. So joining in with their in-person South Korean colleagues via video projection, it was.
Taeseok Lee’s projections, onto a near invisible gauze in front of the dancers, are superb. There are moments when they do get a little too much but the images of waterfalls, fireflies and flowers that frame the action are generally stunning. An underwater scene (most Eastern mythologies have dragons that live underwater) is a riot of colour, although the best is one of the simplest: giant bubbles that performers appear to be dancing inside.
Ahn, who designed the set and costumes herself too, makes much use of giant expanding tubes; sort of giant duct hoses. Not only do they frame the stage but she has the dancers use the silver tubes or shortened versions of them too, as extended arms, headdresses and giant extensions to legs.
They also appear in the projections. As they slide and intertwine around each other, it’s not a huge leap to see them as the partial bodies (humans are not supposed to view their whole) of mythical dragons.
Unfortunately, the projections of the six digital dancers are less good, certainly much less sharp. With one big exception. When those same dancers’ faces fill the whole screen, the effect is very grabbing indeed.
Structurally, while Dragons feels like a collection of ideas, the joins come easily. Solos, duets and ensemble sections largely flow smoothly into one another.
Ahn may have a reputation as a ‘enfant terrible,’ but there’s none of that here. The contemporary dance choreography also draws in elements of street dance, tumbling and traditional Asian movement. It’s all top notch, although one dance stands tall. A lengthy solo by Hyekyoung Kim towards the end is quite spellbinding.
Several sections come with a dash of humour, as when the men disappear beneath huge skirts worn by the women, creating a huge puppet-like creature, but one where the feet move completely independently of the rest of the body. Elsewhere, the costumes include swirling skirts, lacy tops, long black dresses and a fair bit of sparkly lycra. And, for most of the evening, colourful odd socks. There are a lot of quick changes!
Soon after Kim’s solo, Ahn treats us to one from herself. In what looks like traditional South Korean dress, it’s a few moments of subtle elegance, her hands in particular weaving intricately and precisely.
It’s all accompanied by Young-Gyu Jang’s soundtrack blends contemporary pop and electronic with traditional elements.
Dragons: a dance of meetings. Of performers from across Asia. Of modernity and tradition. Of past and present. Of many ideas. A riot of colour and a real feast for the senses.