David Mead talks to choreographer Sung Im Her about her Everything Falls Dramatic, part of a Korea National Contemporary Dance Company double bill that’s part of the forthcoming Festival of Korean Dance.
Korean contemporary dance is super active, says Sung Im Her. “It has an incredible dynamic. People are eager to make work, expand their knowledge and know what is happening elsewhere. They are very hungry. They have quite a good foundation. They have good support. There is a lot of focus on boosting the younger generation, supporting them to go out, experience, make connections and come back. The youngsters are curious. And I think that is a key thing, that they are curious.”
She tells me that although she moved to Europe over two decades ago, first to Belgium and now to London, she still gets back to Korea three or four times a year. “Whenever I go, I can’t believe the skill, the creativity.”
A taste of just how rich and vibrant the Korean scene is will come with the approaching annual Festival of Korean Dance that, this year, not only returns to The Place in London but tours nationally for the first time to The Lowry in Salford, Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry, and The Dance Space in Brighton.
The Festival’s three programmes include returning favourites the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company in a double bill, one part of which is London-based Sung Im Her’s Everything Falls Dramatic.
She explains that the work explores the complex layering of the various forms of decay, fading and loss to which we are forever exposed as people and things disappear constantly from our lives, slowly or quickly, expected or unexpectedly. But there’s more because the process of loss in a sense continually repeats. As time passes, memories of those who have been lost, things that have been lost, constantly fade. So, we sort of lose time and again.
Everything Falls Dramatic looks as resilience too. “We get up, we fall, we make mistakes, we fall again, so we can get up again. But there comes a time when we can’t get up any more.”
The six-dancer piece has its roots in her thoughts following a stroke her now recovered father suffered just before the pandemic hit, she tells me. “What is life? What is death? How do we look at death? And how can we look at death in a different way? It is sad and you can’t really prepare for it, but how can we give it another meaning.”
She says that the process was “a really necessary journey” for her. “I read a lot of things and talked a lot with dancers. What do we think about death? Why do we avoid it? Can we not talk about it? It sounds very strange to say it but it really was a beautiful journey. The dancers were all open and shared what we are facing, how difficult it could be, and how we can just, I suppose, embrace it?”
Sung Im Her’s choreography is noted for its incredible energy and physicality. She says she likes precision, and breaking down language and movement. Here, she says that the creative process involved first filming a lot of improvising around the idea of falling and getting up. Then, as is her usual way of working, she looked at the video, looped it or chopped it up on film, giving a digital idea of what the final product might look like.
Repetition features often in her work. “Instead of making a lot of movement, I go back. I might have a one minute phrase. But then I ask how can I make that into fifteen?” She says she looks for movement that intrigues. “If the audience have seen fifty minutes of a piece and can really strongly remember one thing, I am happy. I like to repeat one ‘word’ and bury it in their minds. “It’s probably not so good for the dancers because they repeat a lot,” she says laughing.
Everything Falls Dramatic was received really well in Korea, she says. By young, old, dancers, non-dancers alike. “That is because the topic it deals with, life and death is something that everyone can connect really well to.” And, while conceding it may sound a little overdramatic, “What I really want people to take away from it, is to say, ‘Yes we are living, we are alive’. And I think that is the key thing with live performance, to feel it together, to live it together.”
Sung Im Her has performed with many dance and physical theatre companies but says that it is Belgium’s Needcompany, with which she still works, that has had the greatest impact on her approach to dance and choreography. In Korea, dance tends to come with strict discipline and structure, she explains, but, “Needcompany is so the opposite. They don’t just work with movement. There is language, expression, singing. I started to develop all kinds of senses and skills. Performances were like an adventure. We even talked on stage. Even asked what was the next phrase. It was like a playground. It gave me so much freedom because I was able to breathe. The audience then enjoy it because I enjoy it. And I still work with them after thirteen years.”
Her experience has led her to being very different from most Korean choreographers, she believes. In fact, she says she feels alienated in every country. “When I landed in the UK, I felt like I did not fit in the UK dance scene. My dance is not typical UK style. I even made a solo piece about that. Belgium, I don’t fit either. I’m a stranger. When I go to Korea, it’s the same. But I’m pretty OK with that. I am very different.”
She tells me that dance to her is freedom. “I know that if I had to sit behind a desk all day, I would not be able to breathe. It is very important for me to be on the stage, communicating with the audience. That is where I am free, and bringing the joy of freedom to them. Even though we have never met, I can share something with them. Telling my story through my body. That’s the key thing.”
The music is by Sung Im Her’s regular collaborators, electro-acoustic Belgian duo Husk Husk, whose sounds often come with intricate sampling, intense polyrhythms and manipulation of string instruments. “I like electric music with a strong beat. It sounds funny, but it makes me calm, really relaxed,” she says. “What I like from them is that they don’t have too much drama in their music. It’s very clean. Sometimes it can sound almost clinical. But it’s very exciting as well.”
Completing the KNCDC programme is Mechanism by Jaeyoung Lee, a founder member of the SIGA Dance collective, which also features six dancers. Set to a pulsating rhythmic score by MC Bluechan, it plays with our understanding of what human interaction means through a rhythmic score and intense patterns of intricate synchronised movement. Lee went to the same university as Sung Im Her, so the pair know each other well. Lee and Company Siga have a very special dance language, she tells me. “Mechanism really is like a machine, like a Rubik’s Cube. It’s so clear, so accurate. It’s amazing.”
Two other programmes make up this year’s Festival of Korean Dance. Part of a double bill, A Complementary Set, Disappearing with an Impact by Choi X Kang Project combines live performance with footage recorded on stage to create an optical illusion in the space between what is seen and unseen and distort perceptions of past and present. In the other half of the evening, Byeol Yang by Art Project BORA is described as developing forms from the state of the body as a starting point for discussing the world around us.
The final programme is a triple. Making her UK premiere, Howool Baek presents two pieces. The short film, Foreign Body, considers foreignness in our society, and how bodies that do not fit within the societal framework are treated as foreign and ultimately rejected. Her second contribution is Did U Hear, a dance interpretation of rapper 2PAC’s poem, ‘The rose that grew from concrete,’ which exposes a process of deconstruction of the body into individual life. Completing the programme, Rush by Company SIGAis about pausing to listen to your own rhythms of our own bodies and inner selves to gain peace in existing as we are.
Read more about the Festival of Korean Dance at kccuk.org.uk.
The double bill ‘A Complementary Set, Disappearing with an Impact’ and ‘Byeol Yang’ is at The Place, London on May 3, 2023.
Kontemporary Korea: A Triple-Bill of K:Dance: ‘Foreign Body’, ‘Did U Hear’, and ‘Rush’, is at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry (May 3); The Lowry, Salford on May 6; The Place, London on May 9; and The Dance Space, Brighton on May 11.