Some Asian dance troupes tend to be pigeonholed into a culturally specific style, typically based on traditional culture even if some attributes of Western genres are included in their programmes.
Bereishit Dance Company is rather different. Yes, it’s based in Seoul; and it employs Korean cultural tropes – notably music from traditional Korean drummers and singers plus elements of martial arts and yoga. But Bereishit blends Asian culture with modern sensibilities; there’s no mere borrowing or reworking, it’s more about finding and deploying the essence of dance.
If that sounds esoteric and arcane, in practice it means The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi will be seeing a debut that melds the control and full-body excitement of modern Western dance – especially street dance – with traditional Korean drumming. The subjects are at the core of all and any styles of dance: balance, composure, athleticism.
Choreographer Soon-ho Park founded Bereishit in 2011. His own background is cosmopolitan; he studied dance in both Korea and Europe and works all round the world. His troupe of young, talented dancers allow him to programme a fresh, invigorating athleticism in his dances, bringing artistry and urban cool to Korean traditions.
The essence of Bereishit, the identifying features that make this dance company and these dances identifiably different to others, is complicated by the inevitable internationalisation of dance; perhaps more than most artists, choreographers and dancers move between different countries and different companies. They bring their local background; they pick up ideas from their new environments. The resulting synthesis is generally what makes contemporary dance so interesting.
As Soon-ho puts it: “Glocalisation has made the regional and group characteristics of culture meaningless. I think it is difficult to be specific about the artistic style of a region or group, or the unique artistic characteristics of an individual.
“But I can tell you what we are interested in. We are concerned to explore the dynamic relationship between nature’s physical laws and the human body and that between people and society. Starting from such exploration we form a basis for its choreography with acts improvised by contact. We present choreographic works that demonstrate our excellence and universality, but we also attempt to connect the forms and themes of specific sports and traditional art genres.”
For instance, there’s something of street dance in Bereishit’s performances: athleticism, the moves, perhaps the overall sense of fun. But Soon-ho says he does not borrow from the street dance style intentionally: “it appears in the works because of the Korean dance environment, and original ways for choreographers and dancers to express themselves. Korea is expanding the market for street dancers because of the consumer society and popular culture trends; those experiences influence the works.
“Because of this background, I think that what you might call ‘contact impromptu movement’, ‘martial art’, ‘street dance’ and so on appear in our works.”
Similarly, Bereishit combines a contemporary dance tradition that is very obviously Western with an ancient Korean musical heritage based on percussion. Here’s Soon-ho on why this is a natural fit: “Contemporary dance is a special genre in communication. In recent years I have been thinking to combine this with the universal musicality of percussion in choreography. Percussion instruments can communicate emotionally. When the musical characteristics of percussion which can instinctually and emotionally communicate are in harmony with the dance, the contents of the work and the intention can be reflected very well.”
The particular genre of Korean music that Soon-ho uses is samulnori, a traditional style involving four percussion instruments – ‘samul’ means four, ‘nori’ means play’. It’s derived from an older folk music genre, pansori, which tells traditional Korean stories by involving singers, acrobatics and rituals alongside the drummers.
Jong-Ho Lee, artistic director of SIDance, the Seoul International Dance Festival, puts it slightly differently: “What distinguishes [Soon-ho] from others is the way of his approaching to the traditional culture from the contemporary view to touch the Korean’s universal sentiment of today. He puts focus on keeping the fundamental value of things, not simply borrowing or transforming them. This way of his working may be an alternative to dance productions, which sometimes are too abstract or serious …”
And Soon-ho and his company are anything but parochial. Take the name: it’s Hebrew, the first word in Genesis, and so means ‘in the beginning’. “It’s nothing to do with religion,” said Soon-ho. “The word implies the process of creation in human history. Creating a piece is like a creating a world. The company has been trying not to forget the weight of creation and freshness through the word.”
In the intensely physical Balance and Imbalance, aggression and cooperation alternate with off-hand nonchalance and a healthy dose of humour. “Body movements and sounds are the oldest and most basic tools for human beings to express themselves. Focused on these body movements and sounds, we present ourselves and communicate with others … we try to look into ‘the sound made by the body, the movements made from the sound’. Body, which perceives us and others, makes sounds, and through this process the relationship with others is circulated and expanded by repeating balance and imbalance.”
Balance and Imbalance can be seen as the essential Bereishit – the unbroken rhythm of the drums is matched by the dancers’ unabashed physical control, a mix of artistry and urban coolness and both reflects and transcends their traditions.
The other piece being performed at The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi on 28 November is Judo, a kinetic piece on the symbolic and practical meaning of sport in general as an outlet for and controller of the aggressive instincts inside all of us. Judo’s choreography, which is performed on an actual stadium mat, draws on patterns, rhythm, movements inspired by judo to bring the audience closer to the tension and the catharsis of the game.
So what will the Abu Dhabi audience take away from the programme? “The work reflects the lives of me and the dancers, and the emotional intensity of the individual,” says Soon-ho. “It is also a way of expressing our company in society and communicating with others. I think that the first performance in Abu Dhabi will be worth seeing because it is our first chance to communicate those emotions.
“We communicate normally through five senses. The audience will experience unfamiliar ways of communication. However, unfamiliar ways of communication sometimes awaken the instinct of inspiration. I hope it will be a time to experience these qualities that we have forgotten.”
Here’s Jong-Ho Lee again with a last word: “Believing that the sound can touch the heart, expressing the sound as movement and seizing the subtle bodily rhythm in the works, he is the choreographer who makes the eyes and ears of the audience open and makes them share all the sentiments on stage”. This evening should be a spectacular demonstration of what makes dance so exciting and so relevant.
Balance and Imbalance and Judo are being performed back to back at The Arts Center on Wednesday 28 November. Tickets are AED 100 (AED 50 if you’re under 22). More information, including trailers for both dances, is here.