KISAENG BECOMES YOU and $20 UP FRONT

(photo by Mr. Ng, from NYTimes)

I’ve got to go to small, experimental dance performances more often. It really is where much of the groundbreaking work happens these days.

I recently went to see Kisaeng becomes you at Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea, with Claudia La Rocco’s WNYC performance club. Kisaeng is a collaboration between experimental dance-maker Dean Moss and Korean choreographer Yoon Jin Kim and it explores, through movement, multimedia, and spoken word the lives of the kisaeng, women courtesans in Korea from the 10th Century on, who were, kind of like Japanese Geisha, well-trained in poetry and the arts and existing for the entertainment of Korean aristocracy.

What was really novel here, I felt, was the choreographers’ use of audience members. Apparently, they asked three women and one man in the lobby before the performance if they would participate in the production, without telling them what their roles would be. There are five professional female performers depicting the kisaeng (and, by the way, all were costumed in contemporary clothing — pants and t-shirts, etc.). The dance opens with one of them piercing her skin with a needle, and embroidering her palm with thread — very difficult to watch. This was live-videoed and projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage so you couldn’t help but watch. At the same time, another dancer takes center stage and opens her mouth, Scream-like, bending her neck far backward so she’s looking up toward the ceiling, like frantically crying out, or yearning for more. Several other dancers follow her, and soon all five are making that same, rather haunting movement.

Soon, that distressing undercurrent is broken and the women start laughing and chatting, and one comes into the audience and pulls up the first female non-professional, who happens to be an older woman. They take her center stage and teach her a movement phrase — she stands behind a performer and holds her arms out to the sides in the same line as the performer, then circles around the performer three times, looking at her. Then, the performer drops her sash, and the non-pro-performer picks it up and holds it to her cheek. Of course you don’t know why she’s learning these movements, so they’re rather funny — and the performers are hilarious in their giddy applause when the non-pro-performer does something right. But when the lights are dimmed and the music is turned on and wig placed atop the non-pro-performer’s head– and “the performance proper” begins — you see what’s going on: the older woman is looking at the younger, as if she’s looking at herself, reflecting back on her youth. The young woman throws her sash down, angry — at her station in life, perhaps?, the sadness of her situation?, her inability to connect meaningfully with her patrons? —  and the older grabs it, picks it up and brushes it against her face, like she misses that life, even if it wasn’t all that. It’s sad. Then, one of the performers speaks into the ear of the non-pro-performer via a little portable earpiece they’ve connected to her ear, and she recites several lines of poetry about forced love and false connections that the program notes state are actual poetry written by the kisaeng themselves.

After this segment ends, the dancers take the stage again, all with their mouths open Scream-like, heads bent back dramatically, faces toward the ceiling. This was a recurring theme. The image is harrowing and it wouldn’t leave my mind.

A video is shown of a man being interviewed — this I now know is the non-pro-performer they plucked from the lobby. I can’t remember exactly what it was about, but I think it was about his relationship with someone he met while in a foreign country, a frivolous little affair he had.

Next, Janis Joplin music is played and two of the dancers look out to the audience, breaking the fourth wall. As they move, they smile brightly and welcomingly, like (to me, though no one else in the performance club saw this) contemporary Asian mail-order brides who are trying to be pleasing to their new “owners.” But you can tell the happiness is false, forced, and at parts, those happy-faced facades shatter and the women are “real,” their faces turning suddenly serious, unsmiling, utterly dejected, almost frightfully so. Here, Ji Sun Kwen completely blew me away with her changing facial expressions — the way she went from pleasing to despondent was just bewildering.

There was another dance segment where the dancers kind of played with a microphone — one grabbing it and nearly sucking on it. At first I thought that was supposed to be evocative of Janis Joplin but then she placed it between her legs bottom-up and wobbled around gorilla-like, so I realized it was supposed to be sexual — a play on masculinity and feminity and sexually-ascribed gender roles and all that.

Then the atmosphere changes again and the dancers pull out a video-recorder, anxious to live-project another little “movie” using more audience members. They pluck two young women from the audience. When they do so, they act as if the women are long-lost friends. “HIIIIII!” they shout out, jumping up and down and giggling. The women non-pros kind of laugh nervously, and go along with it. To one woman they give the videorecorder, asking her to tape them laughing and frolicking and kind of hanging out with each other and the other woman audience member. They have a beer party, everyone sitting on the floor chugging beers, like men, locking elbows at one point and chugging the beer from around the other’s arm — kind of frat-boy-like. (The performance club actually discussed, afterward, at a nearby French restaurant, whether the alcohol was real — I thought it wasn’t, but others noticed how it frothed at the top, like real beer). Well, they chugged several, so I would have been a bit out of it if I was that audience member! Then, they stood and did a little social dance, and recited some literature — in Korean — laughing wildly, having a great time.  But it was all very masculine.

At the end, they led the audience member with the recorder to the audience member without, place them center stage together. Another earpiece is placed into the ear of the woman without the recorder and a dancer who takes on the role of “director”  again whispers in her ear, both directions and words of poetry she is to recite (about love and connection, I think — I was focusing more on the visuals than the words, honestly). The “director” tells the woman without the recorder to take the recorder from the other woman, which she does. So, now they stand simply regarding each other, for a while, what seem to be a couple of minutes. Then, the one begins reciting poetry to the other, as dictated into her earpiece. Finally, the first woman (the one who didn’t have the recorder) is told to take the recorder and go sit offstage, in the dark, with the other performers, leaving the woman who’d had the recorder to stand alone in the spotlight. She looks out at the audience and laughs nervously. She looks around for direction, and the “director” motions to her to stay in place, which she does, laughing nervously from time to time, until the lights slowly go down.

I thought this was really interesting: the one with the recorder — the voyeur — ended up being the one looked at. And she was definitely uncomfortable, kind of shrugging and not knowing what to do. I thought this would have been really interesting if she was a man, though, since the courtesans were trained to entertain men. The man would have become the watched, the entertainer, a more total role reversal.

The program notes also state that the work seeks to examine human connection through internet social networking, like that on Facebook. I didn’t see that as clearly; it was more about gender relations to me. But read what other performace clubbers thought here. And read Claudia’s NYTimes review here.

Because it’s kind of related — especially since I met this artist on Facebook — I’ll write here about a 15-minute dance piece I saw last night, $20 Up Front. It was choreographed and danced by Julie Fotheringham at Dance New Amsterdam. It was a comical but thought-provoking take on strip dancing. She was the only performer, except for a musician (Jarryd Lowder) providing a live techno soundscape, situated off to the side of the stage. She set up a video camera which projected onto a screen, showing her as she put on makeup and primped herself to go onstage. Then, she’d walk over to a chair, a few feet from the video screen, where the customer would be sitting, and bump and grind. At first her hip swaying was loose and slinky and sexy. But then she became robotic, her pelvic swirls would stop every couple seconds and she’d seem to have difficulty resuming, like a tin man who needs to be oiled. At first it was disconcerting and then it became rather amusing. Eventually, she got back into the flow of it, as a robotic voice called out from the speakers “I want to f— you” and other vulgar things, which were also rather funny because of the unreal, machine-like quality of the voice. To me, it was using humor to show how inauthentic and lacking in human connection stripping ultimately is.

Afterward (there were three other short pieces by other choreographers, but I’d gone to see Julie’s), the curator spoke to the artists. Fotheringham said she’d worked in Vegas — in Cirque du Soleil, not as a stripper — where she made a good living, but decided to come to New York to make art. She took up go-go dancing to pay the bills (two nights a week pays more than a full-time day job!) to support her art, and there got the idea for this piece. She said she’s disturbed by the objectification of women’s bodies but is all the same fascinated by the interplay between men and women at these clubs.

Anyway, I’m not sure exactly when either dance is showing again, but if and when they do, I recommend both.

4 Comments

  1. I love your description of the first audience member's role, your sense of it shifting from humor to something stranger and sadder.

    This is an impossible question to answer, of course, but I wonder how you as an audience member would have reacted (emotionally, not just intellectually, which you get at a bit in your writing) had the final audience member on stage been male. How it would have hit you on a gut level, that is.

    For me it felt somehow right on a gut level that no men came on stage, other than the one video. There seemed to be a fourth wall only for men – I felt that I had access to those women, because of my gender. … So I guess I would like to know also how I would have reacted had the last participant been male!

    (hm… probably best not to leave comments when exhausted. but i hope you get my drift!)

  2. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thank you Claudia! That is a really interesting question, and it is hard to answer. I think it would have been really interesting to see how a man would react to having all eyes on him, to kind of have had the tables turned, so to speak, at least in the context of this work. I imagine he would have reacted much like the young woman we saw in our performance — laughing nervously, really wanting to get offstage and actually trying to at one point, and having to be told no, stay on till we say. That lack of control over the process — she was cute and just kind of laughed and shrugged her shoulders, but I feel like a man may have reacted differently, and it would have been interesting to see. Of course it all depends on the individual person. That's still probably more of an intellectual, rather than emotional response, though, right?

    I'm so glad you suggested this dance. Two of the best performance pieces I've seen — this and The Shipment — have been with your performance club.

  3. SwanLakeSambaGirl

    Thank you Claudia! That is a really interesting question, and it is hard to answer. I think it would have been really interesting to see how a man would react to having all eyes on him, to have had the tables turned, so to speak, at least in the context of this work. I imagine he would have reacted much like the young woman we saw in our performance — laughing nervously, really wanting to get offstage and actually trying to at one point, and having to be told no, stay on till we say. That lack of control over the process, of being the entertainer instead of the entertained — she was cute and just kind of laughed and shrugged her shoulders, but I feel like a man may have reacted differently, and it would have been interesting to see. Of course it all depends on the individual person. That's still probably more of an intellectual, rather than emotional response, though, right?

    I'm so glad you suggested this dance. Two of the best performance pieces I've seen so far this year — this and The Shipment — have been with your performance club.

Comments are closed