Saturday, April 26, 2014

Performers in Modern Day Society

Adam Glassman, a recent graduate of Grinnell College where he studied Theatre and Dance, gave an impressive presentation on "Traditions through Change: The Role of Performance in Modern Society". His focus in theater is as a director, and his work mainly deals with ending the audience-performs relationship barrier and further studying the consciousness shifting for creating new rituals to reflect life in modern society. He has spent time traveling and learning shamanic and modern performance techniques in countries like India, Tibet and Japan, among others. With his research efforts in South Korea, he hopes to fuse lessons learned from different training methods and lifestyles to create a new type of modern performer.

Abstract of his presentation:

"South Korea stands as a country where digital billboards and cutting edge technology exist side by side with an emerging break dancing movement, a massive market for Broadway productions as well as ancient shamanic rituals. Whereas many nations stamp out such parts of society in an attempt to become 'modern', South Korea has taken a unique path where performance and face-to-face interaction remains an everyday part of society. In my project I work, train and, at times, live with these dancers, performers and shaman (called mudang) to learn what the role of the performer is in South Korean society and why performance has remained so integral to Korean life. I will recount my experiences of staying and living with mudang, training with K-pop choreographers, and share interviews with arts administrators from different parts of Seoul. By taking a broad and immersive approach to the project, I can draw similarities and recurring themes that define the way performance and live action define South Korean life. In turn, I hope to take these lessons and training methods back to the United States to create a new method of training and a new style of performance. Basing many of my new ideas off of the shamanic gut (Korean mudang rituals often translated loosely as exorcism), I hope to discover how live performance does more for us than entertain, and further hope to define the true role and need for the performer in modern society."

Why Korea?

Korea has a very unique history of theater, particularly in regard to three aspects: stage, actors and audience. Traditionally performances were held on unusual stages, or rather arenas or in streets, in houses, yards or at seasides. The stages were not elevated to be above the audience but to be on the same plane with the audience because the performers, who also functioned as actors, interacted with the audience and the audience was expected to talk, dance, even shout in ardent interactions with the performer-actors. The separation of the audience and performers by a barrier didn't in fact take place in Korea until the Japanese colonial period when the Japanese sought to use the performers to relate propaganda to the audience while curbing the spontaneity and interaction between the traveling performer-actors, who could also be delivering information to the audience.

Another reason Adam Glassman desired to do research in Korea is to take a closer look at the unique style of shamanism practiced in South Korea. There are many shamans in the country, and they are not in many regards respected but then they are not ostracized or vilified either. While scientific studies have greatly reduced the amount of beliefs in spiritualism and superstitions in Korea, businessmen still seek out mudang for good luck ceremonies in their private businesses, mothers still buy Buddhist talismans wishing luck for their children to pass exams, and housewives still pay for over-the-mantel "prayer" papers ensuring health in new homes and hanging bamboo on the northern walls to fend off evil which is believed to come from that direction. In fact, more than 40,000 shamans are registered in Korea although it is believed that the number is much higher for many shaman have not registered for whatever reason.

Curiously, the mudang are categorized as cultural treasures. Although many people believe the mudang inhibit the firm step into modernism, the government has declared them as national heritages, and especially so since many government officials go to them for beneficial ceremonies themselves.

Unlike other dance performances in other countries, in the Korean traditional ceremonies and shamanic performance conducted by the mudang, the audience is always present. The performance of the mudang is to empty one's self from their body and become a vessel for a "ghost". They dance around and do odd actions. A drummer drums for hours before a possession and ritualistic clothing and symbols are worn or waved around to entice and invite the spirits. The concept of "mu" is the idea of a collective Korean subconsciousness and has heavy connotations. The idea of facilitate or "punryuu" is apparent, and the drumming and dancing facilitate the invisible connection that happens when people meet, and this is the main goal and interaction of the mudang, to let the individual and the spirit world meet. For this reason, business owners are the main patrons of mudang as the businessmen need their businesses purified of evil presence, and the mudang dancing and interacting with the spirit world accompanied by the incessant drumming clear the evil spirits and are thought to revitalize the business. During the gut, something amazing happens which proves the presence of the spirits and during the dancing that channels the sprites, a lot of improvision happens under "possession".

Other kinds of performances

Talchu or Korean mask dance. Again, this is a communal performance, and audience and the performers have moments when they dance together. The dancing is spontaneous and non-choreographed, and as everyone dances together, it's like sharing one large group hug. Everyone feels kind of healed at the end of the performance and even the gods are happy.

Nanta is a South Korean comedy cooking show that employs samulnori or farmer dance rhythms. The mostly non-verbal performance has been taken to 18 countries and even enjoyed a year (2004-2005) in an off Broadway show. It still runs in Korea, and three theaters on mainland South Korea and one theater in Jeju hold the performance even today. Most Koreans, mainly because of its international popularity which has increased its domestic popularity, know of or have seen this performance. Even though its stage is non-traditional and the actors perform on an elevated stage, the audience is still expected to interact in not only words, even those lustily shouted, but some members of the audience are dragged onto the stage to be an actual part of the performance. Nanta is a modern-day show that creates communal excitement and interaction, and so this unusual South Korean performance is an eclectic blend of a modern stage but with the Korean concept of highly charged actors who perform as well as interact with the audience.

The street dance movement is taking off in South Korea. Unlike North and South America and other countries that have a history of street dancing, Korea cannot boast of such a history. However, Koreans are embracing the movement and are very good in their performances. Similar to Korean traditional street performances, street dancing and break dancing are performed with a lot of communal interactions. The audience is not sitting but standing and gathering around, watching, cheering, and even members of the audience challenging the performers and showing their own alternative moves.

Case Study: Living with a Mudang

Adam for a time lived with a mudang. Most mudang are women, especially in the more traditional society; however, in these modern times, more men have entered the "profession" and for several months Adam lived with and studied under Gum-gang, a male shaman who didn't only practice shamanic rituals but also prescribed and brewed traditional medicines and practiced traditional healing rituals.

Some traditional medicines Adam learned about were that homemade remedies with persimmon help alleviate diarrhea, plum juice clears cold and kills soar throat, while sujunggwa (a cinnamon blended drink) helps with blood flow, circulation and clears the sinuses. He learned about hyol cheol'li or the death points in the body (a total of 24). By massaging them ki or energy can be released, but hitting them really hard could cause unconsciousness or even death.

Two examples Adam shared concerned himself and his regard of the legitimacy of the mudang as a viable practitioner of medicine concerned accupressure that the shaman performed on Adam. The mudang was demonstrating deep-massage techniques to Adam on various parts of the body and hit on a tiny spot that hurt Adam severely between his toes. The shaman informed Adam that the spot revealed that Adam had been drinking a lot the previous day, which was true. Another more meaningful revelation using accupressure was on another day when the shaman hit a spot the size of a tiny pin head that was extremely painful to Adam. Again the shaman had an explanation; he said that Adam had been overweight as a child, again it was true but this time Adam was very amazed because the shaman could not have known in any way that Adam had fought obesity as a child and teenager.

What Adam learned from his time with the mudang is that shamans are friends, guides, mentors, counselors and care-givers. They have many roles, but the majority of them employ a familiar interaction with the people they seek to heal, be it through a gut ceremony, medicines or therapy healings or in any other interaction. This time taught him that shamans ... as well as the performers in Nanta, street dances, etc in Korea ... reach out to people and "help" them, improve their conditions, and by giving something of themselves to people they are creating a better and more cohesive community because they invoke a kind of metaphysical healing to society.

A quote from Oh Tae'Sok, one of Korea's most popular theatrical writers:

"Our theatrical traditions never had any fixed forms, as do Japan's noh and kabuki theaters. In Japan the performer enters the structure of a form at an early age and then moves on to develop his own artistry in it. Well, then, why don't we have such forms? Wouldn't it have been nice if we had a similarly formalized tradition? But listen to Korean music and its changdan (rhythmic patterns). It never keeps the same beat. Our tradition has always avoided set forms. It has descended to us not in a fixed-sate, but in an ever-flowing fashion. Our tradition has grown spontaneously. It constantly changes, reflecting current situations because it is innately fluid." Oh Tae'Sok

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