Once upon a time, a long, long, time ago, there lived a poor old blind man and his daughter, Simcheong. Simcheong’s mother died shortly after giving birth, so Simcheong’s father raised his young daughter alone, receiving help from the kind people in the village. Simcheong grew up a good child, well mannered and very devoted to her father. As she grew older she became responsible for the household, but her respect and love for her father never wavered.
One day, Simcheong’s father was waiting for return from the village. However, he grew impatient and went out looking for her on his own. Hobbling, he slipped crossing a bridge and fell into a brook. A Buddhist monk who was passing by heard his cries and came to his aid. As Simcheong’s father thanked him profusely, the monk told him, “You are blind, but if you offer 300 seok of rice to Buddha, you will be blessed with sight again.” [Seok (석) is a unit for grains.] Simcheong’s father, who was flustered and grateful all at once, hastily promised the monk he would give the offering, but was deeply troubled when he returned home and thought over his promise.
Simcheong finds him in distress and tries to comfort him, but her father is not easily appeased and his unease continues in the days that follow. Being a dutiful daughter, Simcheong is as sad as her father. When she hears the news that boatmen are looking for a young girl to sacrifice to the god of the sea at any price, she offers herself readily. Rice is delivered to the temple and with her father’s future taken care of, Simcheong is carried away on the promised day by the boatmen, leaving grieving villagers and her father behind.
The boatmen are on their voyage when a storm arises. After a solemn ritual, they lead Simcheong to her place and after a prayer for her father, she plunges into the sea. The waves calm down as silent as the moon, and the boatmen give a toast in Simcheong’s honor and head off on their way. Simcheong falls into the cold waters but is surprised to find herself in a sort of paradise. She is taken to the underwater palace of the god of the South Sea, by order of the Jade Emperor, Ruler of the Heavens. Her integrity, devotion, and filial piety had deeply impressed him and he had her life spared.
In the meantime, the Emperor of the land lost his wife and buried his sorrow in his gardens, filled with all sorts of beautiful plants and flowers from all over the land. He awarded those who gave him rare specimens to add to his collection. The boatmen who frequented Simcheong’s village heard of this news and decided to present the Emperor with the giant lotus flower which had bloomed in the spot where Simcheong had sacrificed herself. The Emperor was entranced by the beauty of the giant lotus and placed it in his garden, admiring it endlessly. Then, one night, under a bright moon, he thought he heard noises from the flower, and discovered Simcheong sitting inside the petals. He was immediately taken by her beauty and was deeply moved by her story. He married her and Simcheong became Empress.
However, despite all her good fortune, Simcheong wasn’t truly happy. She was known and loved as a benevolent, kind, graceful Empress, but in her heart she always longed for her father. The Emperor learned of her heartache and arranged a festive gathering for all the blind men in the land. Every old blind man was invited to the palace for a feast. The day of the festivities, Simcheong went from table to table in search for her father. It was when she almost gave up when she heard the familiar voice of her father. She rushes over to him and exclaims her happiness to have found him, while he protests that he cannot be the father of the Empress. Simcheong desperately tells him that it is indeed true, and her father, in his great surprise, opens his eyes and sees his daughter for the first time.
And they live happily ever after.
That is my short version of the folk tale Simcheong (심청). It’s a story of devoted filial piety, that Confucian virtue which is the core of Korean family values, so it is a story which every Korean knows, a story which we hear while growing up. It is a story which has been told and retold a million times, in every shape and form of every kind of art possible, and if you’re Korean, which you have seen a million times, too. However, there are also interpretations which you don’t quite expect. Simcheong in traditional dance? Check. Simcheong in modern dance? Check. Simcheong in ballet? What? In hanbok? What, what? It would be like a “Snow White”, in European costumes, performing traditional Korean dance. How can you not see this when you have the chance?
So I took the chance. Universal Ballet Korea put on their version of Simcheong last week: “Shim Chung, A Legend from the Far East”. (Simcheong’s name’s romanization following the old system.) Because ballet cannot have unlimited time, the story unfolds like the one I told above. (The original story has more layers and is much longer.) It is interesting how non-verbal “western dance” ballet can convey a traditional Korean story without making it feel contrived.
It was, to put it mildly, a feast for the eyes. The village was the familiar Joseon era type Korea; the costumes, hanbok, from peasant to Emperor; the boat was swaying in the storm; the god of the sea’s underwater palace was dazzling; and the dancers, they eased their way between classical and modern ballet, with touches of traditional Korean dance thrown in here and there.
It was amazing how the hanbok wasn’t cumbersome for the dancers in their routines, on the contrary, in some cases, the colors and movement of the garment enhanced the choreography even more. The non-ballet moves certainly seemed more natural in the hanbok, while classical ballet movements shone in garments more fitted to the occasion, like the pas-de-deux. Simcheong growing up was done deftly, and I must say toddler Simcheong was incredibly adorable. (The whole audience went “Aaaawwww.”) Her father’s blindness was expressed skillfully as well.
The boat scene was my personal favorite. The boatmen’s and Simcheong’s anguish in the storm felt charged and real. (I also thought the boat captain and Simcheong had so much dance chemistry that if I were writing fanfic they would’ve eloped or something.) The group numbers in the sea palace reminded me of the “Nutcracker”, both in visuals and ambiance. The latter scenes at the royal palace were like a hanbok gala – such rich colors for royalty; but also very serene – dance in the moonlight.
Because it’s such a familiar story, the entire audience burst out in applause when Simcheong’s father opened his eyes, even though that action itself wasn’t a big dance number. I wondered how a mainly non-Korean audience would react. The celebration afterwards had all the mirth of a traditional Korean changgeuk (창극), a perfect ending for a happily ever after story.
I’d definitely recommend “Shim Chung” to anyone who is interested in Korean culture and dance. Although they did a short 3 day performance this time, “Shim Chung” is part of Universal Ballet’s regular repertoire and they go on world tours with this act. It’s a merge that is truly unique and worth seeing. The only downside I can mention is that the performance I saw did not have a live orchestra. I don’t know whether it was for this time only or if they have a live orchestra for their overseas performances, but you soon lose yourself in the dance so this can be overlooked in a way. I just think it’s a bit of a pity because the impact would be so much stronger had the music been live. Universal Ballet was established in 1984 and is considered the top ballet company along with the Korean National Ballet.
Come “Nutcracker” time, the question on ballet fans’ lips is usually, “Universal or National?” I usually decide based on the date, they’re really hard to compare when it’s the same ballet. Anyway, Universal Ballet has another traditional Korean folk tale on their repertoire as well: “Chunhyang” (춘향), the Korean “Romeo & Juliet”. I can say with conviction that after having seen “Shim Chung”, it’ll be a great ballet to see, too. I’m definitely going when they put that on stage.
- The story of Simcheong (Korean): http://youtu.be/ydShR8kOXOE
- Major characters in Korean folk tales: http://blog.korea.net/?p=9745
- Hyo (효), filial piety in Korea: http://blog.korea.net/?p=9392
- Flower of purity, the Lotus in Korean culture: http://blog.korea.net/?p=12059
- The traditional sounds and Han of “Seopyeonje” (changgeuk): http://blog.korea.net/?p=15354
- “Romeo & Juliet” from the Korean National Ballet: http://blog.korea.net/?p=14765