There’s something contemporary about traditional Korea

Written by on November 7, 2011 in Arts, Korea Abroad

* This post is written by Elizabeth Shim for the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

Gwanggaeto Samulnori, a traditional Korean farmer's dance performed by four percussionists

Gwanggaeto Samulnori, a traditional Korean farmer’s dance performed by four percussionists

Across the arc of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, tiers of seats are ablaze with enthusiasm for the performance on stage. The audience is connected to the dance and drum beats reverberating throughout the concert hall, as four men reenact a traditional Korean farmer’s dance. People are tapping their feet, clapping their hands.

It’s a lively, festive affair, and the energy is infectious. Even the most stoic observer can’t seem to sit still. But this is what gugak, or Korean traditional music is all about – the bond between performer and audience, as the performer sends his message to the spectators, and they send his energy back to him with genuine applause. In other words, Korean musicians don’t perform in an isolated vacuum. If 21stcentury social networks like Twitter and Facebook are notable for their peer-to-peer engagement, it’s no exaggeration to say social networking or community and togetherness in traditional Korea was borne out of its music, a crowd-sourced art form that requires audience participation.

Kim Myo-sun performs the Salpuri Chum

Kim Myo-sun performs the Salpuri Chum

Lee Chun-Hee and Lee Yeon-hwa perform a song from Gyeonggi province

Lee Chun-Hee and Lee Yeon-hwa perform a song from Gyeonggi province

The 2011 Korean Traditional Arts Festival on June 25 marked the 61st anniversary of the Korean War (1950-1953). It was also a celebration that transported viewers to a Korea of bygone days. Across a dozen acts, the audience was able to experience first-hand the rituals and rites, the storytelling and entertainment that defined the culture of Joseon period (1392-1910) Korea. The showcase ranged from the exuberant drumbeats and metal gongs that underscored the Gwanggaeto Samulnori, or traditional farmer’s dance, to the sweet melancholy of a shamanistic dance solo, or Salpuri Chum, beautifully expressed by Kim Myo-sun, a National Living Treasure of the Republic of Korea. From start to finish, the show was a moving museum of images, sounds, and Korean sentiments that resonated with the audience.

Young members of the New York Traditional Marching Band

Young members of the New York Traditional Marching Band

Lim Lee Jo performs the Hallyangmu dance

Lim Lee Jo performs the Hallyangmu dance

Performers, both Korean and Korean American, presented a united front in their dedication to their art form. The New York Traditional Marching Band, composed of Korean American schoolchildren ages 10 to 15, gave the performance a local flavor. The children synchronized various drums that crescendoed with youthful energy and fervor, as if they were playing improvised tunes etched into their collective hearts. Shin Young-Hee, a critically acclaimed singer of pansori, or traditional storytelling through song and instrumental accompaniment, was also a crowd favorite. Her charismatic and humorous tale of the brothers Heungbu and Nolbu, an allegory of the power of good deeds, brought continuous chuckles from the Korean audience.

The evening brought together Koreans and Korean culture enthusiasts under one roof, as well as septuagenarian members of the Korean War Veterans Association (KWVA) and their families, who were the guests of honor that evening. The performance closed with the Ganggangsullae, a 5,000-year-old Korean dance that expressed community solidarity and hope for a good harvest. Members of the audience joined in, including a handful of Korean War veterans, who seemed quite charmed to take part in the on-stage celebration. Performers and spectators encircled the stage of Alice Tully Hall in a convivial gesture of friendship, as they laughed and danced one last time.

So was it a typical evening at a classical music venue? Hardly. But was there interactivity and heartwarming Korean-style togetherness? Absolutely.

Performers and audience conclude the evening with the Ganggangsullae, a 5,000-year-old Korean dance that expresses hope for a good harvest

Performers and audience conclude the evening with the Ganggangsullae, a 5,000-year-old Korean dance that expresses hope for a good harvest

For more information about the annual Korean Traditional Arts Festival, please see the Traditional Arts Society of Korea website: http://task-us.org/

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Starting in May 2011, we have been the first class of the Korean Cultural Service New York’s cultural reporters to help promote the uniqueness of Korean culture to New York City -- the world’s cultural hub. As cultural reporters in New York City, we first take on challenges and initiatives to report about dynamic Korean culture to the metropolitan area, but we project that we will eventually reach beyond just New Yorkers to raise awareness about Korean culture to the world.