The acclaimed Korean dancer and choreographer Eun-me Ahn has apparently earned the nickname “techno-shaman” for weaving an appreciation of traditional Korean religious practices together with avant-garde experimentalism, day-glo colour and banging electronica. Let Me Change Your Name, staged as part of this year’s Dance Umbrella, gave us all this, with both barrels. It left her six dancers looking shattered. But the point of it all remained frustratingly elusive.
It started sedately enough, with the three men and three women emerging in stretchy black dresses, solemnly setting up movements that were repeated through this 80-minute piece: throwing themselves down into sweeping slides, propelled by one arm at a time; one dancer lying on his back and kicking across the floor, as if swimming; supine dancers hauled upright by one arm and bounced into the air.
Then Ahn, shaven headed, appeared, moving with trance-like deliberation. And as if she were a shaman-priest, initiating a ritual, the dancers began to reappear in an array of E-number-coloured dresses. These were soon being whipped off, flung around, exchanged for equally bright skirts – shed like candy wrappers and picked up by other dancers, while the stage was washed in equally eye-scorching colours.
Amid this bustling, frequently bare-chested activity the dancers appeared defiant, coy, flirty, adopting runway struts, insouciantly flicking up their skirts and throwing out cool glances.
Young-gyu Jang’s shifting soundtrack, full of techno squawks and glitches, was merciless: it included, at different points, sung notes manipulated into vibrato drones, something akin to electronic beatboxing, and, most painfully, what sounded like an internet dial-up connection tone on an eternal loop.
Ahn’s interventions, thankfully, brought some moments of silence. For one sequence, she started moving across the stage towards us in a pop/lock-style choreography of isolations, but kept being pushed back by successive dancers and becoming increasingly, loosely funky each time she restarted her journey. (Later, bare-chested and in a long white skirt, she collected discarded dresses and squatted over the bundle, which was just frankly disturbing.)
The programme note stated this piece questioned identity and the place of individuals in modern society – was the clothing so casually swapped and tossed aside amid the dancers’ frantic whirl representing those identities, cast off and on in an anything-goes social-media age? Hard to say. A Bauschian indulgence had crept into the piece (Ahn and Pina Bausch were great friends) and whatever Ahn’s point was, it certainly wasn’t robust enough to make 1 hour, 20 minutes feel meaningful.
Back in black, the dancers started a synchronised spinning and telegraphing of arms that suggested a desperate attempt to get a message across. The fact that they and Ahn didn’t succeed was partially mitigated by their fierce commitment and jaw-dropping stamina. They reached peak frenzy in the final throws of the piece, making joyous swooping runs, throwing in jive moves and cartoonish capering, and grinning unabashedly. But as we had not really been invited to see much beyond a high-gloss surface, it was hard to share their exhilaration.