Kim So Ra – Janggu drummer with dancers Kim Young Mi and Hong Kyeong Hwa and musicians Hyun Seung Hun and Hong Ji Hye
Jangdan: Conversation of the Breath
Part of National Sawdust’s Digital Discovery Festival.
Online premiere 11 February 2021. Available online.
Traditional Korean folkloric music can be wonderfully improvisational, so it can be hard for a non-specialist to know exactly what is innovative within the tradition. That’s no impediment to enjoying the music that Kim So Ra, a virtuoso on the two-sided hourglass drum, the janggu, and two fellow musicians create in Jangdan: Conversation of the Breath, and the three striking, surprising, and beautiful dance solos from two Korean modern dancers in this nearly hour-long video, part of National Sawdust’s Digital Discovery Festival, in partnership with the Korean Cultural Center New York.
National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is an experimental music venue; its Digital Discovery Festival offerings sometimes combine music with dance. Kim So Ra “is known for her genre-bending performances, combining Korean traditional sounds with creative, charismatic and modern interpretations.” Jangdan: Conversation of the Breath begins with Kim’s percussion – her traditional drum and a couple of cymbals – and Hong Ji Hye playing a saenghwang (a mouth organ with graduated pipes, like a Chinese sheng). It has a different tones, with which Hong makes small shifts against Kim’s rhythms. Then percussionist Hyun Seung Hun with metal gongs joins Kim on gong and janggu for a very spirited rhythmic exploration.
Kim So Ra speaks briefly, explaining the connection of the music and dance, and about 15 minutes in we see “Nomadic,” with Kim Young Mi, seated on a white floor, shrouded in a crumpled white cloth. Her movements are within this cloth as she slowly rises – the music is quiet and tinkly, which suits her slow evolution. Sometimes she startles up, or down, occasionally revealing her face. Sometimes you can feel her breath as she shifts her body. Her movements are often slow, with some sudden ones making intriguing contrasts. She sheds her cloth and we see her dance, with striking authority, in black with a pleated green underskirt. Her hands join and signal, her arms flare up. There’s an air of quiet mystery and a slightly awkward grace. It’s quiet when she picks up her full-sleeved shroud, moves with it, and swirls it around herself, enclosed once more, arms out.
Kim So Ra, in green shirt and white pants, then begins a drum solo, slowly hitting the heads of her drum, speeding up, slowing, speeding up hypnotically, before slowing and then speeding into another rhythm. Her arms and small sticks move quickly from one white drumhead to the other. They are tied together by red ropes above the wooden hourglass shape. The shifts from slow to quick are alluring and virtuosic.
Choreographer Kim Young Mi speaks, in Korean, with subtitles, about what Korean modern dance’s identity is. “Slow and Serene” is her dance to Kim So Ra’s drumming. Kim Young Mi is seated, wearing a loose and interesting striated gray dress over a black turtleneck. She holds a long-stemmed white flower. Her moves again are slow and deliberate, with sudden, intriguing quick changes. She rises, pulls her dress up, revealing a red underskirt. Her flower becomes an underarm corsage, a dagger, a pelvic center, a wand. She seems to make magic with it, before laying it down. Now she dances quickly, wrapping up her dress or releasing it, hopping, swirling, edging slowly around. Her arms are graceful or assertive. All the while Kim So Ra continues her rhythms. Kim Young Mi matches them with angled or shifting moves, before kneeling and grasping her flower, returning it to her lap as she sits and signals, looks up expectantly, then sadly down.
Hong Ji Hye and Kim So Ra, both in white, sit across from each other. Hong plays a small bamboo reed flute, the piri. Between them we see Hong Kyeong Hwa, seated, her whole body, including her face, covered in an elastic blue-gray shroud with arms, which she manipulates into symmetrical forms, becoming another creature to the changing flute tones, shrill or softer, and drumbeats. She rises and stands. Her top is shrouded, her legs are in black pants. She is a strange, face-shrouded creature, mobile and shifting, crouching, extending an elastic sleeve, rising, her body curving and curling. Kneeling, she begins to reveal the top of her head, then her face. She is a dancing, bucking human, using her arms to rapidly signal and slash. Seated, she seems to cower before shrouding her head again, returning to the shape-shifter she was at the beginning.
Kim So Ra speaks again in English, smiling as she tells us to keep supporting each other. Hyun Seung Hun joins her with his drum, a large wooden round with white drumheads tied together with white ropes. His stick is large; Kim So Ra has a thin stick and a soft brush. They make interlocking rhythms together, exchanging beats and tones, sometimes looking at each other as if wondering what the other will do. Hyun closes his eyes as the rhythm speeds up. Rhythms change and develop. As they speed into a climax, the drummers look ecstatic. The music is ecstatic, too.