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'Ilmu' puts contemporary spin on Joseon royal ancestral rites

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : April 30, 2023 - 19:37

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Male dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre rehearse Male dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre rehearse "Ilmu" at the Sejong Center on Tuesday. (SMDT)

The Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre is set to perform its iconic repertoire “Ilmu” at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts from May 25-28.

Premiered in 2022, the performance directed by Jung Ku-ho, is a modern reinterpretation of a traditional dance inspired by Jongmyo Jeryeak, a royal ceremonial performance encompassing singing, music and dance that took place during ancestral rites held at Jongmyo Shrine. Tablets of Joseon kings and queens are preserved at the shrine. Jongmyo Jeryeak is an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Korea, as well as being on the UNESCO heritage list.

A total of 55 dancers will dance in unison, showcasing the balance and harmony embedded in the classic Joseon court dance.

Jung and the other creative directors of "Ilmu" described the choreography of the city dance troupe's repertoire as a creative reinterpretation, not a reenactment.

This year's production has been reorganized into a four-act performance from the previous three-act show. Redundant scenes from Acts 1 and 2 were scrapped and an entirely new piece, "Jungmu," has been added as Act 3. The performance concludes with "New Ilmu" as the final Act 4.

Dancers and creative directors of Dancers and creative directors of "Ilmu" pose for a group photo after a rehearsal at the Sejong Center on Tuesday. (SMDT)
Male dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre rehearse Male dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre rehearse "Ilmu" at the Sejong Center on Tuesday. (SMDT)

During a rehearsal at the Sejong Center on Tuesday that was open to the press, 18 male dancers performed “Mumu” from the first act.

“Ilmu” is traditionally composed of two dances: “Munmu,” a dance honoring the cultural virtues of ancestors that is accompanied by the music of botaepyeong, and “Mumu” which praises ancestors' martial arts with jeongdaeeop music.

“This year, we changed the costumes to bright orange from dark red (which was closer to tradition),” said Jung during a press conference held after the rehearsal.

“I wanted a symbolic yet trendy color to have a contemporary edge and seeing the color today, I am satisfied. Usually, when we think of military officers, they are serious and rigid but I wanted to break away from that idea,” said Jung, who is also a well-known fashion designer.

The music has also been transformed from the original grand music, choreographer-composer Kim Jae-duk, also the artistic director of Modern Table, a contemporary dance company, explained.

“I focused on what instruments to take out to give a minimalist feel. Cello and contrabass were added, as well as a synthesizer to give a hybrid feeling,” Kim said.

Female dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre rehearse Female dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre rehearse "Chunaengmu" at the Sejong Center on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

During the rehearsal, 24 female dancers performed “Chunaengmu” from the second act. Originally a solo court dance created by Crown Prince Hyomyeong and presented to Queen Sunwon on the occasion of her birthday in 1828, it has been transformed into a group dance.

“The overall theme of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre's ‘Ilmu’ comes from its meaning -- ‘to dance in unison,’” said choreographer Jung Hye-jin, also the artistic director of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre. “That is why we transformed ‘Chunaengmu’ into a group dance.”

“In fact, it requires a lot of energy to perform the same movement in sync,” added Jung. “But this kind of group dance shows how we humble ourselves to put our hearts together toward a common goal.”

Female dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre rehearse Female dancers of the Seoul Metropolitan Dance Theatre rehearse "Chunaengmu" at the Sejong Center on Tuesday. (SMDT)

While “Jungmu” was not shown during the rehearsal, the directors explained that it will feature some 40 poles symbolizing a bamboo forest with the male dancers performing between the poles holding a 7-meter rods.

“Bamboo symbolizes uprightness and royalty. … Although the tempo isn’t fast, the dance requires extreme discipline,” said Jung Ku-ho. “Act 1 and 2 are more on the traditional side while Act 4 is completely contemporary. We wanted a kind of ‘tense’ stepping stone bridging from the traditional to the contemporary.”

Starting his career as a fashion designer, director Jung has expanded his field into working as a film art and stage director.

His previous works, including “Mukhyang” (2013), “Hyangyeon” (2015) and “Sanjo” (2021), received rave reviews from critics for infusing modern aesthetics into traditional dance.

“My goal has been to show how modern and contemporary a traditional dance can become,” said director Jung. “In that process of evolution, ’Ilmu’ is the most contemporary work yet of my career.”

Discussions are underway to organize performances of “Ilmu” at the Lincoln Center in New York later this year, according to SMDT.