The Korea Herald


Reinterpretation of 'Chun-hyang' embraces modern style in traditional Korean dance

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : May 9, 2023 - 19:55

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Dancers rehearse Dancers rehearse "Chun-hyang" (Jeongdong Theater)

The National Jeongdong Theater of Korea is set to open the season with “Chun-hyang: Bird with Broken Wings.”

Initially scheduled for a 2022 premiere, it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Chun-hyang” is a modern retelling of the 17th-century Korean folk tale which was orally handed down through the pansori “Chunhyangga.” It tells about the love story between Seong Chun-hyang, the daughter of a retired courtesan, and Yi Mong-ryong, the son of a nobleman.

The tale is reconstructed in a first-person narrative from the perspective of 16-year-old Chun-hyang, portraying her as an independent character who confronts power, yearns for freedom and overcomes societal oppression.

Choreographer Lee Gyu-un from Jeongdong Theater’s Arts Troupe has teamed up with director Roh Woo-sung, known for directing musicals such as “The Eyes of Dawn” and “Dracula,” to present the timeless love story through a unique combination of Korean traditional dance with Jeongdong Theater’s percussion team. Five traditional percussion players will accompany the dance scenes to create a dynamic and immersive performance.

Dancers Cho Ha-neul and Jeon Jin-hong rehearse Dancers Cho Ha-neul and Jeon Jin-hong rehearse "Chun-hyang" (Jeongdong Theater)

“The story of Chun-hyang has been loved for a very long time and the power of the storytelling still resonates with today’s audience,” said Roh in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“The audience is already familiar with the plot, so we decided to focus more on Chun-hyang’s inner self and how her emotions and will are expressed through gestures and dance movements.”

Roh also said the phrase “bird with broken wings” refers to both Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong.

“(They) grew up in completely different environments,” said Roh. “But both are victims of society’s confines. Chun-hyang is the daughter of a gisaeng who longs for freedom under the strict social hierarchy. Mong-ryong was born into a wealthy yangban family. But he, too, is bound by rules and cannot do anything unless he passes the state exam,” Roh explained.

Dancers Cho Ha-neul and Jeon Jin-hong rehearse Dancers Cho Ha-neul and Jeon Jin-hong rehearse "Chun-hyang" (Jeongdong Theater)

According to Roh, the highlight of the performance is the “Four Pyeong of Freedom” scene, where the couple’s love is portrayed through delicate and intimate dance movements.

“The dance will be tender yet express powerful emotions. It is ironic that it was only in that small room that the two could truly ‘see’ each other without the shackles of society,” said Roh.

Dancers Cho Ha-neul and Jeon Jin-hong, performing as Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong respectively, will dance the duet scene while wearing blindfolds as a symbolic representation of their shackles.

Lee and Roh said that they have been discussing how to strike a balance between what is traditional and Korean, and what is modern and contemporary.

Dancers rehearse Dancers rehearse "Chun-hyang" (Jeongdong Theater)

“In the early stages of the production, we talked about our own interpretations and coordinated on how to execute them into dance and theater,” said Lee.

“In the end, we decided to focus on the essence of Korean traditional dance in the movements, and the rest is made as modern as possible so that the audience can intuitively understand the emotions and the messages.”

The choreographer explained that the main characters will express their inner emotions and story while the ensemble’s group dance will portray the atmosphere of the scene.

The soundtrack, composed by Kang Hak-sun, features a mix of traditional and Western instruments that create a jazz, rock and musical-esque ambiance. Still, the traditional instruments will play the main melody, said Roh.

Additionally, the stage structure of the Jeongdong Theater has been taken into consideration and LED panels have been laid on the floor.

“(The theater) has a structure in which the audience looks down from above, so the floor is seen very well. We have incorporated LED screens on the floor for a more dramatic production,” said Roh.