New Visions in Korean Dance: Kyoungil Ong and Hearan Chung create community and dances that inspire

By Emily Hite


Two major choreographic forces in the Bay Area’s Korean dance community offer their work to honor the 30th Anniversary of San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Festival this month. Weekend One presents OngDance Company, and Weekend Two hosts the Northern California Korean Dance Association (NCKDA). Led by two established women, Kyoungil Ong and Hearan Chung, respectively, these companies each contribute original choreography carrying a personal voice grounded in her heritage. By moving across the Pacific Ocean from Seoul, South Korea to create a home for their work in the Bay Area, these artists chose to both spread awareness of their national culture and open their intellectual and sensorial palettes to a variety of influences. The two companies are poised to present fresh renderings of distinct traditions of Korean dance during the Festival.

OngDance’s Mu Mu: A Shamanistic Dance for the Souls of the Lost, stems from millennia-old ritual that is still practiced by some Koreans today along with other beliefs including Buddhism and Christianity. Shamans called Mudahng have acted as intermediaries between the living and the undead, thought to reside in objects of the natural world or float about the air, troubled by unfinished business from their human lives. In Mu Mu, five dancers depicting shamans represent the acts of waking the restless souls, greeting and appeasing them, then sending them out of the world of the living. The female professional dancers, ages 28-35 and all former dance majors in different Korean universities where they specialized in Korean dance, modern or ballet, gracefully amplify the movement’s shapes and dynamics that incorporate a range of techniques.

In the first of three sections, the dancers cover ground and make noise as they imply the conjuring of spirits. The bold expansiveness of Ong’s choreography—reaching steps, head-to-toe arches of the torso while kneeling, solid side leg extensions finely tuned with sharp right angles at the knee joint and flexed foot—is coupled with purposeful noise. Small tin bells, shaken, make a startlingly big sound. The second section imagines spirits entering the bodies of the shamans. Following is their transferal to the lead shaman. In this pictorial posture, four women seated single file face the lead shaman, who is standing, and connect to each other at the feet so effectively it seems as though they could carry an electrical current. The third task of Mu Mu features a long white cloth representing the road to heaven. The lead shaman who now embodies the old souls soars through space, parting the cloth to set the spirits free of earthly agonies and leave the living in peace.

Operating from a story that is also more than a thousand years old, Chung’s work Gum Mu for NCKDA is a sword dance with its origin in a period of dynastic rivalry between the Kingdoms of Shilla and Baekjae on the Korean peninsula. According to legend, a seven year-old boy from the Kingdom of Shilla performed a sword dance for the King of Baekjae, and then killed him. The boy was put to death, and the Shilla people performed a masked sword dance in his memory thereafter. Since the unified Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), the dance has been performed without masks and the sword dance is no longer representative of war. Rather, it is a beautiful dance, performed by women wearing silken wrap skirts in five significant colors and gliding noiselessly in white Ko shoes. The shoes, also worn by the members of OngDance, look similar to soft leather ballet slippers but the fabric on the top of the shoe is gathered in a seam aligned with the toes that tips them slightly upward.

Gum Mu as a technical work requires exacting coordination. The NCKDA dancers operate rotating swords about ten inches in length—loosely jointed in hand-held bases—sometimes with the right and left in mirrored synchronization, other times in separate directions. Principal dancer Young Kim says the wrist action required for the elemental rotation of the sword can take months to achieve; the dancers (all except Chung and Kim are beginners with a strong interest in learning Korean dance) wear protective armbands made from cut-up socks during rehearsal. While their upper bodies are engaged, the dancers tend to the music with rhythmic stepping patterns, articulated from heel to toe smoothly as a rolling ball and accentuated by the shape of the Ko shoes. Layered on the detailed bodywork are circular trajectories along the floor space. Dancers spin around themselves in paddle turns and bank around corners in parallel paths with one another like bodies of a solar system. Chung, who is the leading dancer as well as director and choreographer, best exemplifies complexity made to look easy and natural with arms breezily trailing her unfaltering steps and wrapping around her torso. Chung and Kim possess a delicate, musical side-to-side head tilt, which looks neither like the “yes” or “no” nods, but rather the plane that suggests a teasing and mysterious, “Maybe.”

Both Mu Mu and Gum Mu are elaborate and costly productions. From professional costumes made in Korea (each pricing a few thousand dollars), to swords or numerous large fans and drums and other precise objects necessary for conveying a ritual, to live music played by Korean groups traveling overseas, these are invested endeavors. As both artists believe in their mission to spread awareness of Korean culture by creating interest in Korean dance, there is no question that their products must be of highest quality. Though the directors have at times downsized the number of performers or set pieces for budgetary concerns, and OngDance has one member flying in from South Korea to join them for this summer’s performances, both women have worked wonders within their means in the United States.

Ong and Chung are outstandingly experienced dancers and dance-makers, and well known and respected in their field. Ong holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the prestigious Sungkyunkwan University and was a principal dancer with the National Dance Company of Korea for seven years, performing in over thirty countries. Chung holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from Ewha Women’s University, which established Korea’s first independent dance department at a four-year university in 1963. Both OngDance and NCKDA were founded in the Bay Area in 2004 after years of their directors’ performing and choreographing abroad—OngDance formed in South Korea in 2001, and the company is now split with five dancers still there; Chung immigrated to the United States in 2000. Since establishing themselves in San Francisco, Chung and Ong have performed in previous Ethnic Dance Festivals as well as in Women on the Way and WestWave festivals, at the Asian Art Museum and at various venues including Dance Mission and the Palace of Fine Arts. Chung was nominated for an Isadora Duncan Dance Award in 2005 and 2007, and was featured in a KQED Spark program in 2006. Two years ago OngDance received the Izzie for Company Performance in Ong’s work, Sagomu.

Living and working in the Bay Area is nonetheless challenging for these dance artists. Both Chung and Ong point first of all to the rarity of Korean dancers in the Bay Area. Chung explains, “When I was choreographing in Korea, I was working with professional dancers and so was able to choreograph highly artistic pieces.” When she came to the United States eight years ago, Chung noticed the lack of Korean dances and was motivated to teach them, beginning with Korean music classes for teenagers at the Northern California Music and Arts Cultural Center. She has since prioritized teaching over performing. “Because Korean dance was so unknown in the Bay Area, I even thought about moving to the East Coast in order to develop my own dancing career. However, I felt that it was my responsibility to lay the roots of Korean dance in the Bay Area as well,” Chung says of her decision to remain here.

Though Ong experienced a similar calling to New York at one point, she agrees the job of establishing Korean dance here is necessary and that her efforts have already proven effective. Ong and her company members, all Korean nationals, found each other here after an article about Ong was published in the Korea Times. Besides their being talented, trained and educated dancers, Ong appreciates her group members’ knowledge of the atmosphere and history of their subject matter. “They know the significance, feeling and emotion that’s behind the work,” Ong says, though she is equally enthusiastic about teaching non-Koreans and hopes to create multi-cultural participation in and enjoyment of her work in the Bay Area. Ong usually goes hunting for dancers by attending performances. “I have even gone as far as to post flyers in Korean restaurants and stores to seek out new Korean artists,” she says, regretting that San Francisco does not have a neighborhood “Koreatown” that orients awareness of Korean culture or facilitates community among expats as well as Chinatown and Japantown.

In the last few months OngDance has found a new home at the Korean American Community Center on Buchanan Street, though. Ong is delighted by their huge drum set—for training—and appreciative of the consistent rehearsal and costume storage space. Since 2004, Ong’s company has practiced anyplace that would have them. Once the group held rehearsal in tennis shoes on the UC Berkeley campus and a student passerby gave her money. Ong is correspondingly open to a multitude of performance venues. She describes how, after dancing in grand theaters for audiences of several thousand in Korea and touring the world, she now performs anywhere and as often as she is asked (which is frequently). “Even birthday parties!” which Korean people living here have contacted her for. She is grateful for the community support, and solicits audience feedback after performances. Many viewers have been so touched and amazed by her work that they have offered monetary and in-kind donations at the end of the show. One generous supporter even gave her the car she now drives.

This level of humility would not be part of Ong’s experience in Seoul, since all the administrative details are handled by paid staff. One of her dancers expressed that she might never have had the opportunity to work with Ong had they both remained in South Korea, where her expertise is sought with fervor. German dance icon Pina Bausch met Ong in 2000 when she visited the National Dance Company of Korea to learn about Korean traditional dance themes and costumes. She invited the company to her “Ein Fest in Wuppertal Tanz Theater Pina Bausch,” where they performed and provided lessons for Bausch’s dancers. Two years later Bausch visited Seoul again, when the National Dance Company was performing a work in which Ong was the main dancer, and after more study of the Company’s work, Bausch created her work Rough Cut based on her experiences with Korean culture. While Ong marvels that Bausch doesn’t have to pay when riding in a taxi in Wuppertal—where she says there’s a café named after her that stays open anytime day or night she wishes to go there—she willingly sacrifices prestige for her purposes in living here. Beyond moving and educating audiences, Ong is pleased to contribute to the Korean dance community in the Bay Area by training young dancers.

Chung, who is regarded as a master teacher, is also passionately involved in the proliferation of Korean traditional dance here. She expresses satisfaction that her years of teaching and holding local and professional performances have notably increased Korean dance’s visibility in the Bay Area. During rehearsal for Gum Mu, Chung proved herself an expert multi-tasker, simultaneously dancing and maneuvering swords in a group piece, watching the other dancers around her and through the mirror, counting aloud, and offering corrections in Korean over the sound of the music. She is tireless and thorough. At the same time she is warm and kind and patient, fostering a sense of community among the middle-aged Korean women participating in rehearsal in a Berkeley studio. Chung has made significant life sacrifices to promote Korean dance in the Bay Area. The U.S. can still feel like a foreign country, she says, because she still has some difficulty fully expressing her thoughts and the complete meanings of her pieces in English. “The times I hold workshops at Mills College, I worry because of my inability to communicate, which would of course come so easily if I were holding workshops in Korea.” She lives with her teenage twins in Millbrae, an ocean apart from her husband, who is an instrumental music professor, and survived breast cancer in her adopted country.

The personal artistic benefits of living in the U.S. are significant, too. Chung finds inspiration for her work from other ethnic dances’ themes and histories, and plans to return to Korea to impart her style, which has been transformed by her experience here. Ong insists she would not be making the work she is now had she never left her home, where the older generation is important (she is merely thirty-five) and tradition can sometimes overshadow experimentation when grants are distributed. Here, she can focus on making new work and sharpening her individual voice. Ong eagerly seeks critical reviews, more performance opportunities, and new influences to challenge her. But her most compelling reason for staying may be her beloved students, a small but dedicated group. She cries at every recital.

This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of In Dance.

Emily Hite has contributed to the Dancing Times, Stanford magazine, Stanford Lively Arts magazine, Dance Magazine, Voice of, and Mindy Aloff’s book Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance (Oxford University Press, 2006). In 2008 she interviewed Yvonne Mounsey for the George Balanchine Foundation Interpreters Archive film of Prodigal Son. She joined Hope Mohr Dance in 2007.