SPEAK by Dohee Lee

By Dohee Lee


Inner Travel with Myth and Past Lives, History and Stories, Dreams and Future.

I am looking at the ocean from the far West Pacific out to my homeland Jeju Island, South Korea. I am looking at this land where I live now – Oakland, California. Both of these places have similar cultures, beliefs and myths seeded by native peoples.

Solo image of Dohee Lee on a beach
photo by Pak Han

Myths are not just the things that happened long ago, but also launching points for taking stories into you and creating new myth in your own life. That was my beginning point. Finding my myth – I had to go back to my hometown, my motherland. Through meeting Mago—the ancient creation goddess of my people—I’m discovering more of who I am. And this allows me to connect to more people with deeper understanding. Connecting to the land where I live now.

Growing up, I never knew that Korea had a goddess. However, through my Korean traditional music and dance studies, which were rooted in shamanism, I was taken back to this myth time and that’s how I found Mago after so many years.

I wanted to do this project because I wish we could be empowered in our lives like these mythical characters empowered us in old times. Why can’t these myths happen in our time? I want to gather people together and try out this idea. That is why my creative journey is centered in “ritual.” I am dedicating my performance as a ritual because it carries vital messages of connection. Nature to nature, ancient myth to newborn myth, past lives to present, present to dream. Dreams take us to an unlimited imaginational world—to the future and next generations.

Through each of my projects, connections have led to new departures. And each project, each new direction, brings me to deeper understanding and learning, towards acknowledgement of the interconnection of how history and mythology affects present lives.

So, it is important to go back to my home island to feel and learn what happened there on that island.

I visited my hometown of JeJu Island, South Korea earlier this year to conduct research for my latest project, The MAGO Project as well as work on a documentary film about the 1948 Jeju 4.3 (April 3rd) Massacre, a joint action by the South Korean and United States militaries in which approximately 30,000 villagers across the island lost their lives. After that incident, the Korean War broke in 1950 and the oppression continued in Jeju through 1954. So many people got killed on land and in the ocean. An estimated 70 percent of the island’s villages were burned to the ground.

Many people know about The Korean War but not the 4.3 incident. Jeju is the one of tragic places in history that people and their land suffered great injustice and sorrows. For almost fifty years, mentioning the Jeju uprising in Korea was a crime punishable by beatings, torture, execution and prison. I still remember that deep heavy silence from my grandparents who never talked about this and I never asked either because I did not learn what this was, just heard about the words or number “4.3 Incident.” They did not want to pass down to their children this tragic history.

However, that long silence is breaking out from the deep buried wounded land and ocean. It is boiling out slowly because there is another 4.3 incident happening right now on Jeju Island. An uprising against a U.S. Naval base being built on this peaceful island. So much destruction of the land, desecrating the coral reefs, breaking the mythical bones of our ancestors.

I was happy not only to meet incredible activists who are fighting for justice and struggling to protect their villages—but also that I could meet shamans who are performing the annual ocean ritual for the community of divers and fishermen whose work place is in ocean.

Learning about the land, people, stories, histories and nature empowers me, giving me deeper understanding of who I am and what I can do with my gift that I have in me. It brings me deeper into the unconscious world and leads me to what I can contribute and share to the world. Learning pushed me forward to share and how I share is art.

This performance I am creating, The MAGO Project, is about my personal journey, but I believe that everyone has their own journey to share. Sharing as a community, this is a way we can bring our collective intentions together to support each other.

Creating a process and an inspiration for this is really the main reason I am doing this project.

This intention to make community ritual lead me to create the seasonal rituals that I am presenting at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts throughout the 2013-2014 season. When YBCA commissioned my work, program director, Marc Bamuthi Joseph came up with the idea of doing a one-year residency and we talked about how we might work together to bring rituals into the city. It is much harder to bring people out to nature, so I started thinking about how we can bring ritual into the city first and narrow the gap between human and spirituality and nature.

The seasonal rituals gave me an opportunity of approaching different modes of ritual. These rituals are based upon my training in Korean cultural roots, but combine with my vision to bring in modern elements to create new forms of community performance.

Like singing a personal song for each person who attends the ritual with an ensemble of musicians playing nonstop for eight hours. Those of us performing the ritual, we questioned ourselves whether we had the stamina to do this without stopping. But once people began to flow into the space, we did not have any idea of time. Why do I feel strongly that this ritual is so powerful to our Bay Area community? It is encouraging each other that collective experience bonds us together. We are human and we are not alone.

What way can we meet the core point of ritual? For our spring ritual, I invited different musicians who have varied cultural backgrounds and artistic practices. We created Ara=Water ritual with musical glasses and vocals.

I questioned myself: how I can invite the public to do this together? What should this ritual look and function like? And my answer guided me to create this performance. The piece is based on waterways. Via the water—that is how we all came, met and live here together. I want us to honor our ancestry that connects us as we are in this present time. Through this ritual we can connect to different times, past to present and present to next generation, the future.

I think that is the power of these ancestors who loved the spirits of nature and people. Performers, singers, shamans—the indigenous peoples of this land. That is the big loss that we are living. I feel this so strongly and take it as a calling that we need to bring this back and that we have to do it together.

This article was edited by Jason Ditzian

This article appeared in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of In Dance.

Born on Jeju Island in South Korea, where shamanic tradition is very strong, Dohee Lee learned Korean dance, Korean percussion and vocals. Her art now focuses on integrating these traditional forms with contemporary elements. Each piece and performance blends Eastern and modern Western musical forms and contemporary dance languages into works that emphasize the experimental, ritualistic and healing aspects of music, dance and visual. Lee has presented her work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Asian Art Museum in SF and performed at Carnegie Zankel Hall in NYC with the Kronos Quartet, Teatro Municipal de Lima Peru, Beijing and Europe and collaborated with a wide range of performers such as Anna Halprin, Shinichi Iova-Koga, Amara Tabor-Smith, Larry Ochs, Francis Wong and Tatsu Aoki. She is the recipient of Creative Capital Award, Isadora Ducun Dance Awards, NEA, MAP Fund, Zellerbach Family Foundation, Dancers’ Group, East Bay Community Foundation and Artist Residency from Watermill 2011, Headlands 2012, Montalvo 2013-14, Djerassi 2014 and Ucross Residency 2015.