The MAGO Project

By Nirmala Nataraj

November 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

CHOREOGRAPHER DOHEE LEE has given a lot of thought to the multifaceted ways in which myths and cultural stories affect our sense of homeland, belonging and legacy. Her upcoming performance, MAGO, is the culmination of Lee’s longstanding collaboration with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, who commissioned her to create the piece, which has been viewed as a work in progress throughout the year.

Lee’s evocative six-chapter performance is a multidisciplinary feat that involves a plethora of collaborators. An epic story that engages dreams, past lives, destiny and history, MAGO weaves a web between the oceanic Korean creator goddess Mago and Lee’s homeland of Jeju Island in South Korea.

“Myths are stories that come from people through thousands and thousands of years, sometimes from a period before the myths were attached to words,” muses Lee, whose personal journey through the landscape of her performance included the compilation of myths from Jeju Island.

Dohee Lee stands amidst a lavender textured base, and pulls her dress outward in Wall Shape.
Dohee Lee / Photo by Pak Han

Lee, who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2002, says that she was immediately curious about the history of her new home in Oakland as soon as she landed here. “As a newcomer, I asked myself—who are the people who once belonged here, who lost their land, their belief system, their everything? These questions brought me to other questions: What is home? What does it mean to belong where you are?”

Lee’s interrogation of her new home led her to think more deeply about Jeju Island, as well as her own understanding of its indigenous people and the ways in which their language, songs and dances constituted an entire way of identifying their way of life—one that is particular to them and that is in danger of being lost for good. In thinking about some of the contemporary issues of Jeju Island’s inhabitants, which include environmental degradation and a history of war trauma, Lee began to reflect on the ways in which the culture’s foundational values and practices are being eroded. “All of these things that make the area and its inhabitants so unique, which have been sustained for so many years, are being destroyed. So I saw this as an urgent problem.”

MAGO is a multi-genre piece that includes a variety of collaborators and artistic genres. Lee and Adria Otte composed music for the performance, while Otte and Donald Swearingen also provided sound design. Animator Steven Sanchez, videographers Jason Lew and Kyong Lee, and set/light designer Jose Maria Francos offered the visual backdrop for the show, while Alenka Loesche designed costumes.

Lee’s fascination with myth and her belief in dance’s ability to delineate stories that are part of our cultural heritage are multilayered. “I’m not just talking about myth,” she says. “Understanding the history and the past is also important and it brings us back to the myths. In the performance, I’m reflecting on ancient times, on history, on our ancestors’ lives, as well as the present. So it’s a piece that’s also about time travel.”

Lee sees herself as inhabiting the archetypal realm of the shape-shifter, the one who leads viewers through the performance in a ritualistic process. “MAGO is influenced by Korean shamanic ritual, which can last anywhere from eight hours to several days. The ritual itself is an important active process. It’s about connecting, processing, confronting and reconciling the things that we experience.”

As Lee worked with YBCA over the past year, she used a process of trial and error to figure out what kinds of rituals worked best in a performance setting. During one of her performances, she opted for a traditional Korean-style ritual (albeit, performed in a nontraditional way) in which she sang for her audiences for eight consecutive hours.

“One by one, people came to share who they wanted me to sing for, such as their ancestors,” explains Lee, who wanted to find ways that would help people open up to connecting with themselves and their history.

“All ritual is about action,” she says. “When people come to see a performance, they may not directly experience something as part of a ritual, but the performance may evoke something that a ritual would.” In other parts of the performance, Lee intentionally involves her audience members so that they see themselves as part of the process.

MAGO ensues from Lee’s continuation of her studies of Korean traditional music and dance, which are deeply rooted in Korean shamanism. Lee spent a lot of time researching Korean rituals and the forms in which they might manifest via the body and dance, “in this time and this new environment and in these new circumstances.”

Lee’s interest in ritual is not one that cleaves to a specific time or a particular set of traditions. “I was very interested in a new form of ritual that makes sense in this moment in time, that acts as a go-between when it comes to reconciling ancient times and the present.”

The process that led Lee to the inception of MAGO was intuitive, and aptly, filled with the kind of circuitous magical imagery you might find in a heroine’s journey tale. Lee had a dream in which a mysterious woman gave her a book replete with cryptic symbols and letters. Lee’s openness to the creative possibilities inherent in her dream led to her discovery of Mago, a powerful creator goddess from ancient Korean folklore who also sits at the heart of the culture’s indigenous shamanic practices.

Lee says, “Mago is a creation goddess. She’s the one who created humanity…to live peacefully together. But what’s happening now is that people are killing and destroying each other. And even this goddess has two faces—she has a very motherly and peaceful aspect, but the other aspect is very fierce. Duality is an aspect of the work, as it’s how the universe was created. But awareness of the side we are on is extremely important.”

MAGO is supplemented by work on a documentary film about the little-known Jeju “4.3 Massacre” in 1948, a military action by both South Korea and the United States that led to the deaths of 30,000 villagers. During the Korean War, it’s estimated that 70 percent of the island’s villages were decimated.

Lee’s performance elucidates a moment in history that has largely been relegated to silence. Lee says, “Learning to articulate the thing that has been hidden in silence is important to me. It helps me as a healing process. When I try to ignore it, it always comes back to haunt me. When I take time to deal with it and communicate it, something changes. Talking is a kind of healing. It is okay to be heard and seen, although we are so afraid of it.”

Lee notes that her own family seldom spoke about the Jeju Massacre. “Even when I was young, although I didn’t know the history, I felt a deep silence. It’s a sensitive topic that even my parents don’t want to talk about. So it’s challenging to do this kind of work, but my practice is to speak up.”

Lee’s work with Mago is what she says enabled her to deepen her personal process to include other layers: the land, the people and their history. Lee’s encounter with Mago also enabled her to discover herself in new ways. “She guided me in helping me to understand this journey—all the good and bad, the hardships, the emotions, the way I make sense of what happened to me. I understood what the heroine’s journey meant. You have to be willing to go to the underworld, to understand about suffering and sadness and difficulties that cannot be avoided. You have to confront these things and be aware of them.”

Lee also notes that “Mago taught me about connection—connection between myself and the land, between the spirits, between ancestors and the past, and between other people.”

These connections led Lee to think about ways in which she could seed ritual within the larger Bay Area community. “In our modern time, there is a lot of disconnection. Are we really centered? Or are we losing ourselves? Are we speaking what needs to be shared? For me, sharing stories as a community shows us that we are not alone.”

Moreover, Lee notes that the purpose of ritual is to gather people together so they can take action in changing the circumstances of their lives. “The performance is about the fact that, yes, we have all these horrible things happening in the world, but what are we going to do to change the narrative? What actions can we take? As an artist, I believe that performance is action.”

The sense of catharsis that is inherent in MAGO has extended to reactions from viewers who have seen the work in progress. Lee hopes that viewers will begin to consider which mythical characters they want to live in at this moment in time, and to think about the stories they will leave behind.

“Many people view myths as fake stories, but they are very real—they tend to revolve around people who tried hard to change society, who empowered themselves to do things differently. When we relate the stories of such ‘characters,’ the stories get bigger and bigger, but there is always a seed of truth within them. Myth carries everything: culture, environment, ecosystems, belief systems.”

Lee’s hope is that her ability to deeply connect with her own lineage and cultural mythos will inspire others to think along the same lines. “In my next project, I hope to share others’ stories, so we can all work towards creating our myth together.”

This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of In Dance.

Nirmala Nataraj is a Bay Area-based playwright, journalist and author.