Some years ago, a professor invited me to a chamber concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on a Saturday afternoon. Five minutes into the Haydn, he was snoring softly. He was hardly alone. In the half-empty auditorium, I couldn’t see anyone who looked to be under sixty, and much of the audience was nodding off. Even the orchestra seemed to be sleepwalking through their note-perfect renditions of pieces they’d all been playing since middle school.
Why did we all show up for this soporific farce? The audience wasn’t there for the music itself, that was clear. They were part of a generation that felt an obligation to better themselves and their community by patronizing the arts, which meant the classical arts: orchestras, ballet, opera. I was witnessing the dying embers of a kind of Jewish immigrant striving that had put Leonard Bernstein at the center of American middlebrow culture in the mid-twentieth century.
Gugak by Helmut Lang
Something similar (though not so sleepy) was at work during a recent performance — also on a Saturday afternoon — of The Banquet, by the National Dance Company of Korea at the National Theater of Korea, which put dozens of dancers into exquisite costumes and marched them through complex choreography reminiscent of both North Korean mass games and Disney musicals. It was a new piece with lots of modernist trappings, but at its heart it was the same old vocabulary of Korean traditional clothing, stock characters, and dances: the court attendants, the leaping farmers, the women drummers, the upper-class yangban dandies.
With its spare white staging, careful white lighting, and traditional costumes reworked in colors from recent issues of Vogue, a lot of it felt like Korean gugak (tratitional music) by Helmut Lang. Because there were so many dancers on the stage at any one time, it was inevitably more about pretty shapes and stage pictures than about any individual artistry. The precision sometimes lapsed — a wobbly ankle here, an out-of-place dancer there — and it occurred to me that Korea’s very best dancers probably don’t end up as part of this anonymous national corps churning out reheated tradition. The show was never quite boring, and at some moments — especially the farmer’s dance, when individual dancers finally had a chance to show off some acrobatic skill — it was lively. But it was never quite alive. In a Korean sense, you could say that it had no hoheup (breath).
The invention of tradition
As with the Upper West Siders who feel an obligation to sponsor precise renditions of eighteenth-century Hungarian and Austrian music, there are historical and cultural reasons why this particular vocabulary of styles and symbols represents Korean culture, why Koreans enjoy recycling and rewatching these particular cultural artifacts, and why performances with “National” in the title have this zombie quality to them.
The middle of the nineteenth century was a time of extraordinary upheaval, much of which took the form of a reckoning with onrushing modernity: the failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the forced opening of Japan in 1853, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Ideas of modernity and tradition, reform and reaction, swirled around these conflicts, rarely in straightforward ways. Perhaps no event encapsulates the contradictions of the era as well as the Taiping Rebellion, which took as many as 30 million lives in China between 1850 and 1864. The Taipings were Chinese nationalists who rebelled against the “foreign” Manchu Qing Dynasty, which had been humiliated by the British in the Opium Wars a few years earlier. The Taiping leadership was Hakka, an ethnic minority sub-group within the larger Han Chinese identity, and the head of the movement considered himself the brother of Jesus Christ.
From this maelstrom, independence movements emerged, and they faced the task of forging national identities, whether for relatively organic nations like Korea or Japan, or for colonially invented polities like Indonesia or Malaysia. In Korea, this process was delayed in some ways by the late date of its opening to the outside. The 1894 Donghak (Eastern Learning) Rebellion is an early symptom, but South Korean ideas of national identity really crystalized during the Japanese occupation period, between the World Wars. That’s why the vocabulary of Korean tradition is so specifically that of late-Joseon Dynasty culture, which had ended within living memory. What was being preserved was what the intelligentsia remembered from their youth.
This also has much to do with what made the cut and what didn’t. Palaces are preserved and reconstructed with tax dollars, and national theaters perform the music and dances of both high and low classes because folk was an important concept in the early twentieth century. But most educated people in late Joseon saw Buddhism as retrograde and shamanism as beyond the pale — superstition that needed to be purged if Korean society was to modernize — so there’s relatively little overt Buddhism in Korean traditional performances, while what survives of shamanism in the national vocabulary is usually stripped of ritual power or meaning, and shaman paintings and shrines are almost never given the kind of respect accorded to traditional houses or markets or city gates.
I’m here because we’re here
In country after country, I’ve found similar arts and performances: recreations of Peking Opera in a palace in Beijing, folk ensembles in Luang Prabang, endless repetitions of Mozart in Vienna, dinner buffet dance shows in Siem Reap. (Communist countries tend to produce a socialist-realist version of traditional dance — at some point, ladies will sow seeds and carry water — while capitalist countries are more likely to keep the dance abstract. And Communist performances tend to have brighter and more primary colors in the costumes and lighting, with less deference to the latest Pantone trends.)
Why do people keep showing up to see these same performances, over and over? It has to do with a shared sense of identity and understanding. Koreans can come to a reheated Banquet at the National Theater and nod along, assessing how well or badly the dancers did all the things everyone has been seeing since childhood. It’s art as karaoke: you don’t listen because someone at the bar will sing “I Will Survive” better than Gloria Gaynor, but because you can, as a group, assess the performance against Gloria Gaynor.
And who can engage with Korea’s codified traditions this way? Koreans, of course. That’s where identity comes in. To go to a performance like The Banquet is to reassert both the existence of Korea as a unique cultural entity and your membership in it. That’s why these kinds of performances so rarely innovate or confront: they’re a trip to the folk village, not a trip to the contemporary art museum.
Safety in numbers
Korea does have a traditional music scene that feels alive. The musicians may be playing the old pieces, but they’re bringing personal passion and force to their playing. These performances, though, are usually smaller, without any “National” imprimatur — more downtown theater than Broadway musical. They have hoheup.
Why do they draw smaller audiences? In part, it’s a matter of marketing, budget, and positioning. National theaters have production values, and people show up for that.
But I think there’s something deeper at work too. I have, on several occasions, been moved to tears by Korean traditional music and dance. It happened with So Ra Kim. But being moved and touched can be uncomfortable. It’s raw and real. It’s the equivalent of skipping the folk village, going to an actual village, and reckoning with the ancient, toothless ladies who squat by the side of the road sorting vegetables.
The simulation is tidier, easier. And there’s safety in numbers.