Theater archives

Departing Earth


Like all the so-called Gnostic Gospels, the “Acts of John,” in which Jesus leads his disciples in a ritual dance, never made it into the Bible— although several centuries passed before Catholicism managed to purge all traces of dancing from church practices. Other cultures, thanks to their responsible gods, have remained convinced of the sacred power of movement.

In traditional Korean belief, the soul of a dead person drifts restlessly in a kind of limbo, frequently getting into mischief, until a shaman helps break its ties to the world with a rite that includes dancing. As part of Zone gallery’s “Homage to Nam June Paik” series, noted Korean dancer-choreographer Sin Cha Hong offered her own interpretation of a shaman ceremony on a white floor-cloth at one end of Zone’s largest white gallery. Singer-drummer Ock Joo Moon, along with gong player and occasional vocalist Sang Won Park, accompanied Hong with authentic music. Hong herself, who worked in New York for a number of years, is a postmodernist, not a traditional dancer, but I have no trouble believing that the spirit of the late pioneering video artist hovered gratefully in the room and drifted to heaven as bidden.

Hong’s choreography followed the three-part structure typical of a kut: The shaman invites the departed soul to attend, entertains him (or her), and finally sends him to rest in the spirit world. Hong entered slowly, wearing a long beige linen coat and hood, a red streamer trailing behind her. As she wound her way searchingly across the space, the ribbon twisting around her feet, the heavy, cumbersome costume recalled the encumbrances of human life. The singer’s summoning voice, her steady thump or thwack of the drum, weighted the atmosphere.

What happened then was a remarkable sort of spiritual strip. Swaying, turning, stepping softly, Hong removed parts of her clothing bit by bit: the hood, the coat, the short jacket, the skirt of wide ribbons, until she wore only loose white pants and a close-fitting top (still quite traditional in style). There was no teasing, suggestive interplay between performer and viewers. The most important spectator for Hong was the spirit of Paik, her compatriot and friend. It was for him and for herself that she danced with the jacket she’d just removed, as if she were reluctant to let it go, as if it symbolized part of a life. The skirt, opened like an apron, became, briefly, a curtain to shield and conceal her before she carefully discarded it as well.

In the end, she danced with a long white scarf, like that used in the Korean salpuri, flicking it, running it between her hands—a pathway, a river. And when she raised her palms and glanced upward, the gesture was not to summon, as it had been at the outset, but to liberate—the way one lifts a perching butterfly and very gently encourages it to fly.

I had to attend another performance and so missed the food and drink afterward and the gifts of paper cutouts representing spirits. Never mind. I was spiritually full and received the performance as the gift it was.