A journey to enlightenment may be fraught with distractions, perils, and temptations. In her Pilgrimage, the Korean choreographer Sin-cha Hong pares away all excess from this archetypal voyage. Like the painter who limns a stalk of bamboo in a few exquisite brushstrokes, or the poet of haiku who reduces a large thought to 17 syllables, Hong represents the essence of her subject rather than any specific reality.
Her pilgrims are no lusty Chaucerian crew; they’re members of a conformist society. You have to look hard to see that two of the seven are men. Designer Kyung-in Kim has clothed them in long, gauzy gray robes with touches of mustard, red, and black; tall, conical hats cover their hair. Most significantly, their feet are attached to flat-bottomed wooden stilts that make them almost two feet taller. Their arms drape over bamboo yokes. Every move these strange, towering figures make is, of necessity, slow and restricted.
They’re enveloped and goaded on by bird, wind, and water sounds in the score edited by Masaru Soga and Myung-woo Na, as well as by more violent noises, gongs, light percussion, and vocal and instrumental music—much of it Western-influenced. In ritualistic unison, the seven stride into various formations, bow to one another, or tilt to touch one end of each pole to the floor.
After a while, staggering and falling, they writhe their way out of their cloaks, hats, and poles. As they do this, two small sprightly women in sweet-faced white masks frolic intently around them, perhaps trying to figure out who these strangers are. When the pilgrims crawl into a huddle, dragging their “legs” behind them, the two scamper away.
It’s amazing how the dancers can crumple to the floor from their stilt-like shoes and even more amazing how they manage to stand again to continue their trek. Now they wear only long shifts in pastel colors and gray head wrappings. Along one diagonal, they mime rowing across a river; returning on the same path, each doubles over, stumbles, falls, and rises again to exit.
Two mysterious interludes possibly allude to what is happening offstage to the seven travelers. To a sweet, airy melody, the two masked women cross the stage. One of them, blindfolded, attempts to catch the red petals the other is scattering from a pouch at her waist. Then, to the deep-toned voice of a female singer, a hooded, white-robed figure (Hong) appears in a pool of light, slowly revolving and reaching up.
Whatever benison or alternative path these interludes suggest, the seven pilgrims reappear somewhat transformed. Now their platform shoes are concealed by long gowns decorated with stitched bands of dried grass, and they carry curving, split-bamboo sticks that they hold out like bows as they stamp into a circle. But this militant phase is short-lived. The two sprites hand each traveler a white lily. Bright lights pour into the space. Bang! The “bows” fall from the tall people’s hands, as if they can’t hold both objects at the same time. They regard the flowers. Slowly they smile, and then, in an altogether startling gesture, raise one hand delicately in front of their mouths, like shy schoolgirls concealing improper emotions from our gaze.
Pilgrimage (made in 1988) tells us that a sober, arduous, disciplined search for enlightenment may lead to deeper self-knowledge and pleasure in the world around us. As the program note says, the ending “is quirky like life itself.” Hong was part of New York’s downtown scene in the ’70s and ’80s, re-establishing her company in Korea in 1993. Tradition and innovation mingle in all her recent works—tinged with humor, grave, beautiful.