In the crosscultural kitchen of postmodern dance drama, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the chef has embarked on a particular creative process to discover more about himself and his roots, or more about the Other. Most often, it’s a bit of both. The customers may be charmed, enlightened, and/or confused. Kisaeng Becomes You by Dean Moss (African American) and Yoon Jin Kim (Korean) is performed by five women dancers from Korea and several different recruits from the New York audience each night. The cast of David Roussève’s Saudade includes Roussève, two other African Americans, an Indonesian, a native of Burkina Faso, and a dancer who studied India’s Bharata Natyam for 22 years.
Moss, who taught for a year in Tokyo and has often visited Korea, was inspired to collaborate with Kim by a book, Hwang Jini & Other Courtesan Poets From the Last Korean Dynasty. Lines from these compressed poems, such as “What is this love?. . .Mine breaks to a sharp edge within me,” scroll in white letters across the back of the stage, and are spoken onstage quietly, almost noncommittally.
Amid a flurry of video, live feed cameras, and images projected on two screens, the five vivid performers pare down, intensify, and explode the role of the kisaeng (a carefully trained, government or court-controlled “entertainer”). She must be young, beautiful, cultivated, decorous—adept at entertaining high-born men (or simply wealthy ones). As delicate as the peonies we see onscreen, she’s charming at the banquet and (perhaps) compliant in the bedchamber.
In a fascinating exercise in displacement, a handsome woman, perhaps in her late fifties, is brought up from the audience (I believe recruits are first approached in the lobby). The five performers greet her warmly, wire her, dress her in the full underskirt of a hanbok, place an elaborate wig on her head, and educate her in behavior. Mihyun Lee tells her what to do, while Yuree Bae demonstrates. The others praise her progress enthusiastically. Her final duty is to perform alone the slow turns, gazes, gentle arm gestures, and slight swoon, while reciting the poetry. She must pick up a fallen scarf and wipe her eyes. One woman videotapes her and another snaps her picture. This time Lee’s coaching is unheard by the audience; it feeds directly into the earpiece of the “trainee.” Lured from her own life into another virtual culture, this spur-of-the-moment performer is bound by its rules, and distanced by the prompting and the inevitable pauses from the import of what she’s doing and saying. The others’ final act, besides applauding her, is to offer her money.
Aspects of a kisaeng’s life are abstracted in a variety of ways and given a postmodern twist. In the beginning, a woman is bending over a table; the video shows us that she’s embroidering her hand (!), slipping a needle under the topmost layer of skin (kisaeng were skilled seamstresses). Soyeoun Lim rubs a microphone over Jeongeun Yang’s face and neck, and we imagine a novice being trained in fellatio (afterward Lim brandishes the mike like a penis, then bites it noisily). In one sequence, Jiseon Kwon and Bae, smiling and servile, usher in an imaginary male visitor, then gradually go dead—all expression draining from their faces and bodies. For what seems an eternity, they stand staring at us. Several times, all the women revolve on tiptoe, heads back, mouths open, like fish at the surface of a pond.
They also show us the clientele. Lim lines up glasses of beer, rim to rim, balances shot glasses of whiskey on top of them, and, with one gesture, knocks the tiny glasses into the larger ones. Party time. Channeling their inner males, the wonderful performers ad lib, down their drinks, and encourage two women from the audience to drain their glasses. Things get rowdy, a raucous song is sung. One of the volunteer performers is educated in the delivery of kisaeng poetry, the other is given the video camera and told to shoot the fun.
It is she who ends the piece. On display. They’ve taken away the camera and left her alone center stage in her trim little dress and high-heeled boots. She looks pleadingly over to where the others are sitting on the sidelines, giggles, gazes at us, decides to be brave. She stands there for quite a while before the lights dim. Suddenly: a kisaeng waiting to be chosen for the evening’s diversions.
Roussève’s Saudade is much more elaborate—an olla so rich in ingredients that, flavorful though it is, you can’t easily locate its essence. The music too throws you a bit off the scent. Saudade—performed by a multicultural cast about experiences anchored in Roussève’s personal, very American stories—is accompanied by nine recordings of Portuguese fado. What these songs do underscore, however, is the universality of yearning and not getting.
Roussève, the piece’s writer, director, and choreographer, is also its leading performer and anchorman. He greets us and jokes with us, before bringing up the fine line between life and death, pleasure and pain, and retreating to a distant corner to begin a slow walk forward along a diagonal path. It takes him almost the entire performance to arrive where he started. Along the way, he stops to tell stories, each stage of his journey marked by a white pillar. Peter Melville’s backdrop looks somewhat like a vast crossword puzzle waiting to be filled in, but most of Roussève’s words are not about ideal solutions; they’re about small events that briefly relieve pain or lift spirits. And about how we remember them.
The man is—has always been—a marvelous storyteller, and he recounts his tales in beautifully chosen, often witty words. He stoops over and makes his voice raspy to become a down-and-out old man who falls in love with a mangy tomcat—a cat who can walk on sharp-edged fences and still have “soft little kittycat paws.” Roussève’s tone is higher and more innocent when he speaks for a slave girl who saw her older sister horribly beaten for teaching her little sibling to write her own name: “Sally.” In one unforgettable scene, Sally is brutally deflowered by her master in a wooden shack with cracks and holes in its walls. She stretches a hand through one of those holes and feels her sister’s tears dropping into her palm.
The seven other vibrant performers—all either faculty members or graduate students in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, where Roussève is a professor—echo aspects of his stories but also contribute more obliquely. It’s not so surprising to watch tall Taisha Paggett let small noises in her throat build up to physical, vocal frenzy, until the others soothe her. Or see Nehara Kalev angrily tie Anjali Tata-Hudson’s feet together and take her away. People fall and roll on. Some crawl along roped together, and others free them. They dance slowly, awkwardly together as if drugged by pain. However, it’s utterly unexpected to listen to Marianne M. Kim emit a fantastic, high ululation that sounds a bit like the flourishes of baroque opera in hyper-drive. Sri Susilowati yells at her to stop, but she can’t. Finally, Susilowati bares her belly, and says teasingly, “You wouldn’t want to miss this.”
The performers occasionally interact with Roussève as he tells his stories (including ones about his own despondence during a hospital stay, and a woman’s account of what she lost and what she gained during the floods that Katrina visited on New Orleans). They also comment on events as they occur in the dance. While Esther M. Baker Tarpaga and Olivier Tarpaga spar playfully in words and movement, Kalev intermittently struts through wearing a bikini and high heels and holding up signs that announce, for example, “Round Two. I think they are faking it.”
When I ponder what I’ve seen, images that seemed isolated during the performance coalesce in my mind and link more securely to Roussève’s themes. I think back to Susilowati several times offering a red pepper to her colleagues, even offering to pay Roussève a dollar if he’ll try a bite of this Indonesian staple (he pays no attention). Later a close-up video of her appears on a screen. She’s cramming pepper after pepper into her mouth, while tears gradually begin to run down her cheeks. Whatever culture we’re from, is that how we eat life—no matter how much it burns?