Bereishit Dance of Korea
March 24–25, 2023
Promotional materials for the NYC premiere of Bereishit Dance of Korea’s Judo and Balance and Imbalance at NYU Skirball depict the themes for these works as expansive, nearly to the point of meaninglessness: street dance, martial arts, opposition and harmony in relationships, sports, and the transcendence of violent urges. The work is both old (2010 and 2014, respectively) and new (to NYC, at least). Further text on the Bereishit website describes founder Soon-ho Park’s choreography as “transcending the East and the West, dance and martial arts and tradition and contemporary.”
Given this broad choreographic terrain, I was curious how the themes would manifest in live performance, whether in total they might overwhelm the observer or if a single theme would overshadow the others. Watching it, I was reminded instead of additive color theory and the concept that all colors of light combined will yield white. Rather than these plentiful themes creating an overly fussy or muddled work, Judo and Balance and Imbalance both feel clear, crisp, and elemental to the viewer.
Judo opens the show, with low lights on a handful of dancers in black suits, all balancing large red rectangles draped over their heads. These rectangles are actually a patchwork of mats, eventually fitted back onto the stage in a proper grid, framing and grounding the action. The dancers perform a careful cha-cha to a percussive score, sound edited by Kim Ju-heon.
Partnered movement lofts into the air via improbable pathways: feet-first, one dancer grabbing another’s ankle and suspending them like a prize catch in a motionless hands-free headstand. On the shadowed stage, costumes and bodies merge. Gradually, the stage and movements lighten, introducing running patterns and loose bounces that travel up from the performers’ knees into their free-floating skulls. The dancers move with the self-assurance of an ensemble whose choreography is well-trodden and well-tested, sometimes slapping the ground and themselves with their jackets, adding another heartbeat to the underlying musical score.
Overall, it feels like this piece is built on a capsule wardrobe of choreography, with relatively few classical steps or patterns. Aside from the aforementioned self-flagellation, most of it could be described as a slide, bounce, run, or fall to a disengaged prone position. One of the more memorable movements is the act of one dancer jumping fully over another as the first one topples; they repeat this speedily and fearlessly, zig zagging across the stage. Eventually, just one dancer remains, toppled repeatedly but standing his ground in a wide stance, until finally the lights fade.
A light smoke has been drifting down from the ceiling; it follows us like a specter through intermission and into Balance and Imbalance. The stage is now bare, with two traditional Korean drummers (Park Sung Gun and Seoung Yu Gyeong) and a vocalist (Kim Jae Woo) planted downstage. The movements in Balance and Imbalance are more complex; the performers complete sharp, partnered movements, hitting precise shapes with intention, and then swishing away from them. They move through a series of duets and trios, easily manipulating each other’s full body weight in recurring partnered cartwheels and straight-bodied lifts, where each dancer raises their arms stiffly to create collaborative spiky sculptures. Stillness exists differently in this piece as well; it is tense, engaged, dissimilar to the prone bodies seen previously. At one point, the vocalist enters the piece more actively, chanting as she moves through space with a soloist. Finally, the ensemble reclaims the stage, dancing with increasing speed and intensity, backed up by the musicians. Balance and Imbalance ends with the dancers in a row upstage, dropping into their hips repeatedly, sighing with their movement and breath. As with Judo, the choreography exhibits restraint with a tightly curated movement vocabulary and immaculate spacing and execution.
“Bereishit” translates from Hebrew as “in the beginning.” The company’s invocation of time in its name provides an interesting resonance with the fact that the two dances on the program are both a decade old, give or take some years. Might the tone of the show shift drastically, if either were swapped out for a newer work? In the end, perhaps the show’s success speaks to the timelessness and additive nature of Bereishit’s themes—regardless of the work’s year of creation—and their flawless execution.