Dancer, choreographer, and vocalist Sin Cha Hong is one of Korea's most influential contemporary performing artists. Born and educated in Korea, she came to New York City to study dance in the late 1960s, at a time when postmodern dance was still very experimental. Her work is informed by the minimalism of Western avant-garde modern dance as well as the dramatic intensity of Eastern spiritual and cultural traditions.
Sin Cha Hong founded the Laughing Stone Dance Company in New York in 1981. Her dance-theater productions of strikingly bold, minimalist short pieces and evening-length works with specially composed, live musical accompaniments won critical and popular acclaim. After returning to Korea in 1990, Ms. Hong has continued to perform and tour as a soloist and with her company.
Sin Cha Hong's newest production, Labyrinth: In the Moon-Night, premiered at the Asia Society and Museum in New York City on June 28 and 29, 2002. The production included old and new pieces based on the universal theme of the phases of the moon. Ms. Hong was joined by the master Korean musician Byung-ki Hwang on kayageum (twelve-string plucked zither), and extraordinary vocalist Kang Kwon Soon.
Asia Society spoke with Sin Cha Hong about the experiences and cultures that have inspired her work, and the state of Korean contemporary performing arts today.
Labyrinth: In the Moon-Night is composed of several pieces, incorporating both old and new work. How does the theme of the phases of the moon tie all the pieces together?
This production is very much about Korea. I am actually an avant-garde modern dancer, but for this particular event, I decided to work with very traditional Korean concepts. So my movements may not be traditional, but the mood is very much Korean.
In Korean culture, the moon's cycle is very important, because it is very distinct: new moon, half moon, full moon, crescent moon. People go by the moon; the phase of the moon determines which day you move, have a celebration, get married, or make a big decision. It's very special in Korea, and I think in all of Asia, China and Japan also.
It is interesting to me because the life cycle and a woman's cycle are the moon's cycle. The cycle of the moon is also part of the phases of the day, daybreak, sunrise, sunset, moonrise and with that, the whole cycle of life. So I decided the production would be divided into four different pieces based on the moon's cycle.
The first piece of the program is New Moon. Usually the new moon is a time of renewal, of beginning. Koreans like to start something in the new moon. And it is not only the new moon that is special, but also that time very early in the day, before dawn or at daybreak. The moon at that time is very auspicious, and this is a very special time to pray and to perform rituals.
In the countryside in Korea, we have special shamanistic wooden spirit poles that carry spiritual significance. These poles have curved pieces attached to them that are like wings, and they are very powerful objects. I identify with the way they channel power. They are part of a very shamanistic, spiritual, and very traditional culture; Korean culture is ancient. This piece, New Moon, is about that time of day when women go out to the shaman's spirit poles and pray. They pray for anything; it can be something very mundane. (You can even pray for the soccer team to win!) And so my dance is symbolic of this time of praying. But finally New Moon is a personal interpretation of my relationship to these spirit poles. Within myself, it is as if I have the wings of a bird.
The second is a traditional music piece called Half Moon, with the vocalist Kang Kwon Soon, who will sing in traditional Korean chungak, a classical vocal style. This solo is about life and nature.
The third piece is Full Moon Labyrinth, and this is the only old piece in the production. Labyrinth was first performed in 1975 in Korea with Byung-ki Hwang. At that time, it was shocking because of the combination of the traditional and avant-garde. Even today, it causes people to think and to talk, so it is still avant-garde. That piece will have its US premiere here.
The fourth piece is Moonless, a much more reflective piece. It is a new work that is internal, very meditative. It's a questioning of life, so it's intense, and yet it's very simple. It's like the darkness of the night, when so much is internal. And the movement is very slow. Rather than showing the meaning literally, the audience can reflect on what it means to them.
Why did you decide to revisit Labyrinth, a seminal piece from 1975?
Because it is one of the most famous contemporary Korean art performances, a music piece I did with Byung-ki Hwang, one of the most famous kayageum players. Korean audiences really want to hear his music. I've only performed it twice since 1975, but it's kind of a timeless piece, so even now, it's experimental.
You collaborated with Byung-ki Hwang for the original Labyrinth. How were Byung-ki Hwang and Kang Kwon Soon (vocalist) involved in the formulation and development of this new performance?
This whole work, Labyrinth: In the Moon-Night, I conceived and organized myself. But for the performance, it's not only my work, but theirs too.
In 1975, I was very involved in working with Byung-ki Hwang on Labyrinth, a musical piece. And the more we got to know each other, the more we became interested in working together. I told him my ideas for the vocals, and he also had his ideas, so we tried them and it came together.
Kang Kwon Soon is also very well known, and an excellent and talented vocalist. I have worked with her before, both in New York and in Korea. And I knew she, like Byung-ki Hwang, was very interested in experimenting with Western styles. I wanted the whole evening to be important Korean artists collaborating together. It's not all about me; I wanted to bring together several traditional Korean artists.
Modern dance, especially minimalist and experimental modern dance, often rejects tradition. The founders of modern dance were attempting to create a movement vocabulary to express the modern world they were living in, as opposed to the more overtly technical, classical vocabulary of ballet. Do you think traditional dance, such as that from Korea, and contemporary dance can ever truly be integrated?
Yes, I think it's certainly possible. I wasn't always as appreciative of Korean traditional music and dance as I am now. But a few years ago, after I returned to Korea, I became interested in it, and I learned about it. I came to appreciate how important traditional Korean dance is to my understanding, how it can be worked into modern dance, and how both can use each other. Now I very much appreciate traditional Korean music and dance and movement. In the past, I completely, deliberately tried to choreograph things that did not look like Korean dance. It was deliberate. Now, it is something I try to use in my movement. Maybe I am still growing and maturing.
In cultures as ancient and traditional as Korea's, "modern" is often seen as synonymous with "Western," and contemporary dance in Korea has been strongly influenced by Western forms and technique. Its development was sparked by dancers, such as yourself, who were trained in the United States. However, the institution of Korean traditional dance is also very strong. Do you think the development of a specifically Korean contemporary dance form has been achieved?
Yes, I think now Koreans are trying to find their own contemporary dance, rather than thinking about or being influenced too much by the West. But it is very difficult not to be influenced. So Koreans had to gradually split away from Western movements to find their own modern dance form, one that is very much interconnected with traditional styles.
Why do you think modern dance is so popular in Korea?
The Korean traditional dance form is also becoming popular. Modern dance is popular because more people are doing modern dance than before. Korea has 44 universities with dance departments, so every year so many new dancers are graduating. They are always interested in putting on performances, and the more performances there are, the more people come to see them. So it is not necessarily that the quality of dance is getting so much better, but that appreciation for modern dance is growing.
Modern dance technique is often rooted in a specific impetus for movement; sometimes it is a wholly internal impetus, such as the breath, emotions, or the core of the body, and sometimes it is an external one, such as time, space, or music. What do you see as being the impetus for your particular movement style?
I think my movement comes from deep inside me, very deep inside. And my timing is very important. My movement takes a lot of time, it's very slow, rather than hurried and rushed. I don't do many things in one moment. For me, dance is a mood that takes a long time to express, even through one gesture. I create my own timing, and it's not influenced or dominated by outside things. I have to be one with my timing, to have patience with my own personal timing. I cannot do something fast. Even when thinking, or doing anything, I have to take my time and move slowly. When one needs, at a certain time, to do something fast, I cannot, I give up--even eating! Some people eat two servings while I eat one. But I enjoy my timing, so it doesn't matter to me how the world feels about it.
Your early experimental work was influenced by the avant-garde Judson Church movement, minimalist dancers such as Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer, and performance artists such as Meredith Monk. What other dancers and traditions are influences on your work today?
I was in India for many years, and I was influenced very much by that culture and Eastern cultures. I saw many different dance forms, traditional and modern, Eastern and Western, and I decided I would make my own form. Not necessarily Eastern or Western, slow or fast, but my own way of expressing myself. So my form of dance is based on experiencing a lot of different cultures, traditional and modern, but eventually it's really about finding a movement that's my own.
What particular things about Eastern culture influenced you? Did you study meditation?
I studied meditation for 30 years. I was traveling a lot and I went to many remote areas and stayed there for some time, and while I was there, time seemed to stop. I think meditation, being in remote areas, and solitude were all important experiences that strongly influenced me.
Tell me more about the work you do with your company, the Laughing Stone Dance Company.
The Laughing Stone Dance Company was started here in New York with dancers from New York. We traveled in Asia, Europe, and America, but after I went back to Korea in the early 1990s, I started the company again in Korea. We've been very active, and we are touring a lot.
Many people ask why I named my company Laughing Stone. When I was in India, I realized that all the beauty of the spirit is in everything in existence. While meditating, I would see sometimes that a table would move, or that other things would change shapes. It was a major revelation for me. And since then, I have often thought that everything has a spirit. Even a stone has a spirit, it can be laughing or crying. All the shapes you see and experience depend on your consciousness, and so you can come to see things in a different way. So I named my company Laughing Stone. It became a very popular name in Korea. Now in Korea many things are named laughing: Laughing Man, Laughing Family, Laughing Mountain, even a Laughing Day! So I thought, that's good.
Interview conducted by Alexis Menten of Asia Society.