Dances From the Gone World


Sitting in the shadow of the World Trade Center in early September, I cheered Ron Brown’s wondrous dance troupe, Evidence, on the plaza. Amazed and proud, I thought as I often do how excellence in art makes me grateful to be alive. Two nights later, in midtown at the Graduate Center, the musicians and dancers in “The Facts and Artifacts of Korean Dance” celebrated a culture far different from Brown’s and mine, in a city where their people and ours have often been at odds. These exhilarating shows were the last I saw before tragedy broke all our hearts—two distinct companies united by discipline, beauty, and spirituality. May we find these virtues within ourselves, and answer murderous hatred with something finer than war.

Traditional Korean performers honor nature—reflected primarily in the use of human breath as the impulse and shaper of dance—and have a deep trust in cosmic law and order. Each element of their art—from costume and makeup to the architecture and execution of movement—is pristine, creating a worthy vessel for expression that can be delicate, fierce, or an unnerving combination of the two. Four lovely, scary ladies doing a hwang hae do geum mua sword dance floated along in floor-length garments that elongated their bodies, revolving their swords with a mere wrist flick. They turned, spun, and skittered, blades ringing like sleigh bells from hell.

The musicians of Deun-Swae, surfing sound waves of unpredictable speeds, volumes, and intensities, worked themselves into ecstatic trance. Anchored by the hourglass-shaped changgo drum, the percussion—raucously, joyously over the top—danced in my body as I listened. Heat rose to the surface of my skin. Remembering these drummers now, I think of Mavis Staples: “I know a place . . . Ain’t nobody cryin’ . . . I’ll take you there.”