Princess Bari

Korean Complexity

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 12 Aug 2011

A sumptuous blend of colourful costume, Korean folk dance, and an aesthetic shared with the European Dance Theatre movement led by Pina Bausch, Princess Bari represents the International Festival's enthusiasm for performance that goes beyond the merely exotic. Choreographer and scenographer Eun-Me Ahn may have trained in traditional dance, but her work is respected as contemporary rather than nostalgic.

Korean dance is relatively unfamiliar: yet Eun-Me Ahn regards it as a living force. "Traditional dance is the documentary of the history of a country," she says. "The Korean traditional dance is the way of expressing the historical and cultural emotions of Korean people." For her, however, this does not mean mindlessly preserving old moves. "Personally, I am fond of Gut," she adds. "While other forms stay at the past, Gut keeps changing in the context of here and now."

The performance itself consists of live musicians, dancers, a script, and an approach that sees the costume and set as integral to the overall impact. Eun-Me Ahn's approach explains how this holistic performance experience integrates such diverse components.

"When I create a piece, I think of the image of the entire flow," she says. "Like examining the shape of the ground when you build a house, I try to find how the piece looks in the conditions it will be performed. Then, I start to build up the movements in the picture."

In keeping with this fusion of old and new, she has taken a traditional legend that retains a resonance. "The history of Korea, with many vicissitudes, and Princess Bari's life are much alike," she observes. "As we faced the difficulties with positive energy, Bari became a shaman to save human life after her ordeal."

Bari's shamanic skill and story reflect the origins of Eun-Me Ahn's beloved Gut dance: it came from shamanic rituals. Shamanism has had a tough history in Korea: despite the eclectic nature of religious observance in Korea, shamanism has been seen as rather debased and was the victim of a Confucian attempt to stamp out all religion.

"As a victim, Bari forgives her perpetrators with generosity. Bari didn't lose her quick wit and enthusiasm in the course of her ordeal: this is Koreans' nature," Eun-Me Ahn continues. And her reward was transcendent. "She had limitless freedom going between this world and the world beyond."

Eun-Me Ahn's ideas seem to suggest that Bari is an allegory of Korea's own path to self-determination and power: certainly, it is a showcase for a modern Korea that is determinedly modern, yet respects its past. In the context of the 2011 International Festival's commitment to eastern arts, it is interesting to consider how far Princess Bari can represent a nation's aspirations and self-image.

The Edinburgh Playhouse,19 - 21 Aug 2011, 7.30pm, various prices