Currents of Desire, With an Assist From the Audience


Published: March 2, 2009

Who knows where Dean Moss ends and Yoon Jin Kim begins in “Kisaeng becomes you.” The inner workings of the collaboration between Mr. Moss, an American choreographer, and Ms. Kim, a South Korean, is just one of the marvelous mysteries of this remarkable work, which had its United States premiere last week at Dance Theater Workshop.

How did they develop the idea of the kisaeng, Korea’s answer to the geisha, with their intense and isolating training and lowly status, into a surprisingly natural metaphor for contemporary-dance artists? Which decided to roll the dice every night and gamble the entire show on several dazzling, sophisticated bursts of audience participation?

Who selected the five striking Korean performers, and who thought, Aha!, let’s throw a Janis Joplin song into a mix that includes biting kisaeng love poems, original music by Okkyung Lee and what appear to be Korean pop songs?

You get the sense, while watching, that these choices were made on a gut level; such is the strength of the sensual logic governing this work, which draws us into a private, deeply female world of often unidentifiable emotional currents and desires. (Save for a brief video, in which a man describes an almost love affair with a woman from another culture, the only male desire we see is reflected in the action of these women.)

At one point the five women turn ragged little circles on their tiptoes. Their heads are thrown back, mouths hinging open and shut, like goldfish grasping for sustenance at the water’s surface. They are mute in their need, and inscrutable.

At other times they are vulgar, making suggestive use of a microphone, or rowdy, downing copious amounts of alcohol. They screech at one another in excitement and anger and grief. These raw emotions and unpolished behaviors are placed against the seductive, perfected armor of the kisaeng, whose skill as the ultimate purveyors of fantasy is belied by the almost caustic loneliness threading through their poems.

Both the strength and chinks in this armor are made clear when audience members (on Friday, first an elegant older woman, and later two very young women) are drawn into the work. At times they are completely protected, given ceremonial costume touches while their every word and action is coached, and filmed.

Elsewhere they are left vulnerable, without instruction, made to play roles they cannot grasp. On Friday something terribly fragile and beautiful bloomed within these awkward transformations. The gamble paid off.

Kisaeng becomes you: A scene from Dean Moss and Yoon Jin Kim’s piece at Dance Theater Workshop about the undercurrents of emotion.