Dean Moss, Yoon Jin Kim, and David Roussève Practice the Art of Displacement

By Deborah Jowitt

Wednesday, March 4th 2009

In the crosscultural kitchen of postmodern dance drama, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the chef has embarked on a particular creative process to discover more about himself and his roots, or more about the Other. Most often, it’s a bit of both. The customers may be charmed, enlightened, and/or confused. Kisaeng Becomes You by Dean Moss (African American) and Yoon Jin Kim (Korean) is performed by five women dancers from Korea and several different recruits from the New York audience each night. The cast of David Roussève’s Saudade includes Roussève, two other African Americans, an Indonesian, a native of Burkina Faso, and a dancer who studied India’s Bharata Natyam for 22 years.

Moss, who taught for a year in Tokyo and has often visited Korea, was inspired to collaborate with Kim by a book, Hwang Jini & Other Courtesan Poets From the Last Korean Dynasty. Lines from these compressed poems, such as “What is this love?. . .Mine breaks to a sharp edge within me,” scroll in white letters across the back of the stage, and are spoken onstage quietly, almost noncommittally.

Amid a flurry of video, live feed cameras, and images projected on two screens, the five vivid performers pare down, intensify, and explode the role of the kisaeng (a carefully trained, government or court-controlled “entertainer”). She must be young, beautiful, cultivated, decorous—adept at entertaining high-born men (or simply wealthy ones). As delicate as the peonies we see onscreen, she’s charming at the banquet and (perhaps) compliant in the bedchamber.

In a fascinating exercise in displacement, a handsome woman, perhaps in her late fifties, is brought up from the audience (I believe recruits are first approached in the lobby). The five performers greet her warmly, wire her, dress her in the full underskirt of a hanbok, place an elaborate wig on her head, and educate her in behavior. Mihyun Lee tells her what to do, while Yuree Bae demonstrates. The others praise her progress enthusiastically. Her final duty is to perform alone the slow turns, gazes, gentle arm gestures, and slight swoon, while reciting the poetry. She must pick up a fallen scarf and wipe her eyes. One woman videotapes her and another snaps her picture. This time Lee’s coaching is unheard by the audience; it feeds directly into the earpiece of the “trainee.” Lured from her own life into another virtual culture, this spur-of-the-moment performer is bound by its rules, and distanced by the prompting and the inevitable pauses from the import of what she’s doing and saying. The others’ final act, besides applauding her, is to offer her money.

Aspects of a kisaeng’s life are abstracted in a variety of ways and given a postmodern twist. In the beginning, a woman is bending over a table; the video shows us that she’s embroidering her hand (!), slipping a needle under the topmost layer of skin (kisaeng were skilled seamstresses). Soyeoun Lim rubs a microphone over Jeongeun Yang’s face and neck, and we imagine a novice being trained in fellatio (afterward Lim brandishes the mike like a penis, then bites it noisily). In one sequence, Jiseon Kwon and Bae, smiling and servile, usher in an imaginary male visitor, then gradually go dead—all expression draining from their faces and bodies. For what seems an eternity, they stand staring at us. Several times, all the women revolve on tiptoe, heads back, mouths open, like fish at the surface of a pond.

They also show us the clientele. Lim lines up glasses of beer, rim to rim, balances shot glasses of whiskey on top of them, and, with one gesture, knocks the tiny glasses into the larger ones. Party time. Channeling their inner males, the wonderful performers ad lib, down their drinks, and encourage two women from the audience to drain their glasses. Things get rowdy, a raucous song is sung. One of the volunteer performers is educated in the delivery of kisaeng poetry, the other is given the video camera and told to shoot the fun.

It is she who ends the piece. On display. They’ve taken away the camera and left her alone center stage in her trim little dress and high-heeled boots. She looks pleadingly over to where the others are sitting on the sidelines, giggles, gazes at us, decides to be brave. She stands there for quite a while before the lights dim. Suddenly: a kisaeng waiting to be chosen for the evening’s diversions.