In 1985, Jiyeon Cheh, a dancer trained in Korea and living in America as a pastor’s wife, started teaching Korean dance classes at her husband’s prodding because, as Sinae Cheh explains, “at the time she was still the ‘obedient Korean wife.’”
Twenty-five years later, in a sleepy corner of Lynnwood a group of youth and adults assiduously prepare for what may be the best Korean arts performance in the region. “Narae” (“wings” in Korean) is an annual dance and music festival featuring students and troupe members from Morning Star Korean Cultural Center – but this isn’t your everyday student showcase. Instead, a troupe of accomplished non-professionals perform an array of ambitious pieces tied together by colorful costumes and a variety of traditional Korean instruments. Through this yearly event, Morning Star creates a gathering point for the immigrant Korean community, and a cultural bridge to non-Korean audiences.
It’s a rainy Saturday at the end of a long day of rehearsal, and inside the vaulted studio space young dancers sit in a circle as founding director Jiyeon Cheh instructs in Korean. The language of her demeanor is universal – the troupe knows to listen, and even the resident poodle stands in attention. Dancers rise and again strap on their hourglass drums, then move through a complex sequence across the floor, spinning and circling each other, arms spread like wings before folding to beat drums. The light spills off twirling shapes as the room swells with sound, and for a moment they seem to fly.
Originally conceived as a means for the second generation of Korean immigrants to maintain contact with their heritage, Morning Star aims for more: to expand the notion of what it means to practice Korean arts. Part of the pitfall for immigrant communities is that one’s sense of culture often becomes a snapshot frozen at the point of departure. As a result, “when they see our dancers, [they] think that’s not traditional dance,” said Cheh. But in their dance classes and performances, the directors are clear that “if we just accommodate to that idea, then Korean culture can’t be part of the future.”
And so Morning Star aims for balance while being progressive. In “Narae,” it presents a broad tableau of the old, the reinvented, and the new. It includes classic pieces like the brightly costumed fan and scarf dances, but also brings in forms such as the sword dance formerly linked to “kisaeng” – Korean courtesans of antiquity – but now revised by images from Korean soap operas and the views of a new generation of Korean dancers; and the directors conceive new pieces of original choreography built on Korean fusion music, mixing traditional instruments and contemporary rhythms.
“Narae’s” performing cast comprises 80-100 members young and old, ranging in experience from those who have been dancing for months to those who have been dancing for decades. For the directors this means finding ways to challenge and incorporate all dancers without compromising choreography.
Despite challenges, “Narae” fills an important place in the cultural world of its regular audience. “We have people who come one year and they say ‘next year when I come I want to bring other people.’” Korean art performances have grown alongside the local immigrant community. Sinae Cheh notes, “when I was growing up nobody did it. There weren’t enough Koreans to start a group, especially in Seattle.” Now Morning Star’s seasoned members perform for larger audiences nationally as well as internationally, having travelled to 20 countries in Africa, South America, Europe and Asia. While these exchanges bring their own set of challenges, for performers and audiences they also afford opportunities of becoming first points of contact, and sharing an emotional experience.
The idea of starting a Korean performing arts school was at first daunting for founding director Jiyeon Cheh, because as Sinaeh Cheh notes, “it’s one thing to be a dancer, and it’s another thing to teach dance to second-generation immigrant Korean American kids.” In the end the aim is that students glean the foundations of Korean dance and music, an appreciation “that dancing doesn’t come overnight … it takes years of training” and through that, reach their greatest potential. And perhaps, towards the end of their journey at Morning Star, they are ready to fly.
Morning Star Korean Cultural Center will be performing “Narae” on November 13 and 14 at 7 p.m., at the Edmond Center for the Arts in Edmonds, WA. For more information or to purchase tickets, see www.morningstarkcc.org.