Yi-Joung Noh*

Recently on the Korean contemporary dance scene, we can find productions that have significant elements derived from traditional Korean shaman culture. Representative cases would be Princess Bari-The Life, a dance theatre piece choreographed by Eun-Me Ahn that premiered in 2007, and Already Not Yet by Ae-Soon Ahn, produced in 2014. The first tells a story of the ancestress of the shaman, while the second depicts a dead man’s path to the next world. The elements they incorporated come from the very core of the characteristics of Korean shamanism.

Princess Bari-The Life © Ahn Eun Me Company
Princess Bari-The Life © Ahn Eun Me Company

Shamanism is a folk belief that prevailed in Siberia, Mongolia, Central Asia, South America and Eastern Europe. In the case of Korea, shamanism has remained deeply embedded in the minds of the people even though it has been oppressed and looked down upon since the 15th century. In shamanistic thought, it is believed that once a human being dies s/he goes to the next world, an image borrowed from Buddhism. If s/he cannot pass over to the other side in peace, it may cause trouble for the living. That’s why “Saryeongje,” a kind of shamanic ritual, “Gut,” was performed widely during the traditional period. This ritual is for leading the dead safely to the Next World by melting away any resentments of the dead. Once the dead are guided pleasantly to the Next World, the living can return to everyday life without a guilty conscience. A “Mudang” or shaman is the one who conducts the ceremony because she can serve as a go-between from this world to the next.

Princess Bari-The Life © Ahn Eun Me Company
Princess Bari-The Life © Ahn Eun Me Company

This “Gut” represents the most central element of shamanism, which has influenced Korean theatre in terms of structure and content since the 1970s, as playwrights and directors accepted it as an archetype of Korean plays. But on the dance scene, the case was different. In Korean modern dance, the shaman influence has been more or less set aside because it was thought to be something that diminishes the dignity of dance. Korean modern dance began when the Japanese modern choreographer Ishii Baku (1886-1962) staged a dance performance called New Dance or Dance Art for eleven days in Seoul, in 1926. Since then, choreographers have tended to “follow elitism” and tried to differentiate their dance from the dance condemned in traditional Confucius society. The style of shamanist ceremonies has also been avoided, save that it was adapted in the form of romantic images of Korea. In this context, the active reception of shamanism at the present time certainly shows a shift in Korean contemporary dance into a new phase. Why now is contemporary dance embracing some shamanism? What perspective do the choreographers have when they incorporate shamanism?

Princess Bari-The Life © Ahn Eun Me Company
Princess Bari-The Life © Ahn Eun Me Company
Why Shamanism? Why Death?

First of all, we can say that the two choreographers mentioned above go on to realize that the shaman can be a model for the dancer. They reflect on the relationship between life and death through the metaphor of shamanic myths. What makes death matter? Memento mori? As we were exiting the 20th century and embarking on a new millennium, the world seemed to be entering an era of anxiety and fear afflicted by such traumas as the Asian economic crisis in 1997 and the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York in 2001. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11th of 2011 and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion only served to underscore this sentiment. Unexpected natural calamities and random acts of terrorism afflicting untold numbers of victims seem to have become common occurrences at the start of the twenty first century, leaving many with extreme levels of anxiety and uncertainty. Last year, there were the terrorist attacks in Paris and just recently the attacks in Brussels killing and injuring scores of people. As I am writing now, strong earthquakes are shaking regions across the globe from Kumamoto in Japan to the Philippines and Ecuador. And, in Korea, we are marking the second anniversary of one of the most disastrous ferry sinkings ever in April of 2014, which left more than 300 people dead, most of whom were high school students. People here are still not ready to accept their deaths because no convincing explanation has been presented by the government. Unnecessary deaths seem to be taking place far too often and close together.

At the same time, many people are increasingly compelled to ignore and even try to defy death. With economic development and technological progress on many fronts, life spans are increasing, and with greater longevity, the fear of dying young has significantly diminished. People are so focused on trying to survive the latest economic crisis or hurdle that they have no time to ponder death or their own mortality. Since the economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s, Koreans have been steeped in a competitive culture obsessed only with achieving more material affluence and eternal youth. Following the financial crisis and IMF bailout, in 1997, many have struggled just to hold on to what they have. Herded into such excessive competition, so many are unable even to question what true life is. With the sudden absence of any fear or contemplation of death, some traits of society seem to have become more vulgar. Aware of this trending situation, the two representative contemporary Korean choreographers, now in their fifties, may have felt compelled to created works to stimulate and encourage people to think about death. Their works remind us that life and death coexist and indeed balance each other out.

Birth Story of the Great Shaman

Ahn Eun Me Company’s Princess Bari-The Life comes from a narrative of shamanic chants that reveals the thoughts and views of Koreans on existentialism, the Land of Death, time, space, life and death. The original narrative of “Princess Bari” is a song chanted nationwide in Saryeongje. The song tells the adventures of a deserted seventh baby princess who later brings the waters of life that can overcome all difficulties from the far west area of heaven, currently India, for her father who has abandoned her and became seriously ill. This action makes her the first shaman to mediate for people between the world of life and death. Princess Bari is highly regarded for her supreme position as a protective goddess linking us to the Next World and enabling us to learn about life from it.

The narrative has traits in common with general hero myths theorized by Joseph Campbell, who has analyzed the hero’s narrative as a 3-step structure—departure-initiation-return—in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Bari’s story is a typical heroine tale in which the princess returns to life after having visited the land of death to accomplish a seemingly impossible mission. If this story has a singularity as an adventure, it’s that the core character is female who represents the utmost sufferings of women long affected by the patriarchal ideology and male-centric feudal society in the past. Why does a deserted baby make a good heroine? Above all, it is impossible to know the suffering of others without going through all ordeals in life. Princess Bari was thrown away from the cozy “interior” of home to the cruel exterior “outside.” Being discarded also comes with the implication that one has the possibility and potential to become independent. Accordingly, Princess Bari is given the mission to open a new world as an indomitable entity not succumbing to the established regime. In doing so, she acquires independence and this entitles her to be considered a heroine.

Indeed, there has been a remarkable increase in research on Princess Bari in Korea in the 21st century, as people try to interpret and make relevant the relationship between life and death in a contemporary context, as previously mentioned. Perhaps, this has something to do with the apocalyptic environment of the current times. It is increasingly widely acknowledged that humanity faces total annihilation, unless we come up with plans in this century to protect our environment and learn to peacefully coexist with one another. A princess who brought the waters of life through self-sacrifice and who became the mother goddess of salvation signifies a new role model for the 21st century heroine.

Eun-Me Ahn’s Princess Bari-The Life deals with Bari’s travel before she departs to the next world. The script she chose is Bari’s Travel, written for music drama by Young-Goo Park (1914-2016). He divides the story of Bari into two parts: the first is Bari’s Travel and the second is Bari, Gone to the Next World. In the original shamanic song of Princess Bari, the story is entirely dedicated to describing her activities. However in Bari’s Travel, the desires of secondary characters Bari meets on her way are mainly portrayed because the author thought that secondary characters were as important as the protagonist. Park Yong-Goo, a music critic and dramatist, tried to create Bari with a vision of song, dance and music combined in unison, which he called Symphonic Art. In full agreement with Park’s idea, Eun-Me Ahn actually titled her work Symphoca Bari.

On stage, the choreographer created remarkable images of the pain of being a mother and the sorrow of becoming a shaman as the great mother of all people. But, overall, the work is full of life, giving energy by an affirmative attitude toward life. For example, although Princess Bari has been abandoned by her parents and gets into danger with bad people who want to do her harm, she keeps her liveliness. This energy is enhanced by the hypnotic traditional-techno music of Yeong-Gyu Chang, a musician collaborating with Eun-Me Ahn from the first period of her work. Eun-Me Ahn reshapes and redefines the image of the main female character, from one suffering all kinds of restrictions under feudalism into a modern alpha girl who is full of humor. Her victory is achieved not by revenge, but through a sublimated achievement of love and forgiveness, which have the power to save the world.

A Space between Life and Death

The Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, founded in 2010, put Already Not Yet on stage one month after the Sewol ferry disaster. This was a dark time in Korea, when a bleak atmosphere pervaded society and people questioned how precious human life could be treated so lightly amidst what seemed a colossal conspiracy entangled with corrupt connections. Choreographed by its second art director Ae-Soon Ahn, the company was in the middle of creating a work with a “kokdoo” motif. These are the wooden funerary figurines of flowers, birds and characters used to adorn a death carriage carried on the shoulders of family and neighbors to the hillside grave near the town where they live. Kokdoos are believed to have the power to ward off evil so they can sing on and attend to the dead while accompanying them to the Next World. Those still living wanted to compensate for the exhausting life of the dead in this world by splendidly decorating the carriage with kokdoo.

Already Not Yet, photo by Yung-Mo Choi
Already Not Yet, photo by Yung-Mo Choi

The title “Already Not Yet” relates to the threshold between marginal time and space when the spirit of the dead cannot leave, even if it has already left the body and the bereaved cannot yet wholeheartedly say goodbye to the dead. The performance recreates the traditional shamanic funeral culture of Korea into new and modern images. The manner of living and memories of death in modern society are played out through a game among dancers. The moments of parting between the living and the dead are exposed as spectators contemplate the weight of life and death, and watch a long sequence, in which a dancer exhausts all the energy in his/her body and finally collapses. The images of phantoms, made by visual artist Jae-Hwan Joo, add grotesque humor to the space where humans and non-humans meet. The performance is full of healing power.

Already Not Yet © The Korea National Contemporary Dance Company
Already Not Yet © The Korea National Contemporary Dance Company
Shamanism and the origin of Dance

In fact, looking at a shaman as a dancer is not exactly new. The word Mu (舞) refers to dance and Mu (巫) refers to shaman. These two words have the same origin in meaning. The ancient Chinese hieroglyphic character Mu (巫), meaning “shaman,” came from the shape of a man dancing with an oxtail or bird’s feather. A shaman should reach the stage of being connected to god via dance. There is no divine inspiration without dance. The two words still have the same pronunciation in Korea today and it is the same in modern Chinese with a minute difference in tone.[1] A shaman is a dancing person who plays the role of mediator between holy spirits and men. And we can say that the shamanistic unconscious has continued on in Korean dance. One example is the dance of Ok-Jin Gong (1931-2012) who performed the “hunchback dance” and “cripple dance” along the town market squares in the southwest part of Korea in the 1970s. Her dance was a struggle, in some sense, to become a hunchback and vent against the scorn and resentment hunchbacks faced in order to regain the power of life. Conceptually, this is in accordance with the Bari philosophy of sacrificing one’s body to relieve others of their pains. Although Ok-Jin Gong had a lot of fans at that time, she once tried to commit suicide due to the criticism she received for abasing the disabled. Life needs death to maintain itself. Life is accompanied by elements of death, so that we indeed live in a space where life and death are overlapped. Shamanism calls in the ritual of death, so that it enlightens us to the world beyond the living.

Video link for Already Not Yet

Eun-Me Ahn has long been nicknamed “the techno-shaman of our time,” because she loves the primary colors used in shamanism and incorporates them into a trance-like performance with a fluorescent stage setting, magnificent costumes and techno-music. As a dancer, Eun-Me Ahn has been discovering the identity which contain fun (“Heung” in Korean) and resentment (“Han” Korean) within herself. In 1998, when she was thirty four, she produced a “seven tomb series,” including black tomb, prince tomb, tomato tomb, nymph tomb, princess tomb and flower tomb. Through her encounter with Bari, she seems to realize her essence as a shaman. Indeed, she is proving herself to be an incarnation of the Great Shaman on stage. Probably the piece Princess Bari-The Life was the conclusion of her work as a modern dance artist as well as the starting point of her new dance. After having met with Bari, she can now search for joy and anger in the bodies of others as a choreographer: Dancing Grandmothers (2010), Dancing Teen Teen (2011), Dancing Middle-Aged Men (2012) and One Minute and Fifty Nine Seconds (2013). As she points out, spontaneous dance without any learning involved is free and true dance that exposes the history of one’s body. According to her, the dance was a historical scene in which their bodies express the full spectrum of life. She calls it “Anthropology of the body”: “The wrinkled body was the book and container of their story. The dance was a crystalized beauty of life made from the condensation of sagas.”[2] Accordingly, the role of choreographers is to help them find such expression on the stage. This is the very form of shamanism Eun Me Ahn has inherited from Bari. To her, shamanism does not only lie in the tradition itself, but is deeply rooted inside her nature as a choreographer.

Thanks to Garett Marshall for initial editing.

Final editing for Critical Stages by L. T. Renaud.


[1] “Gut and Dance, ‘Gutchum,’” Byung-Ok Lee, Searching for the Roots of Korean Performing Arts: Shaman Culture, edited by Korea Performing Arts Center, Youlhwadang Publishers, 2013, pp. 249-252
[2] Eun-Me Ahn’s interview with MBC TV on February 19, 2016

photo Yi-Joung NOH

*Yi Joung Noh is a Korean theatre critic. She has taught at several universities, including the School of Drama, Korean National University of Arts. She edited Pan-Asian performing arts magazine and worked as editor for The Korean Theatre Journal. She had served as a member of the executive committee of the Korean Association of Theatre Critics. She is currently serving on juries for national theatrical awards.

Copyright © 2016 Yi Joung Noh
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Korean Choreography Inspired by Shamanist Rituals and Dance