Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dissertation Excerpt: Age and Performance


Watching performances in Korea over many years, and being familiar with the CPPL [Cultural Property Protection Law] system I have long accepted that the performers will frequently be quite elderly. When I returned to Korea for my year of dissertation field research I was lucky to be supported by the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship which offers a spousal stipend. My husband, a Tibetan performing artist, was therefore frequently dragged along to performances as my escort and as a cameraman. Because my research focuses on transmission of performing arts knowledge by individuals who are within the CPPL system, I rarely go to see shows by energetic twenty-somethings. In large group performances, such as mask dance dramas and pungmul, the performers have a large age range, but I can only think of three shows in the past year that did not include performers past forty and all three were outside the CPPL system but headlined by young performers from inside the system. In all these shows Karjam's largest and enduring criticism has been related to the age of the performers: how younger (and he sometimes also mentioned more beautiful/handsome) performers would have presented a much "better" performance.
            It is true that in high level dance companies around the world the leading performers are often fairly young: in the case of ballet it is infamous how early the careers of the dancers peak. When I picture older performers in the West, my mental rolodex supplies orchestra conductors, the occasional classical music soloist and opera singers; yet it is safe to say that all of these individuals intend to retire leaving their reputation for strong performances intact. East Asia with a foundational respect for age and experience, not to mention the teachings of Confucius, places more elderly people in the limelight in all sectors of society. In Korea the oldest and most experienced performer, often a National Human Treasure, will frequently be the star – drawing the audience, providing the focus for media coverage and receiving adoring standing ovations.
            I have seen performances by dancers so infirm I was afraid that when the choreography required them to kneel down they would not be able to rise again at the proscribed place in the music. Performances by dancers who pushed themselves off the stage floor using the hand drums and drum sticks they had knelt down to retrieve. Performances by dancers who have lost their balance and so quiver and sway as they stand on one foot. Performances by dancers whose hands were visibly shaking. Performances by dancers who walk out with a cane and pick it back up as soon as they've taken their bow for the walk off the stage. Performances by dancers who are led onto stage and helped off again at the end. Performances by dancers who had obviously abridged a dance in order to last through to the end of the performance. I even saw a performance by a dancer so beset by osteoporosis that she was bent over with a huge hump on her back. Sometimes an entire evening with seven to nine dances each between ten and fifteen minutes in length will be performed by dancers with an average age in the high seventies. I love these performances. In most of these cases I felt the dances were richer, deeper and more meaningful; I have been moved to tears. Yet there is no denying that a forty or fifty year old could have executed salpuri, seungmu or taepyeongmu after twenty-five or thirty years of training with the same technical proficiency and hopefully just as much emotional complexity as their elderly teacher: but with perfect balance and a straight back.
            What about Korea encourages the performance of elderly dancers?  I see three interlocking reasons for staging the elderly. First, there is the desire of the audience for the authentic, for the person trained in the village who is the embodied connection with a near-mythical past that has been lost in the urbanized modern age. Watching the performer who physically holds the 'old' knowledge and 'old' ways may be more rewarding (emotionally) than watching the young and beautiful dancer who after even two or three years of practice should  theoretically be able to perform the dance well. Second, there may be something about the aesthetic of specific Korean dances which cannot be successfully communicated by a lithe young dancer. Dances such as salpuri, the solo of Mundung in Goseong Ogwangdae or almost any of the old monk characters in the various mask dance dramas require a certain degree of heaviness or sorrow to be infused with the motions (c.f. Loken-Kim and Crump 1993, Loken-Kim 1983, Jeong BH 1997). This can be particularly hard for young dancers, although it is not impossible. If an audience expects flexibility, swiftness, precision and grace these older dancers may not perform as "beautifully" as younger dancers, but for an audience who expects the appropriate Korean aesthetic the performance of a weathered grandmother may be superior to that of a twenty-two year-old dance-college graduate with a Miss Korea face. Third the CPPL system itself may play a role here. By labeling a performer a National Human Treasure their performance has been given an added value, they are more of a "star," or a "brand" than the performers who have not yet attained this rank. Even though a National Human Treasure may be past their peak, even though their performance may be less captivating than it was five, ten or twenty years ago, the legitimizing effect of the law is strong. In addition within their group they are accorded the respect due their ability, knowledge, age and rank. This means that often they have right of first refusal on an opportunity to dance. Since the CPPL requires the National Human Treasure to perform, a performance opportunity may seem more like an obligation. If the performer too often declines performance opportunities they should retire to the sidelines and become an Honorary National Human Treasure (the non-stipended designation for former National Human Treasures who are too infirm to continue their activities). In some cases this may be a financially difficult decision to make, in other cases stubborn pride or a desire for the limelight may interfere. In practice Honorary National Human Treasures are almost always no longer physically able to leave their homes or a health-care facility. Talking with Imshil Pilbong Nongak isuja Yi Jonghui he agreed with my arguments but also said "I think they continue to perform because they want to. They still have the desire for the stage."[1] In a society and in front of an audience that accepts the performances of the elderly, there is nothing stopping them.[2]
            Obviously I have just laid out the active involvement in performance of elderly dancers, but what about the musicians? Do they push it so far? While watching a performance with Yu Sejeong, a daegeum player currently working on a MA in traditional music theory at the Korean National University of the Arts, I leaned over and asked her if musicians who now shake and quiver continue to perform.[3] Sejeong answered "When someone watches an old dancer it's obvious the dancer is old, and people are impressed that they can dance despite the physical difficulty. For the old musicians it isn't so obvious that they're old, it just starts to sound bad. The musicians retire when they feel they cannot perform at a high level anymore."  Racking my mental images of Korean performances I have seen, I only uncovered one case of a musician who was now shaking but as of fall 2010 still performing. Hwang Yongju, the National Human Treasure from Seonsori Santaryeong, dances and sings while beating the janggu. He is still leading his group despite his thinning voice and shaking hands, but he is also visibly old, not like the seated soloist or musician in the imagined ensemble in Sejeong's example. In some ways Hwang is the figurehead and mascot for the group while younger members take over a more substantial degree of the drumming and singing in each of the Seonsori Santaryeong performances I have seen in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Heo Juri, a gayageum player, had a similar opinion, pointing out that a few elderly performers continue into their seventies, but that it's unusual and only in the instruments that do not require an intense level of physical exertion.[4]


[1] Personal conversation, April 5th, 2011 at the Imshil Pilbong Nongak Seoul Training Center.
[2] Korea is not the only location in which the performances of elderly artists are highly valued. The day I finished writing this article the International Herald Tribune (the international edition of the New York Times) ran an article about Tsuyako Ito, an 84-year-old Japanese geisha, the last one in the tsunami stricken town of Kamaishi who was preparing for a performance at the time that the tsunami struck, but had to be carried to higher ground by an admirer.
[3] Personal conversation, April 4th, 2011 at KOUS.
[4] Personal conversation, April 5th, 2011 at the Imshil Pilbong Nongak Seoul Training Center.

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