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Preserving Korea's Artistic Tradition
Do you like noisy places? How about loud people? Can you imagine a world so loud that even beautiful sounds just become part of the awful noise, and quiet voices cannot be heard at all? Think of all the wisdom, history and art that would be lost in such a world, simply because our ears have become accustomed to hearing only what is loud and obvious, while wisdom, history and art all speak quietly, and from a distance.

On Saturday, September 25th, I attended Mannal-jae, an annual festival on Muhak Mountain in Masan. Specifically, I was there to see a traditional Korean dance company featuring a CNU student, Lee Seong-Ryeong (Dance, 08). When I arrived, around 4pm, a large audience was already enjoying the festival entertainment. The main event of the afternoon was a karaoke contest. There were judges on the stage, and a silly host introduced people from the audience. One after another, bad singers walked onto the stage and shouted into a microphone, performing their versions of Korean pop songs. After each song, the audience applauded loudly, as more and more people joined the crowd. Some of the contestants were old, and some were very young, but they all had two things in common: (1) they could not sing, and (2) they received great support from the audience.

At the end of the karaoke contest, a man came on stage wearing a red track suit and carrying a saxophone. He was some kind of professional entertainer, and the audience was very enthusiastic and noisy as he sang slightly better than the karaoke contestants, and played his saxophone like a high school musician. Middle-aged women danced wildly as he sang, and the crowd cheered loudly at the end of his performance.

A few minutes later, the silly host introduced the traditional Korean dancers. The crowd clapped, but with much less enthusiasm. The dancers wore elegant costumes. They performed several complicated dances, representing aspects of Korea’s traditional culture. The music they used was mostly traditional Korean folk music. Their movements were precise, subtle, and charming. Their choreography revived old Korean dance forms, and refreshed them with some modern elements. Every few minutes during their one-hour performance, a few people in the audience stood up to leave. They left during the dances, disturbing other people. By the end of this enchanting performance, the audience was much smaller, and a few people seemed bored.

People enjoy karaoke contests, and pop songs in general, because they are easy to understand, and we can all participate. On the other hand, only trained dancers can perform traditional Korean dance, and the audience must try to understand and appreciate the skills and the beauty of what they see. With pop, we play. With art, we learn.

Lee Seong-Ryeong told me that she could see people leaving, and it made her frustrated and disappointed. She explained that her mother, who is the director of the dance company, believes it is very important to preserve this traditional art form, even though it is becoming less popular. They hope to make Korean dance a part of modern popular culture, by combining its traditional qualities with newer influences and styles. They hope to return to a time when there was no separation of dancers and audience, so the art helped to create a feeling of community.

Their task is a difficult one. They are trying to continue speaking quietly in a noisy place. They are asking people with a taste for easy pleasures to appreciate something challenging and complex. A few of us are cheering for them.

Daren Jonescu  media@changwon.ac.kr

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