Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Woori ui Meot" (우리의 멋) - Tradition vs Modernity in North Korean Dance Performances

"Woori ui Meot" (Our Flavor) is a short story by Kim Ja Gyeong that appeared in Choseon Munhak in January 2013. It tells the story of a married couple who are both artists - the wife, Ri Sun, is a famous dancer and the husband, Han Cheong In, is a well-regarded choreographer.

Don-dol-ra-ri (돈돌라리) performance in Pyongyang
The story showcases different views about tradition and modernity in the North Korean creative arts scene. In this tale, we also
get to see Kim Jong Il wearing many different hats - Kim the talent scout, Kim the art critic, Kim the marriage counselor, Kim the detective.

The story is told in a somewhat complicated style, with lots of jumping back and forth in time. The perspective switches frequently between Han's and Kim Jong Il's points of view.

The Plot

The choreographer Han is assigned the task of creating a dance performance showcasing a modernized version of the traditional folk dance "Don-dol-ra-ri." After months of hard work, on opening night the cast and crew are thrilled when Kim Jong Il arrives in person to view Han's new creation. Kim is disappointed, however, to find that Han's modern version has destroyed all traces of the dance's traditional essence and provincial flavor. His suspicions deepen when he sees that Han's wife, the dancer Ri Sun, appears nowhere on the program.

Kim instructs Han to go back and rework the choreography, staying true to the roots of the dance.
"Re-developing a dance to give it a modern feel should not mean erasing all of its distinctive characteristics. In this dance, the colloquial flavor must come out in the hand movements. In some of these scenes it feels like I'm watching a foreign production, but to adopt another country's dance moves is to ignore one's own national character. Is it not?"
Kim also asks about Ri Sun, and Han admits that his wife had been in poor health and decided to retire from the stage. The moment is disclosed in a flashback, in which Ri tells Han that she has too many aches and pains and feels that she should retire from dancing. Han agrees, a little too quickly, as he has had his own concerns about her advancing age. Ri Sun seems strangely disappointed that her husband agreed to her request. Could it be she was only fishing for reassurances?

Detective Kim Jong Il senses that something is not right with Han's story. Even if Ri is getting on in years, surely such a talented dancer doesn't need to retire entirely. She could teach, or help with choreography, or something. Kim recalls how he first met Ri Sun, when he had his father were returning from one of their many on-site guidance visits to the countryside.
That day he and the Great Fatherly Leader had traveled to the Donghaean region to assess the harvest progress and the projected yields. Hearing the sound of song, the General glanced out the car window.
In a rice paddy a little ways off the main road, a group of people were merrily dancing together to the tune of "Don-dol-ra-ri."
The Great Leader ordered the car to stop and stepped out, walking to the side of the road. With his hands pressed to the small of his back he gazed out at the scene.
The volunteers who had come to help with the harvest had joined the farm youths on the half-harvested paddy, forming up to dance in pairs or in circles. The eye was drawn to a slim young woman in blue boots in their midst.
The slender face had a beautiful and refined expression, but even more impressive was the distinct and indigenous flavor of her dance movements. With her short bobbed hair bouncing beneath her ears and her ruddy cheeks glowing on her sweet face, she was clearly a student, but her movements showed great diversity and technical ability as well as ingenuity and character.
The joy of the group dance was further elevated by the melodious sound of the drummers beating earthenware bowls....
Smiling like the sun, the Great Leader slowly stepped down into the paddies. The General followed behind him. As people recognized them they let up a great cheer and cut across the footpaths between the paddies.
The Great Leader accepted their greetings one by one, inquiring about the state of the harvest and farm life. Then he glanced down at the young female student who was clinging to his arm and stomping her feet.
"You dance well. What's your name?"
At the Great Leader's question, the student answered in a clear pure voice, "I'm Ri Sun." The name was as gentle and beautiful as her face.
The Great Leader further pressed, "You seem to be a middle-school student. What do you want to do when you finish school, eh?"...
Ri Sun furtively glanced at her companion. Her eyes seemed to say, "What should I do?"
A woman who had just moments earlier been beating a lively rhythm on the clay pots stepped forward graciously. "Great Leader, she is my daughter. She loves singing and dancing, so she wants to become a teacher in our village school."
The Great Leader smiled at the woman's simple response. "I suppose kindergarten teachers have to be able to dance well. But Ri Sun has the brilliant talent of a real dancer. It would be more appropriate for her to train as dance performer."
"A dance performer!?"
The woman gasped in amazement, overwhelmed at his words.
The above excerpt demonstrates another common depiction of the two Kims, as national talent scouts roving the countryside together. Ri Sun takes the elder Kim's words to heart and trains to join a regional dance troupe, eventually rising to become one of the best dancers in the country and starring in many musicals and films.

Kim Jong Il's thoughts then wander to the story of how Ri and Han first met and came to be married.
  One Pyongyang spring, a grand dance performance was prepared in advance of the Great Fatherly Leader's birthday.
  At that time, Han was a lead dance performer and Ri Sun was one of his back-up dancers.
  The unusually talented young dancer caught the eye of the young man for more than just her beautiful looks and selfless manner. Han, who already dreamed of becoming a choreographer, was smitten by her extraordinary talent.
  Learning that she was leaving Pyongyang after the performance, he vowed to get a vacation and follow her to the countryside.
  "But my mother...."
  "What about your mother? If she refuses me, I'll just have to carry you off!" the strong-willed young Han declared, shaking her arm.
  Sure enough, one week later he sought her out.
  Though he had acted bold in front of her, when he actually got to her family home his bachelor's heart felt like it would burst from his chest. Trying to calm his racing pulse, he approached her house.
  The first person he met was Ri Sun's mother. She was truly a Hamgyeong matron. With a voice twice as loud as her husband, and a strong independent spirit, she took one look at the young bachelor and turned away with a snort.
  She was a woman who firmly controlled her household affairs, brushing aside her mousy husband, and she had waited a long time to find a proper husband for her daughter.
  As he later learned, there was a local tradition behind the mother's high expectations for her daughter.
  In the Bukcheong region, from olden times, at the start of spring whole villages would gather to celebrate the start of planting with a merry dance, and the woman who danced best would marry the bravest and hardest-working young man.
  Therefore, Ri Sun's mother had expected that  a truly amazing husband would step forward to claim her beautiful, virtuous, dancing star of a daughter.
  But this young dancer from Pyongyang, while he had decent features and a large build, was far too slender and fair-skinned.
  "I can't give my daughter to the likes of that," she said curtly, in a harsh northern accent that would have made anyone's heart quail.
  Suddenly a fire blazed in the Pyongyang bachelor's heart. "Why can't you? Eh? A dancer must live with a fellow artist to be happy."
  The hot-tempered young man with the crackling voice did not seem about to back down. She had thought him a weakling who couldn't even hold a tin cup, but at the sight of his rebellious outburst something stirred in her heart.
  Her eyes spoke: This is the one! 
  A little later, she sat down facing the young man with a serious look. "Can you guarantee our daughter will continue dancing?"
  Facing the gruff lady his heart faltered a bit, but he raised his chin and replied "Don't worry about that. We are the sort who cannot live outside of the artistic community." 
Lost in thought, Kim Jong Il puzzles at how this happy couple could have drifted apart, and how the talented Han could have suddenly produced such a hack production (얼치기작품).

Meanwhile, the choreographer Han returns home, troubled at having disappointed the Great Leader but determined to produce a better product this time. He barely says a word to his wife and goes straight to his study to work. Sensing something is wrong, Ri Sun approaches to talk to him.
  "Honey, why don't you take a look at this?"
  Han Cheong In glanced blankly at the small notebook his wife had placed tenderly atop his desk. "What's this?"
  At his indifferent question, a smile lit her slender face and she gestured to the bookshelf.
  "These are some dance steps I've been researching in my spare time. I thought they might help you in your new project."
  "?!"
  "Also... shouldn't you put in the clay pot rhythms for Don-dol-ra-ri to have the right flavor? So I thought...." Gently hinting at her intent, she pointed at several dance notations.
  Suddenly a bitter grimace erupted on Han's face. Glaring at his wife, he wordlessly swept the notebook aside. The book flopped to the floor with a thud.
  The interplay of light and dark on his wife's frozen face, the fluttering of her long eyelashes...
Everything about his wife suddenly seems to irritate Han, even her cooking. After traveling broadlly through Europe and Southeast Asia for his work, he has developed more global tastes, and his wife's cooking seems hopelessly provincial by comparison. Unhappily regarding the traditional Korean meal of fermented soybean soup with green peppers and radish kimchi his wife prepared, he remembers a recent dinner at a friends' house that was much more exotic and flavorful.

Han slaves away on his own and presents a new product several months later, but this too is a failure. His superiors call him in to his office to admonish him, criticizing the work as "appropriation" (유람식현실체험) and "ignoring reality" (현실을 무시하는) and "too artsy" (예술지상주의).

Han returns home, absolutely dejected, to find that his wife and daughter are gone. He finds a note his wife left on his desk, explaining that she went back to her family home to recuperate and that she didn't want to trouble him with her health problems. The note is dated three days earlier; startled, Han realizes that he was so absorbed in his work that he hadn't been home for a long time. Han collapses in despair.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il returns from a long day of on-site guidance at military units to review the tapes sent by the dance studio. He sees at once that the new product is little better than the first, and again Ri Sun is missing. He had received reports that Han had recently been rebuked by his superiors and had submitted a self-criticism to his Party organization, confessing to being "self-centered and arrogant" in his compositions. Kim intuitively senses that part of the problem is Han's belittling attitude toward Ri Sun.

Just then Han and the studio director show up at Kim's office. Kim welcomes them and sets straight to work pointing out the problems of the latest composition. He then tries to point Han in the right direction:
  "Our literature and art must be spread to the world. But in creating a global art form, we must not copy others' work or seek to match others' tastes.
  "We often say that we must develop independence and  national character in our revolution and construction, but what does this mean? It is seeing the value in our own things, our own flavor, and making them shine. Our own things are the seed of independence and the basis for national character. Even if we dance with great national pride, our dances must be matched to the rhythm and taste of our people, just as our food must be matched to the tastes of our people.
  "Comrade choreographer, what kind of food do you like? Do you perhaps prefer macaroni and sandwiches over Pyongyang cold noodles and steamed rice cakes?"
  Han Cheong In's face burned bright red to the tips of his ears. His wife's teary face rose up suddenly before his eyes. It twisted his heart to think how he had privately resented her provincial tastes when she served up her fermented soybean soup with tofu and green peppers.
  Thinking back on it, his wife's decision to leave the stage was not due to health issues but rather was her way of dealing with her despair and sore feelings of abandonment. Ultimately, his enchantment with foreign ways had led him to ignore his wife and produce this hack piece of work...
Kim tells Han not to despair, then proceeds to sit down and work through the problem with him.
  The General grinned, as if to sweep away the heavy mood that pervaded the room.
  "So, let's work out some dance steps together. A new dance, adorned with our own flavor and our bright future, filled with the will and strength of our people, ushering in the dawn of the strong and rich nation [강성국가] on this land."
  (The dawn of the strong and rich nation! the dawn of the strong and rich nation!)
  Han Cheong In savored the General's words. His body was gripped with a new creative energy.
  "Now, Comrade Han Cheong In, what do you see as the primary theme of 'Don-dol-ra-ri'?" the General asked gently.
  Han could not conceal his bewilderment. He, who had analyzed all manner of new forms of modern dance, could not grasp a simple primary theme. His heart was flooded with disillusionment and self-doubt like thick gutter water.
  The General, who had been observing his body language closely, smiled reassuringly. "Don-dol-ra-ri has its own distinctive primary motif, rich in provincial flavor. The arm movements, simulating the waves of the ocean, and the hands moving up and down as the shoulders dance." One by one, the General described in detail various dance moves, always including elements of traditional folk dance.
  Suddenly a light switched on in Han Cheong In's mind. His thoughts, that had been so clouded with various complex steps and routines, suddenly became crystal clear. Filled with a sudden joy, he unthinkingly exclaimed, "General! I finally, finally have it!"
  "You have it?" he laughed aloud. "That's still not nearly all of it. But please put in more effort and make a better product. Also, the stage props should be pots and bowls, not flowers, and a gourd rhythm section is essential to help bring out the provincial essence."
Kim sends Han to the countryside with orders to help his wife's speedy recovery and, along the way, work on the dance while soaking up the inspiring environment of the Bukcheong region. Han shows up at his in-laws house to make a teary apology and is warmly received by the extended family. He and his wife set to work immediately together on the dance choreography.

One morning, Han's mother-in-law announces that she is headed off to the annual harvest distribution ceremony, where there will be a traditional dance-off. She invites Han and Ri Sun to come along, but Han briskly brushes her off, saying they are far too busy working on the choreography. She heads off with her granddaughter, gourds and pots in hand, to join the rhythm section.

In the end, Kim Jong Il must lead the horse to water and make him drink. Later that morning a car arrives and out steps a high-level official. He says that he was in the area on business and had instructions from the General to make sure that Han attends the harvest distribution dance festival. The bewildered Han and his wife head off to observe the festivities.
  He was instantly intoxicated by the strange scene before his eyes.
  In the broad open square, the Don-dol-ra-ri dance was unfolding to the rhythm of the gongs and drums.
  It was like a beautiful painting: Under the bright blue sky, smiling farm women clapping their hands and dancing, whirling in a 12-foot sangmo, farm youths overflowing with health and beauty.
  To the side a broad cloth was spread out, and there sat his mother-in-law with other women, singing and beating a lively rhythm on their pots.
  Matching the rhythm of the song, village elders called out "good! good!" as they danced the gopsae.
  So this is the beautiful song of our people. How lively, how romantic is our dance.
  An extraordinary fever rose in Han Cheong-In's heart. Suddenly, he was overcome with the urge to dance.
Han takes his wife's hand and they join in the dance together, all the while making mental notes of the steps and the choreography. Months later, the final product is presented to resounding success.


Central Theme

The central theme of the story is made clear on p.21, as Kim Jong Il contemplates the source of the problem after Han's second failure.
  In the present era, as international and inter-regional exchanges have grown more active in diverse areas such as politics, economics, and culture, much progress has been made toward cooperation and collaboration across national boundaries in various fields. This has had great meaning in preparing an advantageous global environment for the struggle to construct states and nations. But to simply absorb foreign ideas as they are, ignoring one's own nation, would be foolish and an invitation to subordination and self-destruction.
  The matter of Han and his family made the General feel more strongly than ever that adhering faithfully to independence and national consciousness is vital to ensuring a dignified, happy life and promising future for the nation.
  The General had been standing at the window, observing the warbling birds in his garden, but now he turned to face Han Chung In. "What does it really mean to say that we love 'our own things'? Precisely, it means love of humanity and of our nation. It is this love that forms the basis for the strong and rich nation (강성국가) that we are building on this land."
This theme comes out not only in the making of the dance, but in the interaction between Han and Ri Sun. The wife represents a pure adherence to traditional culture, not only in her dance but in her cooking and her wifely deference to her husband. Her provincial roots in Bukcheong are contrasted with the cosmopolitan Han, who is from Pyongyang. At the same time, Ri's decision to enter the modern profession of dancing places her in the vanguard role of advancing Korean culture for a modern global audience.

Traditional Dance and the Anti-Japanese Resistance

The background of Don-dol-ra-ri is explained early on from Kim Jong Il's perspective:
  The folk dance "Don-dol-ra-ri" originated from the "wild chive dance" that had been beloved by the daughters of Bukcheong coastal region since time immemorial. It was said that every spring, the women of the region would go to gather wild chives in the dunes, and during breaks they would dance merrily to the folk tune "Don-dol-ra-ri."
  In the 1930s this dance was further developed and popularized as a symbol of the national liberation movement. At that time, people would dance to the tune while changing the words from "don-dol-ra-ri" to "dong-teul-nar" (day of dawn), in other words, "liberation day."
  The birthplace of "Don-dol-ra-ri," Bukcheong, is famous not only for its rich resources and beautiful scenery but for having produced many great artists and thinkers, and for its unmatched patriotic anti-Japanese spirit. The region also bears the sacred footprints of the great female anti-Japanese resistance fighter, Comrade Kim Jeong Suk. [Kim Jong Il's mother]
  In 1937 Mother had been working as an underground resistance fighter in Docheon-ri in the Changbaek region, and in the summer of that year she went to South Hamgyeong to help strengthen domestic resistance organizations.
  One day, she organized a secret gathering, disguised as a group of river fishermen, between members of the Fatherland Independence Association (조국광복회) and the son of the patriotic martyr Ri Jun, to convince him to join in the pan-national struggle against Japanese imperialism. Little expecting that a Japanese patrol would pass by...
  Alerted to the danger, the Fatherland Independence Association members spontaneously began dancing the "Don-dol-ra-ri." They mocked the bastards with their bright, cheerful and frank dance moves, as Mother joined in with the others beating the tune in the gourd pot rhythm section.
  The bastards, having no clue, turned and left, and the dance grew ever more gleeful with the thrill of having brilliantly deceived the enemy.
  It was said that in the Bukcheong region "Don-dol-ra-ri" was so well-known that it was said wherever a dance was happening, passing trains would slow down and passengers would lean out the windows to watch. But due the cultural annihilation policy of the  Japanese imperialists and the acts of a few narrow-minded individuals after liberation, the dance had gradually faded from the people's memory.
  Then in October of 1959, the Great Fatherly Leader visited Bukcheong and saw a group of farmers dancing the "Don-dol-ra-ri," and delivered a precious teaching on the need to develop our folk culture. "Dong-teul-nal" was reborn as "Don-dol-ra-ri."
For reference, an example of Don-dol-ra-ri as it is performed in Pyongyang can be viewed here.

North Korean productive culture

For a foreign audience, one of the hidden values of this story is the insight it offers into the mechanisms of North Korean cultural production. Han does not come up with the Don-dol-ra-ri project on his own or on commission from some wealthy patron; rather, his assigned the task by his superiors, under the command of the Party organization.

In lieu of independent theater critics, Han's production goes through several stages of internal review by his superiors at the theater organization. When he receives bad reviews he submits a self-criticism to the Party organization, which passes it on - all the way to the desk of Kim Jong Il! Kim also receives tapes of works in progress. In the story, Kim appears to have a close personal relationship to the theater organization and even shows up unexpectedly.

There is some discussion of the pressures facing dancers as they get older; Ri Sun's age is given as 34, which Han thinks is a bit old for a headliner, but Kim thinks she has "several years" left in her.

Though this is obviously an idealized vision of the North's creative arts scene, it nevertheless offers insight into workplace dynamics that are likely shared by North Korean writers, which the author takes for granted but which are quite novel to a foreign audience.


Kim Ja Gyeong, "Woori ui Meot," Choseon Munhak, January 2013, pp. 11-25.
 김자경, “우리의 멋,” 「조선문학」 (2013. 1), pp 11-25.