The UK is hosting a cultural exchange with South Korea over the next 14 months, starting at Edinburgh and set to peak with the Winter Olympics. Nick Awde reports on the mutual benefits
Like K-pop, dance and gritty screen thrillers, theatre forms part of the ongoing cultural soft export drive from South Korea, a country that is confidently underwriting its international presence with funding and promotion, guaranteeing appreciative audiences. Particularly in the English-speaking world. This year, the UK plays host to Korea/UK 2017-18 – a major programme that encompasses all the arts and includes a bumper theatre presence at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Korea/UK 2017-18 is one side of a reciprocal cultural exchange with the slogan ‘Creative Futures’ – “to forge futures for both emerging artists and new audiences in the arts and creative industries of the UK and Korea”. Meanwhile, UK/Korea 2017/18 has the British Council taking UK companies to Korea to showcase.
In the UK, it’s the Korean Cultural Centre UK that has the central role in bringing over Korean artists from a range of disciplines. Festival appearances include the Dance Umbrella festival in London – with choreographer Eun-Mi Ahn’s Let Me Change Your Name – and the Greenwich+Docklands International Festival. There’s music, with K-pop and indie bands as well as classical music – and art too.
The theatre element nicely reflects the growing appreciation in the UK of the Korean approach to stage work – and it’s satisfying to see things listed like the exhibition ‘Rehearsals from the Korean Avant-Garde Performance Archive’.
After a steady, focused trickle of theatre from Korea, we’ve now got what’s probably the largest offering to date and not all of it is obvious ministry-of-culture fare, as you’d usually expect of foreign programmes. There’s also a strong showing from independent companies large and small.
Aside from the physical distance of Korea, language is a major challenge. Jaeyeon Park, team leader for performing arts at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, explains: “Music, dance and non-verbal performances are more appealing to the international market compared to plays. But though the language barrier exists, we have tried to introduce Korean plays to the UK and find ways for the British people to more easily access them.”
Producer Junyoung Kim of the Korean Arts Management Service adds: “In shows from Far East countries, the language barrier is always a major issue. However, we can’t only bring non-verbal theatre, as we want to demonstrate a range of work.”
There are 10 Korean cultural centres across Europe at the moment, whose performance programmes tend to focus more on dance, music and non-verbal performances. In the UK, KCCUK works with partner organisations such as the British Council and Dance Umbrella to develop new audiences, but for theatre at Edinburgh 2017 it has looked for homegrown expertise from the Korean Arts Management Service, which has a long relationship with the festival.
Founded in 2006, KAMS supports international exchanges and the “enhancement of the industrial competitiveness of the Korean performing arts”. It does this through launching exchange strategies tailored for different regions that tap on overseas markets through its network of international partners.
KAMS shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017
• Medea on Media – Seongbukdong Beedoolkee (C Venues)
• Behind the Mirror – Go Theatre Company (C Venues)
• Snap – Gruejarm Production (Assembly)
• Tago: Korean Drum II – TAGO (Assembly Rooms)
• Mind Goblin – Lee Kay Dance (Dance Base)
Kim appreciates the timing: “It’s the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh Fringe and it’s also a very special year for us because of starting the 14-month-long journey of the cultural exchange. Introducing UK artists to Korea shares the -differences, new changes and contemporary questions in UK arts and culture, while there will be 18 theatre productions – five supported by the Korean government and KAMS – and one talk to come to Edinburgh to meet UK and world audiences.”
Park is similarly appreciative of the hard work this reflects: “KCCUK has supported individual groups attending -Edinburgh for at least six years as well as supporting agencies like AtoBiz, which has extensive experience of presenting in Edinburgh. KAMS has also supported and funded Korean events in Edinburgh for more than a decade. We therefore adopted these existing structures into Korea/UK 2017-18.
“The Korean Cultural Centre supports the companies with specialised marketing consulting to take part in the Edinburgh programme, alongside the Korean Arts Management Service.”
As a result of this collaboration between the two organisations, Korean companies will have the chance to introduce their work to industry professionals via a showcase at the Place in London before heading up to Edinburgh.
The primary goal is to set up collaborations between -cultural institutions in both countries, says Park. “For example, we have set up some residency programmes for visual artists. This usually involves participants visiting both countries and learning about local cultural practices. In May 2018, Korean dance companies will be presented at the Place, including the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company. In the longer term, we hope to organise conferences and more residencies for artists. We hope that the outcome of this will be longstanding collaborative arts projects between UK and Korea.”
5 things you need to know about Korean theatre
1. Evolved through storytelling (pansori) and dance (talchum or ‘mask dance’). Western influence from 19th century saw the first modern theatre built in 1902 and dramatic works known as ‘new plays’.
2. Aside from a significant number of mainstream producing companies, there is also a bustling independent sector in Seoul. Folk genres are popular and constantly reinvented. Strong presence of companies and musicals from the rest of the world.
3. Founded in 1950, the National Theatre of Korea was the first nationally managed theatre in Asia. Home to the National Drama Company of Korea, the National Changgeuk (traditional Korean opera) Company of Korea, the National Dance Company of Korea and the National Orchestra Company of Korea.
4. Seoul’s equivalent of Off-Off-Broadway is Daehakro (‘respect for teaching’). The city’s university district, it boasts around 150 theatres with outdoor events and festivals in Marronnier Park.
5. The former government of impeached President Park Geun-hye blacklisted artists considered critical of the administration. More than 9,000 people were affected and a group is now filing a lawsuit against the government.
At the recent Greenwich+Docklands International Festival, four Korean companies participated for the first time with the support of the British Council.
Ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, Eun-mi Ahn Dance Company – which will be at Dance Umbrella for the first time this October – and the UK’s Performing Arts Network and Development Agency are currently working with the British Council to find a theatre for a joint project. The collaboration between the two countries will be shown in Pyeongchang in February along with a performance from the UK’s Candoco Dance Company, which includes disabled and non-disabled performers.
In Korea itself, dance has been making the most waves this year, notably Eun-mi Ahn’s experimental output, which is being given extensive overseas exposure.
The programme by Anseong Soo, director of the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, at the Place for the Korean Dance Week next year is a good example of how Korean choreographers fuse traditional and modern elements, characterised by combining the aesthetics of Western dance with older Korean elements. “The Korean theatre scene is healthy,” says Park. “However, compared to the UK, the Korean theatre market is a little under-developed. And, in general, musicals are more popular than traditional plays.”
It’s a tricky thing to pin down, but the programme does help reinforce the strong resonances between Korean and UK theatre, particularly in the way our theatre reflects the heartbeat of modern life while also celebrating its traditional elements.
Certainly, theatre has a growing voice of its own in Korea, as Kim explains: “Recently, some 9,000 artists who were deemed unfriendly to our previous President Park Geun-hye’s administration were blacklisted and not to be supported by the government. It was and continues to be a huge issue. Theatre artists were not excepted. So finally theatre has become ‘self-expression’, it teaches us about ourselves and it has become a great way to learn about issues in Korean society.”
Additional Korean shows at Edinburgh
• Kokdu: The Soul Mate – MAC Theatre (Assembly)
• Binari – MAC Company (C Venues)
• The Korean Tale of Princess Bari – Norrikkun (C Venues)
• The Merry Wives of Windsor – Chang Moon (Greenside)
• Arisol: Samulnori – PungMulCheonJi and GoodPae (C Venues)
• Monkey Dance: The Rockappella Musical! – Ggiri and Wins (C Venues)
• Ongals: Babbling Comedy – Ongals (Assembly Roxy)
• Death City – Park Gol Box (Greenside)
• After 4 – Over the Moon (Zoo Southside)
• Black and White Tea Room – Theatre Huam (Paradise)
Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 London Showcase takes place at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, on July 27, featuring Snap, Tago: Korean Drum II, Death City, Black and White Tea Room. london.korean-culture.org; eng.gokams.or.kr; britishcouncil.kr/en/uk-korea-2017-18