Review: A South Korean Troupe’s Physical Risks and Daunting Tasks

The South Korean contemporary dance company Bereishit takes its name from the first word of the Torah, meaning “in the beginning.” The group’s founder, Park Soon-ho, has said: “We named the dance company after that word because I cherish beginnings, including those with new dancers and new experiences.”

That might sound a bit generic, but Park’s work is not. The energy of trying something new, entwined with older traditions, infused the program that the Seoul-based company brought to NYU Skirball on Friday and Saturday, a presentation with the Korean Cultural Center New York. “Judo” (2014) and “Balance and Imbalance” (2010), both New York premieres, made clear that as a choreographer Park also cherishes physical risk and the swift, fearless execution of daunting tasks. The company’s eight dancers were fully up for the challenge.

“Judo” began on a lighthearted note, far from where it would end up, with the dancers balancing red athletic mats on their heads while swaying their hips. Lowering themselves to the ground beneath these props, they managed to piece together one large mat, a cushioned dance floor that would soften the impact of many blows to follow.

The 30-minute work is described in program notes as an exploration of the human impulse toward violence and its release through sports. Its escalating danger raises the question: Where does practice or play end and something more brutal begin? Early on, a unison phrase found the dancers, dressed in black pants and suit jackets, operating like a pack, a team, as they bounced in wide-legged stances or slid side-to-side on their knees, facing the audience. Together they slapped the ground with their jackets, accenting the ominous rhythmic score, then turned the violence on themselves, slapping their own backs.

Soon teammates became opponents. In the most exhilarating section (and the one most directly reminiscent of martial arts), two dancers sprinted toward each other across the mat, one leaping up with a bladelike kick that knocked the other to the floor, but seemingly without physical contact. This lightning-quick maneuver happened over and over with different pairs, its repetition chilling. Yet what felt almost mechanical became more poignant when one dancer, Na Ji-hun, was left alone, standing his ground. Continuing to weather the blow from others who emerged from the wings like shadows, he regained his footing each time.

Efficient acrobatics returned in “Balance and Imbalance,” which featured traditional Korean percussion and chanting, performed live by three musicians who shared a warm rapport, including the charismatic vocalist Kim Jae-woo. In partnering and ensemble work that suggested both tenderness and conflict, six dancers embodied the rousing, unpredictable cadences of the drumming and song. The epic chant known as Sugungga, which tells the story of a sea king outwitted by a rabbit, was the occasion for a dynamic duet between Kim and the adroit dancer Doh Yun-seung, who could transform in an instant from puffed-up and proud to an assemblage of jangling limbs.

Park’s choreography can rest too heavily on beginnings: a novel image or impressive feat introduced and left unresolved; ideas started and abandoned. The accumulation of many such beginnings is frustrating from some angles, and from others, it amounts to an elusive poetry.

Bereishit

Performed Friday and Saturday at NYU Skirball.

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