Choreographer Ahn Sungsoo, a Creator with a Singular Style


Choreographer Ahn Sungsoo, a Creator with a Singular Style

At this year’s PAMS Choice, the Sungsoo Ahn Pick-up Group, partaking in the showcase for the third time, will present its latest work, Immixture. Grounded in traditional Korean music and dance traditions, Immixture recently premiered at Chaillot National Theater in Paris. While many of Ahn’s works have garnered praise overseas, the response to Immixture was especially enthusiastic. Ahn, who started the group while attending the Julliard School and began his career as a professional dancer based in New York, has walked a different path than is typical in the dance culture of Korea. He has also developed his own inimitable style. Ahn, who says his work on Immixture involved listening to almost everything sung by master singer Kim So-hee, of whom he has long been a fan, talked to us about his latest work and about who he’s become as a choreographer. 

▲ Interviewer Yim Su-jin and choreographer Ahn Sung-soo © Lee Gang-hyuk

▲ Interviewer Yim Su-jin and choreographer Ahn Sung-soo © Lee Gang-hyuk

You started the Sungsoo Ahn Pick-up Group twenty years ago and lead it to this day. What motivated you to start the group, and what were its early days like?

When I was a student at Julliard, we often had showcases at school. If you were interested in creating an original work, you could present it at the showcase. My projects were well received by my peers and teachers. Around the same time, I auditioned for the Fresh Tracks performance and residency program, run by Dance Theater Workshop, and I was selected. What I created then became the first professional performance of the Sungsoo Ahn Pick-up Group. While in school, I collaborated with my fellow students, and once out of school, I collaborated with professional dancers. I began to focus more intently on how music could be expressed, so I mostly met and worked with dancers who were quick and agile.

You got into dance relatively late.

I attended Sogang University for about a year and a half as a journalism and broadcasting major before leaving to do my military service. Afterward, I went to the United States to study film at the University of Miami. But after a year and a half there, I realized I didn’t particularly enjoy theory-based classes. One day, I was exercising after class, and a friend who knew I was concerned about some stiffness in my body recommended I take a ballet class, for the stretching. That was how I ended up taking my first dance class. In the beginning, I mostly just did the stretching, but out of curiosity, I started taking other classes. It was a fantastic feeling to move my body and create something in the process.  

So you were taught to dance for the first time as an adult. Did it feel awkward at all, moving your body like that?

It’s true that dance can look difficult, in a way that’s sort of hard to define, but when I first started, I was learning things that could be taught and explained on paper—height, timing, speed. It wasn’t about technique—doing high kicks, for example—like it is in Korea. It was fun. 

And it was after this that you went to New York?

When I was at the University of Miami, a dance professor from Julliard visited our school, and he took an interest in me. A year later, auditions for Julliard were held at our school, and I was admitted on a scholarship. That was how I officially got started dancing. I graduated from Julliard in three years, and I was active as a professional dancer for about five years, with my base in New York. My company grew in size, and we attracted considerable attention. After a final performance at the Joyce Theater, I returned to Korea. 

Did you have works performed in New York that were especially memorable?  

There was a program at the American Dance Festival that matched choreographers with composers. I was selected to be one such choreographer and worked together with the composer and dancers for four weeks. I have special memories of the piece we created then, BIM. Like my work today, BIM was first and foremost about elements of music, and height, direction, and pace, rather than a specific story. 

The dance culture in Korea, which centers on universities, is not the environment in which you developed as a choreographer. The way you work is different, as is what you produce. In a way, you’ve taken the otherwise uniform Korean dance scene in a new direction.

I had a mentor to show me the way—the late Benjamin Harkarvy, who was director of the Julliard Dance School and founder of the Nederlands Dans Theater. One thing, though, that made him different from teachers in Korea, is that he never “taught” me choreography. He simply gave me suggestions. For example, he suggested I work on a piece to present at the Holland Dance Festival, but during the process, he didn’t come by and make this or that suggestion or interfere in any way. He didn’t even ask to see it before the premiere. So I wasn’t explicitly influenced by anyone else; I did everything on the basis of my own experience. This might be something that differentiates me from dance as it’s done in Korea.  

You’re currently a professor in the Department of Choreography at Korea National University of Arts. Do you find that your experiences as a student have affected the way you, as an educator, teach your own students?

Yes. I don’t give my students direct instruction. Over my eighteen years of teaching, probably fewer than ten students have received direct instruction from me on what I know. I focus on teaching my students one thing: how to survive as a dancer. Because it’s not easy. I tell them to strive not to become “someone who choreographs dances” but to become creators—to not simply come up with motions but actually become people who can take their thoughts and give them concrete expression. As a matter of fact, quite a few students in our graduate programs don’t dance professionally, yet they are the ones who understand what this kind of creation is about

▲ Choreographer Ahn Sung-soo © Lee Gang-hyuk

▲ Choreographer Ahn Sung-soo © Lee Gang-hyuk

Do you give your students feedback after you watch their performances?

I do go and watch the performances, but I never voice my opinions. They can only get to know things through their own experiences—my telling them won’t do anything. What I do tell them is to not be too greedy, and to try to see things the way the audience would. With movies, for example, you have movies that are fun to watch and those that aren’t. So think about what the fun movies have in common, I say. And I do this myself as well. When you’re too greedy, your explanations get longer, and ultimately your work just becomes boring. 

You’ve collaborated successfully with local and foreign artists in other genres. You’ve worked multiple times with designer Jung Ku-ho as a producer-choreographer pair; you’ve worked with Yoon Seong-joo, artistic director of the National Dance Company of Korea, and you’ve also worked with Finnish artists. How have these experiences shaped you as a choreographer?

What I like about collaboration is that it’s like building a house. I do this over here, you do that over there, but neither person trespasses on the other’s area of expertise. It’s about two people coming together to achieve the best outcome, so to make that outcome good, you have to be willing to put aside your own ways of doing things and respect each other’s domains.  

You’ve participated from time to time in festivals and art markets outside Korea. Where have you performed, and what has the local response been like?

After we presented Rose (The Rite of Spring) at a previous PAMS Choice, we were invited to Poland, and we also toured various European theaters for a total of fifteen days doing two showcases with Kore-A-Moves, a program organized by the International Performing Arts Project. We were selected to perform at CINARS in Canada, and that got us an invitation to perform in Mexico. More recently, we performed Immixture at Chaillot National Theater in Paris. We’ve always had a very positive response. People liked Rose for its dynamism, Bolero for the Korean elements, and Body Concerto for the jazziness. But Immixture has earned the most enthusiastic response, maybe because it has the most traditional elements.  

▲ Immixture © Sungsoo Ahn Pick-up Group

Immixture © Sungsoo Ahn Pick-up Group

You will be performing Immixture at PAMS Choice. Tell us more about it.  

Jarmo Penttila, programmer at the Chaillot National Theater, visited Korea multiple times over a few years. He was planning a commemorative event for the 130th anniversary of Korea-France diplomatic ties, and he had seen almost every single production. Having seen my work three years before, he asked me if I could create something new. I had a lot of conversations with him, and in light of the nature of the event, we decided the piece should be one that would show people Korea. To that end, I listened to a tremendous amount of traditional Korean music. I purchased and listened to almost everything sung by master singer Kim So-hee, whom I’ve personally always admired. I used music that wasn’t common, as well as Middle Eastern percussion sounds that I incorporate regularly in my work. I based it on the traditional arm motions used in Korean dance, with some modifications, and added swords as props. We used four dancers with backgrounds in traditional Korean dance and one dancer with experience with hip-hop. Immixture is basically a gut [shamanistic ritual], specifically one to mourn those who have died unjustly, as a result of terrorism, for example.  

What movements are part of this “mixed” dance?

Movements I like very much. I like to collaborate with dancers. To explain our work process, for example, I’ll explain the overall gist to Jang Kyung-min, our hip-hop dancer, who will then do a spontaneous dance. Then I’ll have the traditional dancers do something. I record this on video, then go home and see which parts need to be changed, and let the dancers know. In the case of Immixture, it took three years to get from the development stage to the premiere.  

In the past few years, mostly new and up-and-coming choreographers have been selected to perform at PAMS Choice. While their ideas are fresh, in terms of mastery, there are still some things lacking. So I, for one, am very glad that the Sungsoo Ahn Pick-up Group will also be featured this year. What are your thoughts?

I’m very pleased. I share the view that we should try to support younger choreographers as much as possible, but I’m also working hard on my projects, and hoping to do overseas tours. So it’s an excellent opportunity to be part of PAMS Choice. For touring, PAMS Choice is extremely helpful. You can attract the interest of buyers, and if you get an invitation, your airfare is covered. These days, it’s hard to participate in festivals if your airfare is not covered. We were able to perform Rose (The Rite of Spring) overseas numerous times thanks to PAMS Choice. This year as well, we’re hoping for good outcomes with Immixture.

▲ Choreographer Ahn Sungsoo © Lee Gang-hyuk

▲ Choreographer Ahn Sungsoo © Lee Gang-hyuk

What are your future plans for performing in and outside Korea?  

I always plan in ten-year blocks. It’s worked for me thus far. For my final ten years, I plan to do choreography for foreign dance companies. In a sense, my roots are with Western companies, and in my work with them, I want to communicate Korean culture. My choreography is different now, twenty years later, from when I started out in New York. I’d like to work with companies in Europe with prowess in Western techniques. I’m taking steps in this direction, with an eye to the long term. I have a meeting planned for this year with internationale tanzmesse nrw. What’s important with this kind of collaboration is timing, and now seems like a good time. Right now, Europe wants Asia. More than simply working on performances with European companies, I want to make something Western that is intermixed with things Korean. That’s my plan as of now. 



Yim Su-jin (editor-in-chief of dance magazine <i>Momm</i>)
Yim Su-jin (editor-in-chief of dance magazine Momm)
Yim Sujin received her master’s in performance studies at NYU and completed her PhD in art studies at Sungkyunkwan University. Taking a methodology-based approach to performance studies and cultural studies, she conducts research on a variety of performing arts, including dance. She is currently editor-in-chief of the monthly dance magazine Momm