What Escape Route Are Korea’s Public Dance Companies Seeking?


What Escape Route Are Korea’s Public Dance Companies Seeking?
[Trend] Trends in the Activities of Korean Public Dance Companies

Even up until the early 20th century, when Korea was still a kingdom, Korea had a royal dance company.
During the period of Japanese rule(1910–1945) in Korea, the activities of the royal dance company were suspended. After the nation gained independence in 1945, by 1962, the modern history of Korea’s public dance companies had already taken root, first with the establishment of the National Dance Company of Korea and then with the emergence of the National Gugak Center Dance Theater. The National Dance Company of Korea was run under twoart directors, one in charge of original dances in the style of traditional Korean dancing and another in charge of ballet. In 1972 the ballet section separated from the original dance company and the Korean National Ballet was born. In the years that following, beginning in the mid-1970s, city dance companies were established in Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Gwangju, and other major settlements. Incheon, Cheongju, Daejeon, Changwon, Gumi, and other smaller and medium-sized cities established their own municipal dance companies in the 1980s. The dance company of the National Gugak Center was the successor to the royal dance company of the Joseon Dynasty and was established with the primary aim of preserving Korea’s rich dance heritage(i.e., traditional/classical dance and folk dance). At present,there are independently operating National Gugak Center dance companies in Seoul, Namwon, Jindo, and Busan.

The Current State of Korea’s Public Dance Companies

Today there are 25 public dance companies in Korea, a group that can be categorized into national companies and municipal companies. The national companies receive financial assistance from the central government(the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism), whilethe municipal dance companies receive financial assistance from their respective municipal governments. In addition, most public dance companies have a permanent performance venue. Among Korea’s public dance companies, most aim to perform original, Korean traditional style dance pieces. The Korean National Ballet and the Gwangju City Ballet, by contrast, are ballet companies, and the Daegu City Dance Troupe and the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company(KNCDC, established in 2010) are contemporary or modern dance companies. In other words, in the field of public dance companies, where the traditional Korean dance styles based on traditional dance techniques largely dominated, the fact that a contemporary dance company such as the KNCDC was established on anational level reflects not just a growth of the genres of dance in Korea but also changing perceptions of dance as art on the part of the dancers themselves. Seoul has five public dance companies(the National Dance Company of Korea, the dance company of the National Gugak Center, the Korean National Ballet, the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, and Seoul Metropolitan Dance).

The National Dance Company of Korea and the Korean National Ballet each have about 70 members, and the rest of the companies have 30–50 members. One exception is the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, which has no permanent members, save the art director and staff, and thatselects performers anew for each project. The members or performances of the public dance companies all possess a college degree or above, and their ability and faithfulness to their duties are judged to be fairly high. In Korea, about 40 universities produce about 1,200 dance majors each year.

The public dance companies have various social insurance policies in place, including annual salaries. One exception is the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company, which does provide annual salaries to its performers due to them being hired on a project-by-project basis. Among the members of the public dance companies, there are a significant number of voices that have called for a raise in the annual salary, as well asthe need for a better supplement to the current pension system. Almost all of the public dance companies have labor unions comprising the entirety of the dance company.
It is customary to conduct regular auditions at the end of the year among the members of the public dance companies; in the case of the Korean National Ballet, the records of various performances take the place of the annual auditions. The retirement age for a member at the National Dance Company of Korea is 53, and at most public dance companies the retirement age is around 50, but there are dance companies where the age is closer to 60. There are no members with foreign passports at any of the public dance companies, and even in private dance companies, foreigners make up only a minority.

At every public dance company, the members, including the art director, are selected through a public application process. The coveted position of art director is typically offered for a three-year term, and though it’s possible to be reappointed, in the past decade in Korea’s public dance companies, no art director has served over two terms. Given that the tenure of each art director is relatively short, some arguepublic dance companies are unable to develop their own unique characters. In Korea’s public dance companies, the duties of an art director tend to be relatively complicated. The art director not only oversees the creative process for each performance but he or she also oversees the management and administration of the dance company. Some of the public dance companies have a board of directors or some other similar governing body, but it is more common for the art director to oversee the entire operation.

As a rule, the art director of Korea’s public dance companies will possess Korean citizenship, and there have not been any instances of an art director with a foreign passport. It is also customary to select an art director from the pool of dancers who have spent a portion of their professional careers dancing in Korea. The exception to this custom, however, was in 2014 when the Korean National Ballet appointed Korean ballerina Kang Sue-jin as itsart director. Kang had moved to Europe in her mid-teens to study ballet and has danced for the Stuttgart Ballet since entering the Germany-based ballet company at age 19 in 1986. Despite her role in the Korean National Ballet, she continues to dance for the Stuttgart Ballet as a principal dancer.

Jean-Christophe Maillot’s version of “Romeo and Juliet”
ⒸKorean National Ballet
“Already not yet” ⒸKNCDC

Searching for New Directions and a Way Out through International Exchange

The overseas exchanges of Korea’s public dance companies showed a marked increase after 2000, a shift attributed to an overall trend of increased international exchange in Korean society. In recent years, among Korea’s privately run dance companies more than 50 companies have been performing abroad annually. There are also more than 100 overseas companies that perform in Korea each year, with more than half of such performances happening in Seoul. Excluding traditional art genres, private dance organizations staging performances overseas have received more public sector financial assistance compared to theater and music. The companies in question have mostly performed in Europe and Asia, with a recent increase in the number of performances in South America. Contemporary dance performances make up most of the overseas performances of private dance companies, followed by traditional Korean dance, original dances choreographed according to the methods of traditional Korean dance, and ballet.

Most of the international exchange of public dance companies consists of overseas performances and engaging overseas dancers as staff. The Korean National Ballet, Seoul Metropolitan Dance, and Busan Metropolitan Dance Company have performed overseas almost every year since2000, and among these overseas performances there are many instances where the performances were organized for diplomatic reasons, to either promote Korean culture or promote the city hosting the performance. In the case of the Korean National Ballet, there have been several instances where the company invited eminent overseas choreographers as honorary guests and choreographers for the Korean National Ballet, including Yury Grigorovich(“Swan Lake,” “Spartacus”), Jean-Christophe Maillot(“Romeo and Juliet”), and Boris Eifman(“Tchaikovsky”). The Korea National Contemporary Dance Company also engages in this practice. Overall, Korea’s public dance companies have indicated a strengthened determination to pioneer a new direction on a global stage, regardless of genre, and there is a high possibility that there will be an increase in the number ofstage projects through international exchange.

Since 2000, when the Korean National Ballet added Jean-Christophe Maillot’s version of “Romeo and Juliet” to its repertoire of honorary guest choreographer, there has been a departure from theexclusive emphasis on classical ballet. Since then, the company has opted to occasionally showcase neo-classical or modern/contemporary ballets from the likes of George Balanchine, Mats Ek, Boris Eifman, Uwe Scholz, and Glen Tetley. The National Dance Company of Korea, while being a company that, as a rule, aims for original choreographed pieces based on traditional Korean dance forms, has also showcased fusion performances when in 2007 it invited Salta Cello, a German jazz band that had been receiving attention for its work with the melodies of Korean folk music. In 2014 the company showcased a contemporary dance performance with a piece from honorary guest choreographer Tero Saarinen, a promising Finnish talent. And as evidenced in the instances of when the Korean National Ballet(in 2012) and the National Dance Company of Korea(in 2013 and 2014) invited Korean contemporary dance choreographer Ahn Sungsoo as an honorary guest choreographer, both organizations have, for the past few years, emphasized their connection with contemporary dance. 

“Vortex” by Tero Saarinen_ⒸNational Dance Company of Korea ⒸNational Gugak Center Dance Theater

Public dance companies have regularly scheduled performances twice a year. The regularly scheduled performances generally happen in the spring and fall over the course of two or three days, with about three shows each. It is common for the newest pieces in the repertoire to debut at these paid scheduled performances. In addition, along with the Korean National Ballet, various ballet companies will perform “The Nutcracker” each December for about two or three weeks, much like a regularly scheduled performance. Besides the regular performances, public dance companies have performances for the public good throughout the year. For the past few years, the National Dance Company of Koreahas had a yearly average of 65 performances with 27 pieces from the repertoire; other dance companies have also averaged about 50 performances a year. When consideringKorean public dance companies as a whole, it continues to be rare to see the choreography entrusted to an honorary guest who is not a member.

After 2000, the development of pieces that would establish a connection with the audience was raised as priority issue at the public dance companies. In addition, the call for an increase in the choreographic activities of the art director has been consistent. This situation drove the public dance companies, in their performances, to seek an escape from the conservative nature of Korea’s public dance companies and to seek internal change. Since about 2010, there has been a definite trend toward diversification in the pieces and the styles of performance at Korea’s public dance companies. In such a trend there are two phenomena that stand out: First, in the choreography there are frequent attempts toward hybrid methods, wherein the dance will depart from basic techniques to incorporate diverse techniques and other organized types of movements such as martial arts. Second, in the creation of the performance stage, rather than telling astory through a unified structure with a beginning, middle, and end, there are an increasing number of instances where the emphasis is on the audience’s reaction, with an omnibus-style structure as the foundation.The aforementioned trends are currently happening mostly in Seoul, but it is anticipated they will gain prominence in the public dance companies of other regions in the near future. 




Kim Chae-hyeon_Korea National University of Arts_School of Dance
Kim Chae-hyeon_Korea National University of Arts_School of Dance
As a dance critic, Kim authored Dance, To Discuss Anew and Create Anew, co-authored A Complete History of Korean Dance (2015), Art: The Recreation of the Audience, and 100 Years of Korean Dance. Kim is the author, co-author, or translator of about 20 books including Dance,The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, and Ballet and Contemporary Dance. As a reviewer who works in the field, Kim is also a digital archivist who has recorded the Korean stage performances of dance for the past 23 years, with about 7,000 videos. He held successive posts as the head of the Korean Society of Dance Critics and co-head of the Korean Association of Dance Critics and Researchers, and is currently a professor of dance theory.