By Kelly CarmichaelVisiting Arts runs a successful programme of ambitious research visits abroad which seek to provide UK curators and producers with an opportunity to expand their knowledge of international art practice in a specific overseas context. Having recently signed an agreement with the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS) to promote and support collaborative exchange between the Korean and UK cultural scenes, a Producers’ Visit to the South Korean capital was undertaken in Autumn 2010. Working in partnership with KAMS, Visiting Arts sought to enable participants to develop professional networks between Korea and the UK and encourage collaborative exchange in the performing arts between the two countries.
The fifth largest city in the world, Seoul has a population of just over 10 million people and is South Korea’s political, financial and cultural centre. Part of the robust Asian cultural network emerging as major player on the international scene, South Korea has a rich history of traditional dance and a vibrant contemporary scene. Known for fusing contemporary dance with unselfconscious mysticism, drawing upon shamanism and Zen Buddhism to create their work or requiring a considered level of concentration from their audiences, South Korean choreographers and performers are becoming increasingly visible in the contemporary dance world. During his visit to Korea Eckhard Thiemann, one of the participants in the Producers’ Research Visit, noted the beginnings of “a new generation of Korean artists emerging, developing distinct voices and radical approaches through work based less on display of technique and physical virtuosity, but on intimate, personal material.” One of the UK’s most experienced producers and programmers of contemporary dance, Thiemann is currently Artistic Programme Consultant for Bournemouth’s Pavilion Dance and a veteran of international performing arts festivals. Asking Eckhard to reflect on his visit to Korea raised some interesting points about cross cultural exchanges and also his personal experience of the Korean scene.
For Eckhard Thiemann, taking part in the Visiting Arts Producers Visit “opened a new geographical and cultural region. I had seen some dance companies from Korea at international events and festivals, but lacked contacts and contextualising information about how dance was created in Korea, or indeed South East Asia. The opportunity gave me a deep insight into the conditions for creating and presenting dance in Korea and a way to make informed decisions about possible collaborations”. Describing the performances he saw in Seoul, Thiemann remembered high production values throughout, remarking upon “sophisticated lighting design and stylishly designed costumes with technical facilities and professional conditions that were to be much envied”. Reflecting upon the current aesthetics of the Korean scene as opposed to that of the UK, the producer commented that while “aesthetics develop and change and styles come and go, choreographically, I saw much work which fore fronted the display of skilled dance technique and virtuoso dancing rather than conceptual work. There was exquisite lighting design and very little colour in costuming or lights – this does not mean the work was necessarily dark, but had an elegant, confined, slightly ascetic look. This was reflected in the street as well. Many women in the streets of Seoul wore black or very dark clothes. I remember one of my meetings with a very senior choreographer, her manager and administrator, the female director of a theatre and my Korean guide and assistant – all of them wearing black. They laughed in self-recognition how it seemed to be such a current norm.” Interestingly Eckhard’s observation of Korea’s collectivist culture was echoed in a later conversation regarding the context in which dance is created, promoted and received in Korea. Describing how contemporary dance in Korea is “embedded in the universities with over 50 institutions offering a dance degree programme and training technically skilled performers and choreographers”, he observed that “many choreographers share a career at universities with running their own companies and projects. While I admire the status of dance within the universities, I also felt that it encouraged a hierarchical sector. It seemed to me there was much respect for the work of professors and senior dancers associated with universities but I sometimes felt there was a lack of critical engagement with the content of work. I missed contrasting and contradictory aesthetics.”
The visit gave Theimann an opportunity to reflect on the professionalism of the Korean scene. “Artists in Korea are incredibly well prepared and equipped in promoting themselves and their work. Each artist I met, regardless of if they were operating as individuals or well supported by a management team, presented me with well-produced promotional material…. a DVD, lists of available works. It was clear to me that any artist would automatically invest in and/or self-produce such material. Of course quality and artistic integrity has to speak through the work, no marketing material can disguise unimaginative work or lack of artistic vision. But compared to the UK, where I so often have to chase dancers for DVDs, or indeed any material about themselves, or where artists sometimes consider any self-promotion as ‘cringe-making’ and ‘embarrassing’, it was impressive to meet a scene where the promotion of oneself and one’s work seemed to be part and parcel of being an artist.”
Asked about the importance of programmes such as the Producers’ Visits Thiemann was positive. “Visiting Arts have, in my experience, taken the risk and connected new initiatives. Visiting Arts is often the first port of call to make connections to a new international sector. It also follows through an initiative with an important UK-based 2nd stage, mainly by inviting artists, promoters or curators to develop ideas from a first visit abroad.” As for the benefit of supporting collaborative exchange with other countries the producer raised a key issue – “the point here is we don’t have exchanges with other countries, but with other people. What makes this programme important for me is the human-to-human creative exchange with other people and developing an understanding of how they negotiate their own position within the country or culture they inhabit, along with their understanding of their global position. It broadens horizons and challenges acceptance of the status quo, which I feel so often creeps into our work and practice. It is often the encounter with individuals of another culture and country and using other working practices, which challenges my own way of thinking and doing. This visit has challenged me to think in a new way of the value of cultural exchange and the material and immaterial benefits of a meaningful exchange. Seeing the context in which culture is presented and consumed and understanding some of the mechanics is very important to be able to work strategically and concentrate on collaborations that are realistically feasible.”