Dohee Lee’s Mago, Yerba Buena Forum, November 14

15 Dec

This is not the first time Dohee Lee has presented a fascinating work at Yerba Buena Center’s Forum. It also is not the first time she has included drumming or footage relating to the Korean War. Like June Watanabe whose work was dominated by her various visions and interpretations of the E.O. 9066 experience, Lee’s narrative skills are deeply imbedded in the traumatic experience cleaving the Korean Peninsula into two separate territories and governing methods during the mid-twentieth century.

Having visited Seoul still bearing visible scars of the Korean conflict, where older kisaeng and mudong circles struggled to adapt to the nascent industrial Korea characterizing most of South Korea’s present life, Lee speaks to me intensely. Deeply rooted in the traditions of her native Cheju Island and Korean folk performance traditions, Lee’s particularity enables her to speak deeply to the universal human.

The audience assembled outside the Yerba Buena Lobby prior to the performance where white-garbed assistants, men and women of varying ages, carried small white receptacles emitting faint sounds when held close to the ear. After these sound hors d’eouvres were heard for fifteen minutes, we entered YBC’s Lobby centrally divided by a white paper strip, structures at both ends. The one closest to the Forum backed by a hanging, again in white, emphasized Korean folk tradition, symbolizing the path to heaven , traversed by the mudong guiding the spirit of the deceased beyond its earthly sojourn.

The audience stood, seated themselves mostly on the floor and occupied the stairs to the second floor. Videographers and photographers wove themselves around the spectators. Suddenly, a small, mask-wearing figure in white emerged on the path, the mask caramel-skin tone, cheek-to-jaw length exaggerated; torso wrapped in an apparent form of cellophane for the chokkori, the skirt a glistening white synthetic, all traditional Korean style. Lee, half crouching, wove her way down the path, arms twisting, weaving in sure, steady sinuous power, palms and fingers strong and eloquent. Reaching the small platform, she wrested the long crocheted trailing behind her, ultimately discarding the mask. Swaying as she descended from the platform, Lee started to tremble, her body and arms vibrating, intensifying, transformed into a mudong realm.

Lee, returning along the paper path discarded the mudong costume, becoming a vibrant, provocative dancer, continuing down the path in full black and scarlet dress, lifting a layer to display another underskirt covered with tiny images of stuffed babies, and inviting us to move along with her to the Forum.

Entering in random fashion, we received programs with an heavy 8.5x 11 inch paper folded in half, cut into at various points; opened out it provided space for the eyes, the nose and the mouth. It also bore the words, “Wear it,” “What did you see?” and on the other side, “What did you hear?” The audience seated themselves on arena style tiers.

Lee emerged in the center of the construction in the back of the arena, a bird woman with multiple strips of paper hanging from her waist, enormous black wings at her back, the crows of her experience on Halia Mountain recorded in the program. While images of the Korean conflict passed behind her, children with faces furrowed with questions, older women by their sides wearing traditional Korean dress, Lee read from the paper streamers, printed with Korean script, discarding the streamers one by one after Lee, murmuring low, seemed to have mentioned each entry.It was sustained, elemental, eerie. This portion of the ninety minute performance piece was supported by two sets of musicians: Suki O’ Kane, Jason Ditzian, Greg Stevens, Tiffany Bayley working on Western instruments, evoking as closely as possible sounds of Korean court and shaman music.

Lee retreated through the construction to emerge again after three women had placed four drums in the center of the arena, mid-sized and similar to taiko, but still Korean. Elisa Gahng, Codie Otte, Yeri Shon, all gifted percussionists, joined by Lee in prolonged, mesmerizing drumming; fierce, joyous, exorcizing.

The Ara Musicians turned out to be the same individuals circulating in the crowd prior to our entry to the YBC Lobby: Joanne Tillemans, Lindsay Reich, Danishta Riverso, Megan Meyer, Sherri Mills, Dan Gottwald, Heather Normandale, Bob Marsh, Vana Hansen, David Samas and Edward Schocker.

When the audience was asked to return to the Lobby, Colin Ernst was preparing the glasses holding water, various sizes and various amounts; rubbing the rims creating a high, light eerie sound to complement Lee’s final appearance in black, adorned with glitter.

At the end of this sequence, Lee’s charismatic focus vanished as she thanked the audience for coming, acknowledged her collaborators and the ovation afforded her.

Mago is the end result of a two-year residency at YBC with her skilled collaborators: Jai Arun Ravine, writer; Frank Lee, set design and construction; Alenka Loesch, costume designer; Steven Sanchez, animator; Jose Maria Francos, production designer; David Szlasa, video design, Donald Swearingen, sound design/programming; Adria Otte, co-music director/sound design/crow warrior; Edward Schocker, Ara musician; Colin Ernst, water harp builder

Program notes state Mago will continue with a touring version of the performance in 2015. That will be challenging, but a singular privilege for anyone attending Mago in future performance venues. I imagine venues will be select and limited, for Dohee Lee is almost the entire package, the force and depth of her performance clearly proscribing how frequently she can sustain the intensity of her remarkable vision.

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