Dohee Lee’s Mago, Yerba Buena Forum, November 15, 2014

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,further intensified by U.S. construction on her native island of Cheju.

Having visited Seoul when it still bore visible scars of the Korean conflict, where older kisaeng and mudong circles were struggling 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 particular vision enables her to speak deeply to the universal human.

The audience was asked to assemble outside the Yerba Buena Lobby prior to the performance. White-garbed assistants, men and women of varying ages, carried small white receptables emitting faint sounds when held close to the ear. After these sound hor d’eouvres were heard for about fifteen minutes, we were free to enter YBC’s Lobby centrally marked by a strip of white paper, structures at both ends, the one closest to the Forum backed by a hanging, again in white. In Korean folk tradition, this symbolizes the path to heaven, traversed by the mudong guiding the deceased’s spirit heavenward from its earthly sojourn.

The audience either stood, seated themselves on the floor or occupied the stairs to the second floor. Videographers and photographers wove themselves around the spectators; all of a sudden, a small, mask-wearing figure in white emerged on the path, the mask itself caramel-skinned, cheek-to-jaw length exaggerated, shoulders wrapped in what seemed to be a form of cellophane, the skirt a glistening white synthetic, all executed in traditional Korean fashion. Dohee Lee, half crouching, wove her way down the path, arms twisting and weaving in sure, steady sinuous power, palms and fingers strong and eloquent. Reaching the small platform, she wrested the long crocheted tail trailing behind her, ultimately discarding the mask. As she swayed, trembling commenced, vibrations in body and arms intensifying, transformed her into a mudong. The episode was lengthy. a profound act to witness.

There followed a return along the paper path discarding the mudong costume to reveal a vibrant, provocative dancer continuing down the path in a black and scarlet dress, lifting the outer layers to display an underskirt covered with tiny images of stuffed babies.

Inviting us to move along to the Forum, we followed in random fashion, where we received programs with an heavy 8.5x 11 inch paper folded in half vertically, 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 at the back of the arena, as a bird woman, multiple strips of paper hanging from her waist like strips of a warror’s metal skirt around a black sleeveless tunic, enormous black wings at her back, the crows of her experience on Halia Mountain referred to 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 strips, discarding the streamers with printed Korean script one by one. It was sustained, elemental, eerie, Lee’s voice murmuring low, as if she had acquired the names of those lost to the ravages of the Korean conflict. This portion was supported by two sets of musicians: Suki O’ Kane, Jason Ditzian, Greg Stevens, Tiffany Bayley working on Western instruments, but evoking as closely as possible sounds of Korean court and shaman music.

The Ara Musicians were the individuals circulating in the crowd prior to entering YBC’s Lobby: Joanne Tillemans, Lindsay Reich, Danishta Riverso, Megan Meyer, Sherri Mills, Dan Gottwald, Heather Normandale, Bob Marsh, Vana Hansen, David Samas and Edward Schocker.

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 definitely Korean. Elisa Gahng, Codie Otte, Yeri Shon, all gifted percussionists, joined by Lee engaged in prolonged, mesmerizing drumming; fierce, a joyous exorcism.

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

Ending this sequence, Lee’s charismatic focus vanished; she thanked the audience for coming, acknowledged her collaborators and the ovation afforded her.

Mago is the end result of a residency at YBC with the 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, eye harp builder

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

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