Friday, June 18, 2010

Darkness Poomba by Kim Jae Duk - Reviewed by Cat Ruka

Two male dancers ignite Darkness Poomba with a duet performed under severe top-light. A fast and furious exchange of angularly choreographed movement, hands mechanically grasping for each other’s faces, and bodies regimented in a forward facing stance. Creating the illusion of a robotic pair of Siamese twins, the two young men are a fashionable modern day fruition of an ancient cog-like machine. Five dancers clad in chic black clothing sharply enter from the peripheries to join the machine and expand upon the gothic energy that has been created.

A spot is brought up on a man standing with a microphone in one of the aisles. Both the ears and eyes are immediately drawn to this powerful presence and we are captivated as the space swells with his voice – he is chanting the traditional South Korean Poomba, scattering sounds of desperation and yearning. Sound manipulation gives an echoing reverberation as if to suggest that we are all inside a cold and mysterious vault of some sort, liminally suspended between hallucination and reality. The performer displays extraordinary command over his dexterous instrument, and his sensitive commitment to the dancers on stage help them to devote themselves to the dark abrasiveness of this space.

Later in the work, a dance with metallic dinner trays between the two male dancers who opened the piece brings an oddly domestic sensibility to the abstract world that has been established. The device of sound is again utilized in this instance, as dinner trays become percussive instruments as well as hats and items of clothing. The chorus of dancers behind them acts as a strata of strange shadows that morph from one contained image to the next. All ensemble dancers solidly support this duet and other highlighted moments of the work with crisp articulation of movement and un-wavering performance energy. It is as though they are there to tease out the dark underbelly of this work with a quiet ferociousness.

The darkness of this rich work is both deeply set into the bones of its body and ironically woven into its surface. Even when the whole theatre is clapping and singing in delight as they would at a concert of their favourite musician, the haunting atmosphere never lets up. In fact it is in these moments of ‘light’ that the gothic undertone is somehow heightened, demonstrating a sophisticated approach to the creation of atmosphere. Funereal organs and regular pumps on the smoke machine provide a parody that is both easing and unsettling for its viewer participants.

As one of the ensemble dancers leaves the stage to join the vocalist in the aisle, we realize that it is choreographer Kim Jae Duk, maestro and master of this frighteningly ironic series of happenings. As he takes to the microphone to join in harmony with the vocalist, two men enter the stage from the wings and pick up red electric guitars at either ends of the stage. Before we know it the traditional lilt of the Poomba has become the waling power vocal of the rock concert, the guitars providing the metallic grit for this transition. All of a sudden we are waving and clapping our hands high in the air, having been transformed from formal theatre spectators to rock-stadium crowd.

In a return to the opening duet, the two dancers from the opening segment perform a gradually accelerating version of the robotic Siamese twin dance as they walk in procession down the aisle toward the stage. As it speeds up, this phrase cleverly functions as the peak of the work, causing a kind of ‘Mexican wave’ effect on the crowd, whose vocal eruption is evidence of the direct affect this work has had upon them. After the excitement has subsided, a gentle and virtuosic harmonica solo performed by choreographer Kim Jae Duk is a clever return to the opening eeriness. And as the creator lays his final delicate mark, the piece closes.

Not one sense is privileged over the other in this haunting re-contextualization of the traditional South Korean melody of Poomba. A truly interdisciplinary and multi-layered work, audience members are taken on a strange and unexpected voyage through the realms of contemporary dance, traditional song, stadium rock, and festival reggae music. Although such a journey may sound schizophrenic and disjunctive in nature, this collage of contexts and performance genres is executed seamlessly. Darkness Poomba is a work that manages to constantly transform our environment before we have even noticed, each world almost functioning as a sinister critique of the one that has come before.

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