|Title||XXL Leotard and Anna Sui Hand Mirror|
|Venue||The Coronet Theatre|
|Date||29 September 2022|
Can you feel it? Can you feel the ppalli-ppalli of the Hallyu?
Need some help? Can you feel the urgency of the Korean Wave? Wave of culture, not 물 obvs.
If you can't, West London is a good place to start. The Coronet Theatre hosted “TIGER IS COMING – a celebration of contemporary Korean art, performance and culture” for all of September. The vibe: “a dazzling mix of music, pop, dance, theatre, performance and art”.
The Korean experience continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum till 25 June 2023 (!) with Hallyu! The Korean Wave which explores “the makings of the Korean Wave and its global impact on the creative industries of cinema, drama, music, fandom, beauty and fashion”.
I visited South Kensington this week as a precursor to the Coronet performance. It's an impressive insight into the world of K-pop and beyond but I wasn't wowed by the vividness of the curation. It could've had more impact – as that's definitely what time in Seoul feels like.
Back to Notting Hill and XXL Leotard and Anna Sui Hand Mirror (written by Park Chan-gyu) presented by the Dolpagu theatre company (directed by Inchul Jun) who promise “a groundbreaking new play exploring gender and social class across generations”.
When I further researched the premise, they had me at “Junho must keep a secret: he likes to wear women's leotards”. Further enticing was the promise of Dolpagu's “signature style” of “blending movement and performance” and a “heartfelt, joyous story about adapting to the changing world, and learning that not everyone is the same” – the last lesson being at the forefront of my mind in recent topical times.
The performance was 90 mins straight through which is always a good start for me, but I must be honest from the outset – there wasn't a lot of dance. Some, but much less than I'd assumed, though there was a lot of dance-based/sexuality humiliation and discrimination, which is old news but still very depressing news. Basically, the play allows for an insight into deep-rooted Korean societal issues through the perspective of (five) high school students (working towards a PE dance test). Not dissimilar to approaches found in Parasite or Extraordinary Attorney Woo (both brilliant).
The cast is good. They play the balance between OTT and honest sensitivity well – and the subject matter and context allow for this in abundance. The play is performed in Korean, which is wonderful to hear but means much less engagement with the actors' facial performances as one tries to keep up with the surtitles!
I love Asia, but I think living there is a totally different experience from visiting. Cultural offerings and current affairs both confirm the intense pressures all members of these societies are under, from parents to young people: financially, professionally, academically, and socially.
XXL Leotard and Anna Sui Hand Mirror has a creative duality. It takes the very serious issues of ‘other' and ‘exclusion' to parody style levels in order for the observer to access the raw, lived experiences of those on the receiving end. Focusing on the main character of Junho (played by Hea Young Oh) we meet a young man who needs and finds expression in ways that are deemed completely unacceptable by his peers, elders and the broader community. When exposed, the embarrassment is felt so intensely by his family that he's made to relocate to another city in order to save face. Tragic but totally believable.
To the dance. It's what you'd expect – urban and K-pop informed. They do it with conviction, which is enjoyable, and as the cast creates a very believable community from the outset it makes the execution even more endearing.
There are lots of good performances to mention: Eojin Jo as Min-ji Choi, the pretty, middle-class love interest who basically hates the role she has to live out; Mikyung Yoon as Hee-joo Kang, the female outcast due to her economic status and idiosyncratic approach to femininity; Min-ha Kim as Tae-woo Lim the affluent, inoffensive guy; Byoungsik Ahn as Young-gil Cho the PE teacher with a big persona and caring heart; and Gyuhyun Lee as Hee-kwan Park (who stands out) as the working class, below average academic youngster who struggles with his social status and subsequent place in the pecking order.
A scene around halfway through sees Junho share an insight into his leotard fascination and how it was instigated through watching ballet. He then dances to communicate this relationship and the related expressive feelings. Sadly, the choreography and interpretation go towards the OTT parody side of things, which feels like a wasted opportunity. A full-on poetic moment wouldn't have worked either, but something more personal and less performative could've given far more weight to the seriousness of the character's conflict.
I suppose overall there was the promised “blending movement and performance” approach, but generally it felt underdeveloped. More playground than developmental, but perhaps that's appropriate for this narrative context.
Throughout there was an image of Pina Bausch in Café Müller as part of the set. I don't really know why, and the playwright didn't make us any the wiser. But her presence reminded me of the power of dance. Often meaning that words aren't necessary.
We aren't privy to Junho's sexual preference as it wasn't addressed. But the discrimination we saw him exposed to suggests how being gay in Korea's primarily heteronormative society is still far from preferable. Like it's a choice! In my next career, as a statistician, one of my first studies will be a focused analysis within the Korean dance sector. The specifics? Looking at how many male dancers are homosexual, and how many of them live an open, proud life. Will the results be predictable? Let's see. Will lycra be involved? Most definitely.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.