Avantgarde, ‘Enfant Terrible', besties with Pina Bausch. That's quite the collection of accolades. Enter the space Eun-Me Ahn “one of the most important artists in South Korea”, and the founder of the self-named Ahn Eun-Me Company (established in 1988).
Ahn brings her 2021 work Dragons to the Barbican (20 – 23 September), and it's touted to be, and do, many things. In fact, the blurb suggests it covers everything and more than the mind could possibly imagine; in just 90 minutes…
Ahn has involved six young dancers from Asia in hologram, and narration form for the project. They herald from Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan, and were all born in 2000, the Year of the Dragon in the Korean zodiac. They intersperse with Ahn herself, and eight of her company dancers on stage.
The work has numerous creative layers realised through a large, collaborative team including choreography, costume and set design by Ahn, music by Young-Gyu Jang, light design by Jinyoung Jang and video/motion design by Taeseok Lee and Minjeong Lee.
Sounds busy right? And the answer is yes – way too busy. By the end I felt agitated and bored, so let's go back to the beginning.
We find ourselves in a set potentially sponsored by a tumble dryer vent manufacturer. Three sides, minus the fourth wall, have floor-to-ceiling, individual silver tubes as their backdrop, and things continue in this surrealist vein for the majority of the evening.
The work is a prime example of multimedia mayhem. The proscenium has a gauze which acts as a canvas for video/motion design projections throughout. Impressive? Absolutely. But equally off-putting I'd say. Especially when live dancing is happening simultaneously – where's one supposed to look?
Multi-disciplinary works are double-edged swords: the breadth of them meaning that individual aspects (probably) don't get developed enough to stand alone. And consequently we see it manifest into a form of toxic codependency – you need all the parts to make a whole, but the whole ends up feeling overpopulated and superficial.
I was amazed at how such a work can present itself as both dense and intelligent, yet have little to no real impact on the emotional state of the observer. Like a large plate of tasteless food – quantity over quality.
There were moments of appreciation though. I love the overall visual design aesthetic, as it's both cosmic and cute. The dancers are also super agile and precise in everything they do, and aspects of the costuming and props are stellar, particularly the endless lamé skirts for all, and when tubes become extensions of limbs creating interesting spatial form.
However, the movement language didn't really go anywhere substantial throughout the duration of the work. It's mostly built around the Sufi whirling dervish lexicon, seeing aspects of Khattak and acrobatics thrown in for good measure.
Eun-Me Ahn definitely brings an ideology to her work that I appreciate. The overall vibe is fluid, liberal and inclusive and these are strong, admirable qualities. But at the same time I struggled with certain elements of predictable representation: the men executing macho-esque tumbling as the women float around with soft smiles and doe-eyed expressions. In fact, the whole cast overplayed the facial animation aspect. Way too OTT.
Eun-Me Ahn has solos at the beginning and near the end of the piece, and both present her like a deity of sorts. The final one being absolutely intriguing though. By this point I was “agitated and bored” but could still find major appreciation for her presence and movement quality. She's reserved and powerful, with dancing that feels full of purpose and value.
It's boring to go to the theatre and know what to expect, but it's also frustrating to find yourself in a surrealist, random universe that doesn't really know what it's trying to do – no matter how good its intentions are. Sorry not sorry.
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.