Seoul-based choreographer Cha Jinyeob has been a judge on Korea’s version of Strictly Come Dancing and she choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. But this UK premiere of Miin: Body to Body, closing a short festival of Korean dance at London’s Place theatre, is not what you might expect from that biog. It’s on a completely different scale, for starters, in the intimate theatre of the Place, six performers and one musician on stage, and it’s a politicised piece with a fairly opaque mood of quiet uneasiness, sometimes floundering in intention.
Miin is a Korean word meaning “beautiful person”, usually used in reference to a woman. Cha is not interested in women being only beautiful, and seeks to show some different modes of femininity. At the outset the dancers wear transparent masks, giving their faces a doll-like shine and a certain vacancy. Some are delicately poised, but they expand into liquid undulation, screwed-up faces, casual leg-spreading and hair tossed vigorously or tied into a noose round the neck.
Movement-wise it’s fairly subtle in its messaging, but the piece sets out its stall in a single section of text, musing on the maternal instincts (or otherwise) of the cuckoo and the historical link between the uterus and hysteria – it’s a bit Feminism 101, but delivered in pleasingly dry, cynical tone, itemising the dull routines of marriage, bemoaning periods and dismissing motherhood (“I think my uterus is pissed off with me”) and touching on the relationship of Rodin and Camille Claudel, who “got betrayed by that same dude”.
There are striking moments: great lighting shifting the mood, including a flood of hot orange highlighting the ridges and grooves of the large circle of sand on the floor that serves as a stage, plus swirling op-art projections. There are a pair of women stamping on sappy roses; a duet where two women’s bodies fold so neatly together, like Marie Kondo doing laundry; and experimental musician Sim Eunyong playing geomungo (a type of zither) adding doleful melody to the airy electronic ambience. Spoken text aside, it is not a piece obviously fuelled by anger or frustration, it just exists, which perhaps is all Cha is asking for women.