As the curtain slowly rose, a violinist emerged from under the dim light onto the stage, playing plaintive tunes from the traditional Korean folk song "Saetaryeong" (새타령). He smoothly played the instrument as he walked past the center of the stage and approached a group of dancers dressed in traditional Hanbok attire.
The sorrowful sounds soon melted into jazz played on the piano, cello, double bass, saxophone and drums, and then mingled with graceful, lyrical dance moves. It felt as if the souls of jazz and traditional Korean dance were being drawn like magnets toward each other.
This was the first scene from the “Soul, Sunflower” show at the National Theater of Korea. Running from Nov. 18 to 20, the performance revived one of the common emotions that people feel when they lose a loved one: grief and longing. The story is of a heartbroken mother who lost her son, and it was told with a mix of jazz, traditional melodies and dance.
Traditional dance and music performed by the National Dance Company of Korea took on a different color when they met with the jazz sounds played by the five-member Saltacello jazz troupe from Germany. The jazzmen played traditional Korean folk songs, like “Jindo Arirang,” songs known to embody the feeling of deep sorrow called han (한, 恨), maximizing the mother’s strong sense of longing for her son.
The show consisted of two acts. Act 1 narrated what the title says: longings by those who are still alive. It depicted the bereaved mother’s complicated emotions resulting from the loss. The mother was seen looking for her son who would never come back, while a group of dancers presented a dazzling display of dance moves to the jazz music.
In Act 2, a dance resembling the shamanistic ritual known as a gut (굿) was performed to soothe the mother's tears. In the process of conjuring up the spirit of the deceased son, the mother accepted the loss and tried to get over her sadness.
The heaviness and darkness of the gut lessened a bit with performers displaying a bit of humorous dance, as they held dried pollack from the table set for the rites, folding fans and handheld bells, all from the shaman.
Only when a group of dancers holding red fans sent a wave of crimson across the stage did the mother finally encounter her son's soul, her son that she truly missed. A red-colored rope connected them and the mother felt relieved to know that this bond would always bring her back to her son, even if she would never see him again in the land of the living.
As the performance wrapped up, the whole cast appeared onstage, dancing in a festive mood to the German jazz troupe's lively rhythms. The final scene had everyone having fun together and sent a positive message that people could convert sorrow into delight, no matter what ordeal they might be suffering.
Live music played on jazz instruments with the 12-stringed gayageum’s sounds slowly soaking into the melodies enlivened each and every scene. Actual incense from the table set for the gut rites was lit, while a specially-designed stage setting allowed the performers to come close to the audience, both factors that gratified the audience’s senses of smell, sight and sound.
The show premiered in 2006 and garnered lots of media attention in its day. Such keen interest stemmed not only from the high expectations for collaboration between a German jazz band and a Korean dance team, but also from the show's attempt to put into the form of a gut all the stages of emotion that a person would go through after losing a loved one, from death and parting through to remorse and acceptance.
Since its premiere, the show was staged in Germany in 2010, in the Netherlands and then in Belgium, both in 2011, with all the tickets being sold out.
“This show teaches us that the search for our roots and the yearning for peace and forgiveness are universal to human nature,” said Peter Schindler, a pianist and composer in the Saltacello jazz band, and who has served as music director for the show since 2006. “It has enriched my life over the past decade. It gives us some sort of solace and mends our souls.”