[personal profile] niori_1709
Out of all the traditional aesthetics and symbols in Korea, my hands down favourite it the traditional masks (called Hahoe) for folk dance performances. I love them both as a symbol, dancing prop, and decoration. They are wonderful and very elegant looking -deeply and precisely carved dark brown wood, with a hint of colour depending on the design. There are nine different characters in the traditional dance. Even after having fallen in love with the masks and bought a few to hang on my wall, I hadn't actually seen the mask dance itself. That's why, when I found out about the existence of the Andong Mask Dance Festival, I just had to go.

Andong is quite a few hours South-East of Seoul. It's considered the home of Confucianism (a philosophy/religion based on the writings of Confucius) in Korea, a place where Confucian scholars flocked to during the Joseon Dynasty (and 'til this day). What Andong is most famous for, however, is the folk village (which, spoiler alert, will be covered next month), which is turn is directly related to the mask dance. It's here that the mask dance festival really takes off, and where I got my first taste and experience of the art form.

There's a small stage on the small slope over looking the river, pretty much just as raised platform. That's where they hold the mask dance. While they're called dances, there's not there is to it. There are eight scenes, each depicting a different idea. Besides the dances, there are also little skits as well. It's comedic, so the acting and dialogue are completely over the top and parts are pretty obvious, even to a non-Korean speaker. The music starts up, old instruments like drums and horns setting the scene and starting the drama. Then the first of the characters appear, multiple drummers heralding her entrance. She is the Gaksi, or bride mask. This character is a little different, because she actually stands in place for the village goddess. Not surprisingly, people didn't want to offend said goddess, so she is a much softer, shyer, and less ridiculous character. She's not an over-the-top characters, no matter how many times she appears in the dance (three times over all). They bring her in in a position of honour, standing on the shoulders of a man, above everyone. She's carried around the stage, waving a small cloth as a banner, and generally seeming as aloof as a goddess can be.

After the bride leaves the stage, we have one more ritual aspect of the dance to get through before we can move onto the funny parts of the show. There's a dance that's meant to represent the harvest and the asking for a good one. I'd actually call it the strangest part of the performance. It begins with two weird looking animals, made of yellow sack-like tubes covering the dancer's body and large sticks coming out of the top coming out and circling each other. I later found out that they're meant to be lions, but it does make me wonder if the original designer had ever seen an image of a lion before. The lions dance by jumping around, engaging in a fight that basically seems to engage in that 'I'm bigger than you' posturing you do see in the animal (and, quite frankly, human) kingdom. Awkwardly, by the end the fighting looks to turn into something else, so this part (and another later on, when we come to the girl and the monk) dance gets a not safe for work warning from me. The first of the servant characters, or Choraengi, comes into watch before hopping around and apparently enjoying the show. Watching him dance is like watching a jig. It's amusing to watch, because he really does remind me of someone jumping rope with the way he bounces. He keeps coming back to watch things and gossip about them later. Seriously, a good part of the play is him and the fool character gossiping and basically mocking everyone he's come across. It's meant to be amusing, both based on the dialogue and dance moves, and it really is.

Then we get to the Butcher's, or Baekjeong, Act. At the time that this play was created, butchers were considered the lowest of the low in Joseon society. It should come as no surprise that the mask reflects this, for all that the butcher in never shown as completely bad. He is, however, bloodthirsty and cruel. He dances around the stage, taking up the whole space and looking like he's skipping along. He is happy and gleeful as he gives commentary...about how he's going to slaughter the next bull he comes across. He is carrying the tools of his trade around, just waiting to find a bull to use them on. He gives a full, vivid description about what he's going to do, and it's given so dramatically. Then the bull wanders into his path, and the fight is on. The bull character isn't a mask, but two people with a shaggy brown blanket with a bull shaped head. It actually kind of looked like an overgrown Muppet. It was kind of cute, so I was left with the sad thought of "Poor bull". The bull interacts and plays up the crowd, going up to them and dancing around, side to side. After circling each other for awhile, with the butcher still taking away (half about how he's going to kill the bull, half mocking the upper class repression), the butcher gets the bull and kills him. It's dramatic and rather violent, for all it looks vaguely like a stuffed animal. For all that, he's still meant to be a sympathetic character. For all the high society may consider him the very bottom of the social order, they rush in and gleefully buy his products off him. They'll take what he'll over while still despising him. It's a trend we still see today- people buying products while simultaneously degrading the people who create the very thing they've made a demand for.

The next act is by far the most serious and sobering scene in the dance. It is the dance of the old woman, or Halmi. She comes in dragging a heavy, awkward looking room. Her dance moves are shuffling and almost seem to be dragging herself along. She's hunched over and you can feel her weariness, for all that her arms are moving in a way that is an attempt at energetic. When she sits down at the look, she speaks. She weaves and tells us her story, and it's a sad one. She tells that she has had a life of begging and poverty, after being widowed only three days after her wedding at fourteen. Saying she's really sympathetic is an understatement. The old woman represents the poor working class who have way too much hardship. She shows the pain of common people, who is the audience for this show. She goes to crowd to beg, continuing her tale of hardship. You really, really feel the pain and weariness in her dance and voice. Everything about this character feels so tired, and you can just imagine how the lower classes could have seen themselves reflected in her. She's the character that represents them all, and she's pushed around by the upper class characters in the finale, finalizing your unimpressed view of that section of society. It tells you exactly what they thought about the society and social structures they lived in.

Then we enter the Bune, or woman mask. This is a mask of a flirty woman, who in the next act teases both the aristocrat and scholar with her feminine wiles, which leads them to do more ridiculous things. Which, ouch when it comes to the portrayal of women, but she still serves an important role. She is meant to represent the woman who acts demure (and her actions, for all that they are flirty, really do come across as a sweet, humble woman), only to use it in a way that gets her what she wants. It's another mask that shines a light on a type of hypocrisy, one that once again lends itself to the politicking you'd see in the upper classes. For this scene, however, she's just a girl dancing and going about her business like it's a normal day. She has an airy, soft dancing style. She uses small movements, nothing too big or sharp. There's a delicateness to it, and she comes across as a girl without a care in the world...and then that changes.
Enter a new character lurking in the back ground. That would be the Jung mask, or monk. This is a straight up creepy character, and it's really awkward to watch some of his scenes. He represents how religion, Buddhist in this case, has basically corrupted itself, and how monks no longer care about anything but themselves and their desires. He is a threatening character, so the opposite of what monks (and all religious followers) are supposed to represent. He's probably the most blatant of the satirizing characters. There's no getting around what he's doing and how wrong it is. You even see it in his dancing- his moves are awkward, too straight and jerky to look graceful. He seems to lurk in the background, moving around in movements that seem too jerky to be anything good. After watching the woman for awhile, he goes up and starts talking, only for her to give him a polite, demure leave me alone. It doesn't work. Instead, he kidnaps her. She comes back later, but it's still pretty horrific at the time.

Because the last scene went pretty dark, the creators of the dance apparently felt the need to make the next scene a lot more light hearted. We now welcome in the fool mask, Imae. This is exactly as it sounds, and it is hilarious to watch. He is a drunken fool, and he acts it. His dance is stumbling around, barely able to catch his footing before he falls. He's the man you see after last call, getting helped to his car by his friends. He's loud and making jokes as well, basically acting exactly like a character known as the fool would act when it comes to hamming it all up for entertainment's sake. He and the servant have a grand 'ol time together, gossiping about everything that's gone on so far, and that the two yet unseen characters are being morons in the way they're trying to court the woman. They're interesting the watch together, the fool and the servant, when it comes to their dancing styles. They really look at the physical slapstick comedy aspect, while other characters take up the dialogue hilarity.It's also really uncomfortable a little while later, when this character who is one of the few not portrayed as terrible or malicious, gets treated to a great deal of malice and hate by his boss, the scholar. The characters are nasty to him, and it makes you pause for a long moment, wondering if your laughing is just as bad as their blatant disgust. Laughing at those less fortune as you, even when it's in a dance, still can leave a bad taste in your mouth...and it's supposed to.

Then we come to what I think is the most satisfying part of the play- the scene that is devoted to two men with overblown egos fighting over a woman who is clearly playing them both. First, we have the Yangban, or the aristocrat, mask. It's a mask that's meant to showcase the aristocratic society in Joseon Korea, and it's not a flattering portrayal. The over the top acting paints a very unflattering image of the upper class, and it's not exactly an unfair one. Like any country, the aristocrats had it all, and were usually involved in power struggles or matters of government that severely impacted the common and lower classes. When portraying the Yangban, they were showing a character that represented a group of people who cared little about their welfare. Secondly, the Seonbi, or scholar mask. I'll admit that this mask kind of speaks to me, as someone who loves learning and knowledge. I even love the presentation in the dance, because there's so much truth to it. The scholar character is the perfect mix of a dignified, learned person, but with the arrogance that can often come with it. He's a know-it-all, someone that we can all agree can be very, very annoying (even when we can act like know-it-alls ourselves at time). It's a character that shows the two sides of the coin, and once again does it in a way highlighting the hypocrisy of it. He has a whole shtick of humble bragging about how smart he is, especially when he's competing with the Yangban. He's not portrayed in a good or humble light, and is fact seen just as way at all, he's just as much of an idiot as the aristocrat. Worse even, I'd say, since it's obvious he's absolutely terrible to the person who works for him. There's also a lot of history here that goes beyond fighting over a pretty woman. Historically, there was a great deal of fighting between the upper and scholarly class, one that led to multiple purges of the later. There's a lot of symbolism in this section of the dance, and it's more than meets the eye (and people of the time would have known this). They see who can bow the deepest, who looks the best...and it only gets more over the top and cringe worthy as they go. It's a power struggle portrayed in a hilarious way, full of braggarts arguing over who's better while a woman toys with them both. When you look at it, however, there's so much symmetry between them. Not only in the way they act, but there dancing mirrors each other as well. They dance with big movements, taking up a lot of space. For all the characters would think themselves complete opposites, they're virtually indistinguishable in the eyes of the people watching. Neither wins in the end, because the lady flirts with them both and neither seem to win her true affections.

Everyone then comes back on for finale, which is a wedding (where the bride makes her comeback). It's basically a big party, where all the characters appear to be throwing their particular dance styles together like it's some kind of mismatched party. We get one final look at the characters, and each of them gives us a reminder of if the dancers want us to love, pity, or hate them. It's a lesson so blatant that you feel like you've been slapped over the head with it. What's so interesting about this dance is what it portrays. In a lot of masked dances around the world, there tends to be a theme of recreating legends or myths. There are a lot of supernatural creatures involved, maybe even gods or folk heroes. They tend to show larger than life stories. It's different with the Hahoe dances. Instead of anything extraordinary, the characters are everyday people who would have been around in the Joseon Dynasty. The butcher, the old woman, the scholar...they're normal people (with the exception of the Bride). There's nothing magical about them. They're telling a story that's not really all that special. Even if you can't understand what's being said (like me), you can still get that idea from the actions of the dancers/actors. There's a reason for this. These dances and skits were made by the common class, and they are satire at its finest. These plays were a way to mock the upper classes and to speak out about their society without risking themselves. It was comedy, so overblown that it looked like a soap opera wrapped up in music. It wasn't seen as serious, so it was able to air out very serious grievances. It was a way to not only give the powerless a voice, but a way to make it amusing for them at the same time. It's social commentary sort-of hidden in hilarity.

This isn't the end, even if we've gotten to the end of the mask dance. Since this is a festival, there is a lot more to it than just one dance. Away from the village, on large festival grounds, the whole thing gets bigger. It's an area that is so obviously for masks dances- the entrance is a giant colourful Yangban mask. Statues in masks, including famous figures like Batman and Shrek, are wearing masks. Giant masks, designed as ones from all over the world, are everywhere. There's a giant statue of the characters from the Hahoe dance. I have literally never seen so many masks in my life. There's the usual things to do at a Korean festival, as well as a really fun activity where you get to decorate your own mask using the equivalents of silly putty. Besides the performances (more on that later), the highlight for me was definitely the World Mask Exhibit. Masks from all over the world, including some examples from the First Nations on the Canadian west coast, were showcased there. Each continent is represented there, and it's pretty amazing to see just how varied the masks from around the world are. Some are pretty terrifying, monsters with exaggerated features that look like something out of a nightmare. Some are really odd, leaving you to wonder what in the world the creators were even trying to portray. Some are downright beautiful, full of lovely colour and intricate designs. Some are creatures of myth and others look more human. Each one quite clearly as a story behind it, even if we weren't really told what it was. That little bit of mystery and question of 'wait, what?' made them even more interesting to see.

The highlight, however, is the arena where they host dances from around the world. Dance groups from all over the world, come and do their own traditional masked (and sometimes more modern and not-so-masked) dances. In the two years I went, I got to see a few different countries represented. One of the first was the Chinese dancers. There was a few contemporary group dances, followed by a solo mask dance that also looked pretty interpretive. It was obviously telling a story, one that looked like a character dealing with some sort of grief. It was flowy and soft, beautiful and sad. They then did a really interesting rain dance (I blame them for the heavy rain that year). It was far from the solo dance, with pretty strong, powerful moves. It had power behind it, with both the dancing (lots of stomping) and the music. Even their costumes were different, looking far more old than the beautiful silks of the masked dancer. Next were the Russians. They didn't go with a mask dance, per say, but traditional folk dances. They were basically what I think of as stereotypical Russian dress and dances that we all think of, Including the go into crouch and kick out knees dance. I admire anyone who can do that, and the applause told me the rest of the crowd agreed.

The next year I was able to catch two more groups. The first was Indonesia. There were multiple dances with breathtakingly beautiful costumes. My favourite was the giant golden bird. It is clearly designed to look like a bird, and the movements help with that. It really dances in a way that shows it's not human. It's too stilted with it's large gestures and awkward steps to look normal, let alone when the lady birds (in less elobrate costumes) come in. The lady birds that come in, looking all a flutter with their quick whipping of wings and hurried footsteps. Throughout the dances, there's really smooth movements, to music that is heavy on the bells and quite upbeat. There's even a battle depicted, were dancers on broomstick horses attack a giant monster. The mask of monster is at least a few metres tall when the peacock features at the top are counted in. It's pretty frightening, to be honest. The dancing really tells that story- The dancers actually make themselves look like they're in a gallop They dish out some whipping going around as they push back the twitching monster. They win in the end. These are so obviously telling a story, and multiple ones at that. It's fun to try and figure them out. The second performance I caught was by the group from Malaysia. These dancers were so precise in the movements that they looked as straight and unbendable as statues. They even appeared this way when they were in fact bending. Despite looking so rigid in posture and sharp in the movements, they were able to move in spectacular ways. It really worked with the music, that was heavy on metal sounding drums. I didn't see as much of a story in this dance, but I did see a wonderful performance.

Yes, a good chunk of the performance turned kind of pop song, contemporary, but that was pretty neat to see as well, especially after seeing it go straight from traditional. I really did like watching the traditional dances best, because they seemed much more unique. Yet when you see the difference, how it has gone from that to modern dance forms we're all pretty familiar with, it's a pretty clear evolution for us to ponder over. I like having to think about what I saw, and the dances let me do that. Plus, those are only the ones I managed to catch. There were so many others I didn't see, including dancers from Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, and so many more. I would have loved to have stayed and seen them all, but it would be really hard, since the festival runs for a week. As it were, I would have to be happy with all I did see, and I was. In fact, I went there to finally see the Hahoe dance I admired so much, and I got my wish. I gained a greater understanding and appreciation for the masks, and got some pretty good entertainment out of it as well.

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niori_1709

August 2017

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