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SIFA 2023: An Interview with Hyerim Jang, choreographer behind ‘Abyss’

The concept of ‘han’ in Korea refers to a feeling of multiple layers of sorrow and sadness that represents the suffering of Korean lives from wars and colonialism. These days, it still persists, even if more removed from its historical context, and continues to plague even the modern Korean person with its sadness.

Artistic director of 99 Art Company Hyerim Jang seeks to address that sadness and resentment in her work Abyss, which premieres in Singapore as part of the 2023 Singapore International of Arts. Before it arrives, we spoke to Hyerim about the concept of suffering, traditional dance in Korea, and audience reaction in Korea. Read the interview in full below:

Bakchormeeboy: Abyss is inspired by the Korean concept of ‘han’ and inherited trauma. Even years after the last war and colonialism, why are the scars still felt by the current generation of Koreans?

Hyerim: Abyss was firstly derived from the sadness that exists inside human nature. My insight that looked into my personal sad feelings was the starting point of Abyss. I think that I got influenced by my surroundings as I belong to a society and also my personal feelings somehow got reflected to the society. I found out that these questions during the research process brought out personal feelings, like different kinds of sadness and cry, and actually could get related to the historical and national aspects which are beyond personal matter.

Thus the word Han is alive and ‘evolved’ today and did not stay in the past of Colonialism and wars. Mostly Korean traditional culture is introduced in 2 terms, Han and Heung. They are opposite meaning but also shows the status starting from Han and move to Heung. There will be someone who has deep wounds from history though I see a powerful and positive strength from it. Abyss is not about a certain historical moment. I just hope to share my direction of the way we deal with our deep and embodied sadness in our lives.

Bakchormeeboy: To escape the abyss of han, people have to talk, laugh and cry together to push away those dark feelings. How does that become represented through dance?

Hyerim: We all thought that our sadness is not the object that we need to escape. It was confrontation. We (I and the dancers) just sit together and shared the deep sadness that each have been embedded inside. But we tried not to predict what kind of consequences will be made after this process.

Someone talked about their childhood, some shared about recent events. We felt a piece of freedom out of this talking, listening and sympathising process. Throughout this procedure I realised the direction of this piece. We already started to feel the small happiness and jewel of life although we did not fight against the sadness.

Bakchormeeboy: How have audiences in Korea reacted to the piece?

Hyerim: I remember that one audience hugged me warmly after the show and told me that they were really thankful for making this kind of performance. I was so moved by his sincere feedback.

Bakchormeeboy: How popular is Korean traditional dance these days? Is there enough interest in the current generation to support it, and does it receive sufficient support to sustain in the long run?

Hyerim: Well, I think I have many friends and people who appreciate traditional arts. BTS also collaborated with traditional music and dance. Culture is huge and far though it is like a baby’s instinct looking for mom. It is good to be loved by someone but it is still meaningful even if it is not.

Bakchormeeboy: How does this work tie back to SIFA’s theme of Some People?

Hyerim: I just hope that all the audience receive the story of Abyss in their own ways. We are so excited and happy to meet the SIFA audience soon!

Abyss plays from 19th to 20th May 2023 at SOTA Drama Theatre. Tickets available here

The 2023 Singapore International Festival of Arts runs from 19th May to 4th June 2023. Tickets and full details of programme available here

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