OCTOBER 2022 EDITION
Hello Elly! Thank you so much for having us today. "Island - Sum" is a mind-blowing ode to swimming and dancing. It is genuinely an incredible performance for the eyes and the mind. How was it made possible technically? Can you tell us more about the challenges you were up against?
It is a dance painting, and it is a silent journey that paints a personal life story through movements. It is a drawing in the water, with movements setting the tones and colors. And because it is like a drawing with body movement, it can also create its own poetry for the viewers as they watch the film.
I had a hard time finding the right professionals with experience dancing underwater, and it was also challenging for me to translate my visual language into a dance. We worked almost daily, going through my graphic sketches and how she could create the feelings and tones of the specific movement I wanted with the choreographer. Byungwha Kim then created a beautiful dance movement capturing Korean traditional dance with swords and mixing it with modern dance.
I am hugely grateful to her for doing such a fantastic job. I wanted to mix Korean and modern dance because my inspiration started from the classic/modern dance I visualized, inspired by a sword in a European book. I used two swords because, when researching this project, I found that traditional Korean dances were done with two swords. We played around with one blade, two swords, and no swords. The dancer found it easier to work with no sword during some movements because of the underwater gravity.
You have already explained that the "color of the costume - black and white dresses" is to emphasize "emotional instability that follows the emotional engagement of the characters. Postures and movement with the sword depict the character's phycological state caused by repressed and unconscious inner conflict (due to) living on an island."
However, the white jellyfish dancer seems to be performing a ritual —some of the moves are reminiscent of a sacrificial ceremony. The Katanga-style sword is present at times in the tableaux involving the white "jellyfish", whereas the character clad in black seems joyful and carefree. Dare we ask if death comes into play in this universe?
The aesthetics of color in the film relate to the attitude toward an island. The color of the costumes, the black and white dresses, emphasize the emotional instability that follows the emotional engagement of the characters. The postures and movement with the sword depict the characters' phycological states caused by the repressed and unconscious inner conflict from living on an island. The white costume symbolizes sea animals/species as you described—a jellyfish. The choreography with this costume suggests a more classic period using swords and a reserved manner of emotional engagement. The black dress symbolizes a modern lifestyle, dancing freely and openly expressing her emotion.
I thought mainly about the dance movement and the concept of life. The color palette is limited because I didn't try to mix anything except dance and movement in the space where it was filmed. I could have combined the film with other objects or scenes with more colors, but I wanted it to be more of a performance piece from the beginning—a performance that you could only see on the screen rather than live. It is like seeing a person's life through this one woman's performance, which she expresses through body movement.
Gravity is a force she has to fight throughout the film to survive.
I looked at different word dances from the Chosun dynasty to research the movements of the official dancing girl in a sword dance. And the Honam sword dance has the local color of the Honam region in Korea, which utilizes body positions in the dance similar to the Salpuri dance, which is a dance to release evil during a shamanic ceremony.
After doing the research, I learned that choreography can develop into a performing art by treating the sword not just as an instrument for fighting but also as an instrument of joy.
The historical reference for the popular sword dance in Korea comes from the Shilla dynasty. Historical documents about the Shilla dynasty said that Hwang Chang-rang, a Silla man, entered Baekje at a young age and performed a sword dance in front of the king.
He then took advantage of this opportunity to stab the king with a sword before being killed by the people of Baekje. Silla's people were saddened by this. They made a mask with his face in the shape of a sword dance.
This marked the origin of Geommu (sword dance), which developed into a form of dancing in the Joseon dynasty. In this dance, an even number of women wear costumes worn by military officers holding swords in both hands.
It was danced by both civilians and the court. Especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, the sword dance was prevalent and was performed nationwide by local government officials.
Do you see your human jellyfish as an ode to femininity as well?
I see my performance as a symbol of myself, really, and I meant to represent the performer as a symbol of sea species. I wrote a poem that the sword cut off the jellyfish while she dreams of escaping the island.
As I mentioned earlier, the dance in the white costume has imagery reminiscent of classical paintings from the 18th century, which was my original inspiration. I also referenced a sword dance painting from the Chosun dynasty. The image calls to mind a still life from the painting, which I would call a moment of capturing the yin and yang in life.
The white costume does represent a sea animal—namely, a jellyfish or cuttlefish. However, for visions of this format, like-minded visionaries are needed to turn them into accurate impressions. My team did a fantastic job on this. Together with the costume and choreography, we brought to life the vision of a soft and delicate yet strong image of women dancing freely, embodying the unconscious through cartography.
It has elegance from the still painting imagery depicting women's life, like a collection of memories in movement, delicateness, poetry and an ode to femininity. It gives a sense of space to a place that does not exist, creating paradoxical feelings with a dance in the space of nowhere. The film's setting has an idea of space as an abstract stage—a place without a place. From day to day, these feelings exist, but they are buried by the pressure to be who I am.
Can you tell us a bit more about the choice of the symbolic sword and the interlude with the black fins/jellyfish? Are the white jellyfish and the black swan to be seen as one or as two different tableaux of the two protagonists trapped on their own island? Is living on an island a claustrophobic experience?
It could be seen as one because I used the women in white and black costumes as the same person in different time zones and states of mind. In the scene where the woman dances in the black costume, she almost loses her mind while dancing to her dreams and hope. In the dancing scene with the white costume, her movements are grand and daring, almost in meditation in martial arts while keeping her feelings reserved.
You have paradoxical feelings about an action or a thing when you live life. It is those moments I was trying to capture and bring to the table as a subject, releasing those moments into an abstract drawing in the water. These paradoxical feelings between joy and relief from everyday life in agony and discomfort, translated into an art piece about reality and fantasy, gave me a powerful inspiration that could only be depicted as a dance piece rather than words.
Are we right in seeing a postmodern tribute to Swan Lake? What are your 21st-century inspirations?
Now that you mentioned Swan Lake, I see where you are going. Looking at a dance film, Black Swan is a piece that includes a performance that mirrors the conflict of good and evil in Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake. I didn't look at this piece or the original dance from Swan Lake for my work. My inspiration came from the pure imagery of a European painting book from the 18th century that included a sword. I then developed it into a dance piece referencing an 18th-century Korean sword dance. I do see the similarity in the subject matter between Swan Lake and my work.
Ballet is a form of art using the gesture of the illusion of triumph over reality and even the force of gravity. Still, in my piece, she is fighting the force of gravity with the whole body throughout the performance, depicting the life between reality and fantasy in a dream-like manner. My piece is about life itself, whereas Black Swan is about the conflict between the ideal and reality.
The fun and mischievous Swan Lake by Alexander Ekman is a spectacular piece that I want to look at for my future pieces. The show transcends boundaries, and I want to make a piece that pushes boundaries between dance and fantasy. By this, I mean I want to push it to a movement of fight choreography, arrange the action sequences to be more experimental and innovative, using the sword as an instrument of joy like in my piece island. It will be on a bigger scale with more performers.
Is dance a tool to cure the mind?
As I mentioned in my response to question 3, the island is about the paradoxical feelings between joy and relief from everyday life in agony and discomfort, translated into a dance piece about reality and fantasy. In the scene with the white costume, her movement was designed almost as a martial arts type of meditation, and she was totally immersed in her own feelings. A lot of my paintings, artworks and drawings on photographs are automatic drawings expressing the subconscious.
I have been drawing this way since the beginning of my artistic career. When I am doing a mechanical drawing, it feels as though I am lost in creation, meditating on the art.
The pencil would hit the paper, and it wouldn't stop until the page was complete, like it poured out of me. It's an organic process, drawing your mind's eye. This takes your mind, and your mind's eye, to a place that is typically unexplored. So drawing with dance movement underwater is the same as drawing on a piece of paper for me.
You said in your director's statement, "Through my work, I seek to instil in the viewer a highly charged but nostalgic awareness of things long past. As I engage in this process, I am struck by how much people's personal histories shape their cultural landscapes and perceptions of nature. I aim to further experiment, encouraging political engagement that allows artwork and environment to jointly contribute to current artistic discourse."
Are we right in seeing budding future projects behind this statement?
I have always explored subjects from current affairs. I take them and turn them into a performance using video, such as the performance in Sounds of Fragment: Ecological Dreams (2017) and Fragments: Reconstructing History and Memory in East Asia (2016). I have also explored life as a subject matter in my film and video works. I think choosing the medium depends on the subject. In my upcoming project for 2023, I will continue to work on new media art using AI that explores climate change and the extinction crisis, which I started in 2019.
I also have a documentary dance film on my agenda, which I have already started by choosing the team members for the project.
I am preparing for my documentary film and my dance film. These are two separate projects, but they will relate to each other. The documentary film will also have dance in it.
I want to make a documentary film that impacts people's minds in a way that can transform or help their lifestyles.
As I am also working on my first feature film, I am learning new strategies to produce it.
The film will be musical in the sense that it will contain both the sounds of nature and music, as well as a mixture of body movement and interviews with people. The audio-visual medium can play a decisive role in transgressing spoken language by incorporating the sounds of nature and using memory as a flow of consciousness, mixing the music as a dialogue between the subject and the places. All these elements will play a role in highlighting the need to change, transform, and act on climate challenges.
These are my goals for the film. But I will have to work on it further to discover its needs to develop the concept and the visuals.
The documentary film is about climate change and its relationship to an extinction crisis.
I have also been experimenting with body movement and dance in my video work in my artistic career. I have produced some works using dance, music, and dialogue related to the existence of beings, ecology, and humanity. My feature film will relate to these subjects, focusing on an extinction crisis and how body movement connects to the surrounding nature. I am in the research stage now.
Short statement describing your vision of the post-covid cinema, do you think
there will be notable changes?
I think in Korea, people thrive on realistic experiences in digital environments as well as going to the physical cinema. They want what cutting-edge technology offers. As an artist, I will want to challenge myself to create content that uses new media such as tools to realize my vision - AI and metaverse in the context of film. This can then be enjoyed in a home environment as well as online or in a theater. I aim to make purpose-driven content for using innovative technology and have this available online or in a physical environment.
Choreographer and Director
Elly Cho is an interdisciplinary artist whose work has been exhibited around the world and won numerous awards. Her art explores the intersection between nature, the environment and human behavior, across various mediums, including painting, mixed media, video and performance art. She approaches the subject matter of cultural landscapes in narrative form, which often relates to her own life experiences and memories. In her video work, Cho often used familiar landscapes but stimulates viewers to engage with an imaginative response that creates new terrains.
Cho’s experimentation with color, nature and mentality, underlies a body of work that explores the relationship between ecology and human existence, and the yearning for connection. By drawing on colors and movements in nature, Cho mimics movements in nature but renders them with a new poeticism.
Cho seeks to instill in the viewer a highly charged, nostalgic awareness of things long since past but also encourages political engagement that allows both artwork and environment to contribute to current artistic discourse. Cho is inspired by the relationship between nature and the viewer’s perception of it, based on his/her personal experience and history.
Cho’s works are featured in museums, private collections and in major exhibitions such as the Seoul Municipal Museum and Musée Cantonale des Beaux-Arts du Valais in Switzerland, as well as exhibitions such as ‘Nature’s Tempo’ at the Korean Cultural Center of New York, and ‘Going Green’ in conjunction with Queens Art Express in New York. Her public and performance art projects include ‘Sounds of Fragment: Ecological Dreams’ at the Nam June Paik Art Center and Seoul Innovation Park sponsored by the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation and Gyeonggi-do Council.
Cho’s short films and video installations have received numerous international awards, including the "Sunny Art Prize" in London, the "Luciole d'Or" at the "Cannes World Film Festival - Remember the Future" in the category Best Experimental Film (October 2022 Edition) and at Berlin Shorts. She was also awarded as Best Silent Film, Best Dance Choreography Film and Best Experimental Film at the "New York International Film Awards", "Washington DC Cinema Festival", among others. Her work has screened at film festivals such as “Times Square Midnight Moment” in New York.
She received an Award of Excellence from "Beyond the Curve International Film Festival" in Paris, and Best Director at the "Asia Film Art International Film Festival" in Hong Kong. Born and educated in Korea, Cho also studied in Switzerland, and holds a BA and MFA from the Slade School of Fine Art in London, as well as an MA in Art Education from Columbia University. Cho has taught visual art courses and art theory at several major universities in Korea such as Hongik University and Ehwa Women’s University.
Her residency participation includes the 3-D Sculpture Park artist residency program in Switzerland and AHL Foundation residency in New York.
Interview: Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich