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South Korea's Pongsan troupe weathers difficult conditions

A wet stage and chilly temperatures present a challenge for the visitors Friday at the Ford Amphitheatre.

October 16, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

As if Koreans didn't have enough to worry about right now, rain and bitter cold bedeviled distinguished dancers and musicians from that part of the world at the outdoor John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Friday.

Performing moments after the stage had been mopped and then dried with blowers, the Pongsan Masked Dance-Drama of South Korea presented a lusty folk entertainment from the province of Hwanghae. Although primarily focused on social satire, the narrative episodes retained strong elements of ancient ritual: Buddhist and shamanistic rites that gave the comedy a deeper context.

A priest desperate for sex; an old man who kills his wife over a hot babe; a reckless wastrel suddenly stuck with the responsibilities of single parenthood -- the elaborately distorted Pongsan masks may have been strange, but the stories on view recur in every generation. Moreover, the irrepressibly jaunty dance style, with the typical Korean lift in the shoulders, delivered those stories with great charm and gusto.

As always, the buoyant dancing of a giant white-shag lion became a highlight, but company director Kim Ae Sun excelled in a number of assignments, including a powerful funeral ceremony near the end. Kim Chong Yop, Yu Eun Mee, Kim Jong Hae and Chang Yong Il undertook other major roles.

Playing antique native instruments corresponding to the flute, oboe, fiddle and treble drum, the company musicians produced a rhythmic, quivering blare that seemed to come from a long way off in time as well as space. No wonder that Pongsan traditions and performers are regarded inside and outside South Korea as precious cultural treasures.

The program should have opened with "Magnificent Festivals of Tano" by the locally based Kim Eung Hwa Korean Dance Academy. However, the rainstorm caused that segment to be postponed until Friday.

While the Koreans and their audience waited for the rain to stop, a few Tano dances were staged, with improvised lighting and recorded music, in the intimate indoor space below the amphitheater.

A formal fan ensemble proved especially striking, with 11 dancers spinning through rapidly changing formations and holding their fans together to create enormous loops and wheels. High school-age dancers and children ages 6 to 12 displayed their skills in other pieces.

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