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Reviewed by:
  • Chushyeoyo, and: Good Pan
  • CedarBough T. Saeji
Chushyeoyoby Cheonha Jeil Tal (The Greatest Mask). Artistic director Kim Seojin, musical director Yi Taewon. National Gugak Center and the Korean National University of the Arts, 15 October and 3 December 2010.
Good Pan, by Ta'ak (Percussion) Project. Artistic director Go Seokjin. KOUS (Korean Culture House), Seoul, Republic of Korea, 30 December 2010.

The Republic of Korea's Cultural Property Protection Law (CPPL; 1962) requires that government-certified traditional arts follow the wonhyeong, an archetypal original format for each art designated at the time of certification. 1The wonhyeonghas a distinctly taxidermizing impact on Korean performing arts, causing some performances to seem more like reenactments, sapping them of the vitality and power to communicate the cultural and phenomenological significance that they once possessed. Most traditional performances today are protected and performed by members of preservation associations such as the Goseong Ogwangdae (Goseong Mask Dance-Drama) Preservation Association or the Samcheonpo Nongak (Samcheonpo Farmer's Drumming and Dancing Music) Preservation Association set up for each art. Particularly in the case of less frequently performed folk arts, the performers are often only part-time. Aside from being artists, they may also have a job as a school-teacher, a farmer, or an engineer, regarding their duties with the preservation association as akin to a very important hobby. In more popular performing arts groups, the preservation association members are increasingly professional performers, struggling to cobble together a living wage from the small stipend granted the two highest ranks of performers and a limited number of [End Page 291]performance fees and teaching opportunities. Since higher-ranked (almost always older) members of preservation associations get more performance opportunities, it is increasingly common to see creative younger performers founding spin-off groups to create new performances that utilize traditional performance vocabulary and their equally underemployed friends, performers from the same or other traditional genres. In late 2010, I attended two exceptionally boundary-pushing performances by young professional performers. One was a new mask dance-drama, and the other was, at its core, a percussion performance. Both were producing entirely new works through creative reimaginings of the traditions protected by the CPPL. Significantly the performers both in Cheonha Jeil Tal and in Ta'ak Project were registered members of CPPL protected arts, yet were able to see their way to create performances that were original not derivative.

Cheonha Jeil Tal is a group of three mask dancers whose production Chushyeoyorecently won the grand prize in the Traditional Theatre Sangseol Festival 2010 hosted by the National Gugak (traditional music) Center (see Figure 1). This mask dance-drama, the second piece by the group, demonstrated the commitment of the performers to the path they had chosen. I was so struck by the performance when I watched it at the National Gugak Center that I watched it again when it was presented at the Korean National University of the Arts.

Cheonha Jeil Tal's mask dancers, all in their thirties, come from three different preservation associations, although members of different associations never cooperatively perform CPPL-certified arts. Their rank, usually attainable after ten to fifteen years of regular participation in the preservation association's activities, means they are expert enough to shoulder a large number of performing duties, but they are generally denied a chance to perform the most important roles. 2Son Byeongman is a member of Bongsan Talchum, a mask dance-drama originally from Bongsan, North Korea. Heo Changyeol performs Goseong Ogwangdae, a mask dance-drama from the southern coast, and Yi Juwon works with Hahoi Byeolshin'gut Talnoli, a mask dance-drama from Hahoi located not far from Andong in Korea's southeast. The three mask dance-dramas use distinctly different movement sets, and the stories depicted, though thematically overlapped, are also dissimilar.

As the performance by Cheonha Jeil Tal commenced, the three entered the stage wearing white minbok, the traditional clothes of the lower classes, which are also the inner layer of traditional costumes for almost all folk arts. They each wore masks depicting characters from each of their three arts, and they carried a large rice pot, a chest, and a...