A Zen Dance Lotus Blooms in Seoul
By Duane Vorhees
Last things first. The performance itself: Seven perfectly still
figures across the stage in various lotus postures while the
artistic and spiritual leader on and on chants, then one by one
coming jaggedly to life, beginning with a choreography of
fingers, as each in turn is struck by the bright spots: in the
same manner the spring announces itself, serially, through
blooming successions of flower species. At one point they clump
together nearly motionless but rhythmically/hypnotically asway
like sea anemone in waves. In one number they scuttle across the
stage, an ethereal hybrid of crab and butterfly. And as the
musics progress, dancers appear and disappear from the wings,
sometimes seven sometimes none. The chant drones on.
"The lotus blossom is pure, but its roots are embedded in
Such is the way Lee Sun Ock, creatrix-choreographer of Zen
Dance, summarizes life, art, her Korean homecoming, and what she
regards as the hidebound state of the local culture community.
Months earlier she is supervising her six-soon-to-be-seven-
member troupe of dancers during a rehearsal at Sangmyung
University. At this moment the half dozen young women are
immobile, each standing on one leg, cranelike. But then movement
begins to ripple through them as the sitar music in the
background shifts to a pansori recitation and then to a jazz
vocal and ultimately a modern classical viola-drum ensemble.
"Ignore the music, just concentrate," Dr. Lee, prancing
across the dance floor, exhorts them. Later she tells me that
different music is played at every rehearsal, since she doesn't
want her dancers to become slaves to any particular movement.
They must stay strong and free and make each moment their own.
She was born in North Korea and, as an infant, in the chaos
of war, fled all the way south to the Pusan area. But her life as
an artist began when she was nine years old. By then she was used
to sneaking into the theaters to watch free movies, and
subsequently enthralling her young classmates by recounting what
she had seen. However, her budding career as a film critic took a
sudden turn in a different direction when she saw "Red Shoes."
>From that moment she knew she would be a dancer.
The intense, intent faces of the six mirror their taut,
graceful figures. Some of them are now dotted across the floor
like perfect T's, one leg planted firmly on the wood while the
other goes out at a 90 degree angle, forming a straight line with
the rest of the stretched, horizontal body. Others are planted in
half-lotus postures, motionless but not still.
At first Lee took the usual road, training in ballet and
modern dance. In 1957, she began her apprenticeship under Kim
Paek-cho, the first Korean dancer to study in the United States
under the legendary Martha Graham. By the time Sun Ock was 16,
she was dancing professionally. After graduating from college
with an English Literature major, she took off to New York
University to pursue a graduate degree in dance. Gradually, out
of the Martha Graham technique she had grown up with, she began
to develop her own approach.
The dance unfolds in measures of separate clockwork. The
performance can be observed holistically, as the members of the
ensemble mirror and model each other, the way a jazz combo
spontaneously, intuitively exchanges notes and harmonies in
mutual improvisation. Or the focus can be narrowed to each
individual dancer, as she responds to the movement and space of
all the ones around her.
As a student and performer, Lee began incorporating
traditional Korean dances and adding other ethnic Asian styles to
her repertoir, while also becoming more spiritually attuned to
Zen practices. From ordinary sitting meditation, she advanced to
moving meditation (akin to tai-chi). The two motive forces in her
life, dance and meditation, finally started to unite in 1972 in
the creation of a new artistic form, Zen Dance.
By 1976, she had founded her own company, Son Mu Ga, and by
1986 had achieved a concrete choreography. Even so, she is quick
to point out that her creation is still evolving, since she has
not yet "overcome" the world. She is still practicing to deal
with everyday problems and to achieve happiness.
The deception being practiced at the moment is that the
girls' bodies are actually floating in the air, the strong foot
grip on the ground has become nearly invisible. Arms and necks
and the other limb appear as though being lifted up, up, as if
attached to strings from the ceiling. The law of gravity is
Lee insists that dance meditation has two separate aspects,
one artistic and one therapeutic. "Healing dance" is an aspect of
rehabilitation therapy via exercise, but it is based primarily on
learning how to breathe. The process begins in the lower
abdominal region, but, through dance, practitioners learn how to
transfer the energy elsewhere in the body and eventually to
incorporate it into their mind.
It is this aspect of her work that has been applied at the
Wooridal Hospital Spine and Health Institute, of which Dr. Lee
has been a director. So, for her, Zen Dance is "beyond religion,
it manifests all of reality. It is an embodiment of meditation in
motion, or movement creation," as well as spiritual practice and
physical conditioning. But, like life, it is also ephemeral:
"Dancing is painting on air."
Now some are leaping across the stage like so many
Nijinskis, while others are tumbling and turning on their self-
contained axes. And then the rapid, frenetic motion gives way
once again to a sudden stillness. But the newfound quiet is also
transient, soon giving way again to another round of quick strong
Though centered in New York, Lee has taught and performed
around the world, in France, Germany, Hong Kong, and India, where
she was invited to participate in the celebration of 50 years of
independence. Her work has graced the stage of such prestigious
venues as Carnegie Hall, le Rond Point, Avery Fisher Hall, LaMaMa
ETC, and the Olympic Festival in Seoul. For 22 years, she was a
resident artist for the Asia Society of Performing Arts, and in
1993 she founded the Asian Contemporary Dance Festival.
Currently, in addition to her other duties, including
dancer, choreographer, and professor at Sangmyung University, she
is also the international co-ordinator of APPAN, the Asia-Pacific
Performing Arts Network, under the patronage of UNESCO. Her goal
is to make the organization the premier center for sharing
artistic information and experience, through workshops, seminars,
publications, performances, and so forth. "Maybe someday an APPAN
Award will be like a Nobel Prize for performing artists."
Before dismissing that ambition as something grandiose,
beyond the capacity of "an old woman," one should take heed that
one of her admirers once bestowed the epithet of "Dandelion" upon
her. "Step on a dandelion and it will be pressed down, but it
always pops back up." Her Zen Dance technique is designed to
bring out individual desire and self-expression, through
dedication and will. But the lesson is not confined to dance
alone, it is intended to apply to all of life as well.
The illusion of ethereality is momentarily shattered; group
concentration gives way to sudden, relaxed giggles as the dancers
work through an awkward lapse. From the sidelines, Lee good-
naturedly hectors them, showering them with renewed strength and
encouragement. The moment passes. It's back to serious business
In 1997, after global success as a dancer and teacher, Lee
returned to Korea. "Every human being yearns for the homeland,
just like in nature. Salmon return to their place of birth to
die." In her case, she had decided to share her insights with her
own people, and wanted to export them from Korea rather than the
U.S. She retains her American connections, but has "moved the
factory to Korea," as she puts it.
Even after giving the transfer a great deal of thought, she
did not anticipate what lay before her. "In 28 years, a lot had
changed. I was different and Korea was different. When I left I
was still a college student and the country was still very
Despite the economic alteration of her native land, however,
she does not see much internationalization or globalization in
its arts. She quotes Kandinsky to the effect that artists are the
food for other artists, and adds that too many Koreans are on a
From her perspective, the majority of her countrypeople in
the arts are too self-conscious, they are not open to the rest of
the world. They are either too unwilling or too insecure to
accept collaboration. They do not want to share their artistic
experience, or to learn from others, not only Westerners but
other Asians as well.
Arms out, hands nearly touching, the human wave advances in
a straight, rigid line, an indomitable curtain of unrepressed
energy. And the dance ends in unsion with a prolonged bow from
the waist, executed by six perfect hinges.
The problem with art in Korea starts with the education in
the schools--even professors who have studied abroad are too
provincial and sterile, she claims. "They are still doing the
same things I did 30 years ago. The costumes are more colorful,
and there are more dancers on the stage at the same time--but all
change here has been only quantitative. The creators are mere
copiers, with no sense of originality, no sense of indigenous
Clanship is all-pervasive. There are no professional dance
companies that do not have their own school lineage. If dancers
seek to participate outside these confines, they are not only
shunned by their own group but not welcomed into any others.
While this situation may promote strong, intimate kinship, it
does not allow for generative cross-fertilization. "It is like
traditional wedding customs. If your marriage is arranged, can
you really date?"
The present incarnation of Son Mu Ga consists of students
from the Sangmyung University Dance Dapartment, including one who
has just graduated. Two of them have only been in the company for
three months, but already they have become quite confident in the
mastery of the difficult, diversely Yin-Yang demands of the
Another rehearsal, in preparation for a television
appearance; unlike the show that was held a week earlier, this
time their stretching and warming up are uniform,
nonindividualistic. Lots of slow arm movements, deep rhythmic
breathing, faces masked in concentration. Outstretched like
helicopter blades straining for lift-off, but silent as gliders
they hover, straining for grace.
Now the experience is drawing to a close. The CDs are being
put away, shoes and jackets donned, and dancers and irrepressible
leader are returning to "real life" for another night. Laughing
among themselves, they prepare to join friends and family, to eat
or study. But the girls who leave the room are not the girls who
entered it, their dance has added dimensions.
After years of travel and teaching, Duane Vorhees received his doctorate in
American Cultural Studies from Bowling Green (Ohio) State University before
returning to Korea to teach English at Seoul National University. He is the
author of THE "JEWISH SCIENCE" OF IMMANUEL VELIKOVSKY and numerous poems,
essays, and scholarly studies, the translator of THE COMPLETE POETRY OF YUN
DONGJU, an editorial contributor to the LET'S TALK series of instructional
books, and co-host of the longest-running Open Mike gathering in Seoul.
Currently, he teaches American Literature and History, Sociology, and
Political Science for the University of Maryland Asia Division.