Choi Seung-hee, an early 20th century dancing star

2011-04-28

Korea’s first hallyu star in the 20th century

The February 7th, 1936 edition of the daily Dong-a Ilbo ran the following article.

“The New York Metropolitan Music Company, the greatest dance company, has signed a contract with its first Asian resident dancer. Ms. Choi is scheduled to perform seungmu (a Buddhist dance) and other Korean traditional dances at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, the Mecca of the global dance scene.”

Dancer Choi Seung-hee held Korea’s first overseas dance performance in the early 20th century when the nation still regarded female dancers as either gisaengs (entertainers/courtesans) or shamans. Those who saw her dance were so enchanted that she was heralded as “the pearl of the east” or “Isadora Duncan of Korea.” She is truly the nation’s first hallyu star, the ambassador of Korean culture.

Born to dance

Born in Seoul on November 24th 1911, Choi was a bright girl, who finished primary school in just four years at the top of her class and advanced to Sookmyung Girls’ School on scholarship. When she turned sixteen, she saw a performance by Baku Ishii, the pioneer of modern Japanese dance, which set her on the course to becoming a dancer. Choi’s big brother Choi Seung-il, who was working at a broadcasting station at the time, became her biggest supporter and allowed her to study modern dance in Japan under Ishii’s tutelage.
Smart and artistically gifted, Choi soon rose to the star dancer status in the Ishii Dance Company and earned fame when she starred in the company’s Seoul performances in 1927 and 1928. She opened her own dance institute in Seoul in 1929 and held her first dance recital in the following year, revving up her career as a professional dancer.
Then, studying traditional Korean dance under Han Seong-jun helped her shape her own dance world. Even before the idea of “fusion” was born, Choi combined traditional and modern dances to create her own versions of seungmu, knife dance, fan dance, and mask dance. Korean dances which had been relegated to the backstreets or the red light district were transformed into new, yet still beautiful performing arts.

Mesmerizing the world with Korean dance

Her ambition was to take Joseon’s rhythm from one end of the world to the other, according to one newspaper interview. In 1934 she held a performance of modernized Korean dance in Japan, which won high praises from the Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata of “Snow Country,” who extolled that her dance and love for her people should be cherished by Joseon. Then in December of 1937 she went to San Francisco and signed a contract with the Metropolitan Music Company to go on a six-month U.S. tour.
Tall and lithe with sparkling eyes and sensual beauty, Choi mesmerized America with her graceful movements. Even the legendary American actor Charlie Chaplin was reportedly her fan. After America she ventured out to Europe and showcased choripdong dance, which sparked a fad in Paris, France over the hats fashioned after choripdong, a small Korean hat worn by adolescent boys before marriage. Among her fans were world-renowned artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Rolland. In the late 1930s Choi held some 150 performances in Europe, the United States, and Central and South America, becoming a respected artist in the global stage. However, her name was banned in her homeland for a long time.

Under a new light

Because of her worldwide fame, Choi was forced by the Japanese military to perform for Japanese soldiers. Because of these inevitable performances, she was labeled a traitor after Korea’s independence. She eventually chose to go live in the north with her socialist activist husband. But her husband was executed by the North Korean regime in 1958 and she is also said to have suffered the same fate in 1967. Korea’s turbulent history tore her life apart and subjected her to both criticism and adulation, but it is undisputable that she was an indispensable pioneer of Korean modern dance. Transcending the boundaries of tradition and modernity, and the east and the west, Choi was able to dance more freely and loftily than anyone else. Isn’t it about time that she was seen from a different perspective?

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