Shamanism: the term evokes the enigmatic and the occult, a vision of incense-enrobed ceremonies of entrancement performed on windswept steppes in a remote past. But as the 31st Festival d'Automne demonstrates by inviting Korea as its featured guest, shamanism continues to enrich culture: centuries of traditions, beliefs and rites remain at the heart of contemporary arts in a country torn by over 50 years of conflict yet turned increasingly towards national reconciliation and a prosperous future. The mystical and modern meet in Paris' annual performance series, which begins this month by welcoming a prestigious selection of Korea's "Intangible National Treasures" court dances, Pansori singing, mask theater, marionettes and a full shamanic ritual in an impressive showcase of the arts' holistic, healing powers.
Kim Kum-hwa is a living example of how a religion that dates back to the Bronze Age can survive war, industrial revolution, the advent of capitalism and the all-powerful mass media. Initiated into the mysteries of shamanism at the age of 17, Kum-hwa became a Korean celebrity in 1972 when she won a national folklore competition with a personal interpretation of a gut (shamanic ritual) in honor of North Korean generals. Named Korea's 82nd National Treasure in 1984, this pioneer of modern female shamans and advocate of reunification travels the world as a cultural ambassador but is best known at home as the star of a spectacular annual ritual, performed to assure the safety and prosperity of fishermen, that is broadcast on national television to millions of Korean households. It is this ceremony, Daedong Gut, that Kum-hwa will perform for the Festival and that holds the key to understanding the ongoing influence of shamanism in Korean arts.
The recent resurgence of interest in Korea's earliest religious tradition is hard won after centuries of domination by both Buddhist and Confucian belief systems which relegated shamans to society's lowest ranks. The 250 deities recognized by Korean shamanism reflect the country's tumultuous history: in addition to natural, celestial and underworld gods, shamans invoke divinities of the Buddhist and Confucian pantheons as well as historic personalities. If shamanism refers essentially to a form of communication with supernatural forces involving the relaying of entreaties and wisdom between the living and the dead, Korean shamans remain grounded in the material world, calling gods and ancestors into the human sphere where they may be of practical use. That function, as well as the highly codified and colorful dress and settings of the traditional shamanic ritual, lie at the heart of the programming on view this fall.
Traditional Korean dance practices, for example, the art of movement in immobility: deliberately measured legwork evokes the performer's earth-bound condition, in harmony with telluric motion and natural majesty. A variety of dances are scheduled beginning this month, including one for a single shaman (Salpuri) performed to chase away evil spirits, a court dance (Pogurak) in the form of a choreographed ball game and a solo monk's dance (Seungmu) revealing the porous frontiers between Korean Buddhism and shamanism. As for Korea's best known traditional art, Pansori, this unique mono-opera performed by one highly gifted, meticulously trained performer is a direct descendant of shamanism in that a unique individual incarnates a host of personalities and brings to life single-handedly an epic story of human struggle to transcend worldly cares. Five Pansori will be performed on themes ranging from generosity, compassion and filial piety to the vanity of war and the need for peace and reconciliation. The program, a truly comprehensive exploration of shamanic influences, is completed by sacred puppet theater (Kkokdu Gaksi) developed by traveling gypsies who brought this art from India and Western Asia, as well as masked theater conceived as both shamanic ritual and popular entertainment, performed here by two "National Treasures", the companies Unyul Talchum and Hahoe Talchum.
As part of the Festival's full lineup, which features a video opera by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot, new plays by Rodrigo Garcia and Richard Maxwell, the choreography of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Meg Stuart, a wide selection of contemporary classical music and an Algerian film series, the modern artistry and rich heritage of Korean culture is a testament to the role the arts have long occupied and can continue to play in forging identity and cohesiveness in any society. As the presence of Korea's great treasures shows, the shaman's dance, no longer relegated to the realm of folklore, seeks to bridge past and present for improved human understanding and development into the 21st century.
"Danses de cour et danses populaires,
Sept 23-25, Théâtre du Châtelet, 1 pl du Châtelet, 1er, M&Mac251; Châtelet, tel: 01 40 28 28 40;
"Les cinq récits du répertoire classique Pansori," Oct 7-17, Théâtre Molière/Maison de la Poésie, Passage Molière, 157 rue St-Martin, 3e, M&Mac251; Rambuteau, tel: 01 44 54 53 00; "Théâtre masqué/Unyul Talchum," Oct 21-24, Théâtre des Abbesses, 31 rue des Abbesses, 19e, M&Mac251; Abbesses, tel: 01 42 74 22 77; "Rituel chamanique" performed by Kim Kum-hwa, Nov 12, "Théâtre masqué/Hahoe Beolsin-gut Tal-nori," Nov 13-17, "Théâtre de Marionnettes/ Kkokdu Gaksi", Nov 13-16 & Nov 19, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, 37 bis bd de la Chapelle,10e, M&Mac251; La Chapelle, tel: 01 46 07 33 00. Ticket prices from 10.20E to 30E. Program available from Festival d'Automne, tel: 01 53 46 45 17 17, or www.festival-automne.com