Negotiating Loss in SaltSoul

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photo credit Annie Seng

by Hannah Joo for The Dance Journal

The first thing I was asked to do upon entering the Asian Arts Initiative  was to write down the name of someone who I had lost, someone who I knew who had died.

I stared down at a strip of red fabric, trying to process this question that we so often try to forget. To move on from the death of our loved ones means to accept their passing and continue to live our daily lives as normal. Yet, here I was, tasked with writing down the name of someone who I had lost, just moments after arriving to the performance of SaltSoul (살솔).

It was not hard to think of someone I had lost in my life. Rather, it was more difficult to decide whose name to write down. I walked into the gallery space on the first floor of the Asian Arts Initiative and joined a crowd of many other people, all carrying the weight of their loss in their hands like I was in the form of red and yellow cloth. I tied mine around my wrist like many other had already done. In the short time before choreographer Jungwoong Kim and his collaborators made their appearance, I had entered a space of both vulnerability and solace. In holding the name on my red cloth and seeing every other person of the do the same, SaltSoul had begun.

This particular evening’s performance of SaltSoul was one iteration of a larger project that aimed to embody the experiences of trauma and tragedy that comes from sudden loss. Kim and collaborators, installed a site specific work at the Asian Arts Initiative that investigated the following questions: How do we absorb and recover from the pain of unexpected loss? How is our grief affected by the ways that accountability is assigned and accepted? How can we build empathy and support for survivors within our intimate, local, and global communities? How can art speak to all of this? For Kim, these questions arose from personal experiences during his own lifetime: the death of his father when he was only 10 years old, the 300 people as a result of an overcrowded ferry capsizing off the coast of Jindo, South Korea.

The building was soon transformed into a journey through these events as we followed the dancers throughout different rooms and floors of the Asian Arts Initiative. First, we are lead to gather in a small hallway. A strong but distant sound of a lone taepyeonso, a traditional Korean horn, floats into the room as dancers enter. They wear a belt of the same ribbons we have tied to ourselves while holding a large branch with the same cloth hanging next to small bells. In this intimate setting, the movements of the dancers feel meditative, as if to pay respects to the lives that have passed. Following a trail of long white fabric, we walk up the stairs where there are more ribbons with names lining the railings and ceiling

In another narrow hallway, two dancers continue to appear and disappear, falling into the walls, sliding down to the floor, tumbling on three sides of the concrete. No matter how hard they push against the walls or the ground, they seem unable to find any support from the structures that hold everything up. The irony of the caution tape starts to sting while watching the dancers struggle to stand up on their own. Could something as simple as a line of caution tape prevented the deaths of so many people? Could it have kept people out of a collapsing building or sinking ferry boat? The dancers begin to recite a list of names as we follow them to yet another room. A video is projected on the back of a dancer’s body, showing Kim moving and dancing through the remains of the Salvation Army building on Market Street. He maneuvers through rubble and dust in the video, and these materials are brought to life in the next room where a woman sits in front a large board covered with dirt, bolts, screws, and more.

Dancer Germaine Ingram begins to enter a trance like state, as she slides the objects around on the board and sings sorrowfully. The board begins to shake frantically to reveal a person has been trapped under the board the whole time. He shakes the board off of him and examines the object of obstruction, turning it this way and that, sweeping the debris, and shaking it like a blanket. Ingram, observing all of this, begins to unravel her head scarf, leaving another trail for us to follow.

The finale of SaltSoul took place on the third floor, the largest of the spaces we have occupied. Long lines of fabric, much like the trails we have been following, stretch across the floor. Three bodies lay peacefully in fetal position on the cloth, and one by one, they begin to roll, sit up, and walk in an organized pattern. Soon, they stack themselves on top of each other in the same fetal position. This motif of bodies piled up resonates through group work, duets, and solos that fill this section. One lies on top of another, slowly slides off to meet each other face to face, rolls away, and starts over. This repeats again and again, the dancers connect through touch and sight, only to leave someone behind until the pattern starts again.

Through the physical connectivity and intensity of this final section, the loss of others seems to become my own loss, and I to feel able to partake in the grieving and mourning that I had forced myself to forget for many years. At the end of the performance, I considered leaving my red ribbon by the many others along the staircase. Instead, I chose to leave with it because of this anecdote in the program for SaltSoul:

A 26-year old Korean man, Kwon Oh-Hyun, lost more than fifty pounds in the half year following the sinking of the Sewol ferry that took the life of his younger brother, Kwon Oh-Cheon. He could hardly keep any food or drink down. A doctor encouraged him to seek counseling, but he refused. “The pain I feel over my brother’s death is my last connection to him,” Kwon said. “If I lose this anguish, I will have fully lost him.”

SaltSoul performed October 6-8th at Asian Arts Initiative, Philadelphia
More information on SaltSoul can be found on www.saltsouldance.com