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Photos from HellBond: Dancing With the Spirits at Asia North Festival

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BmoreArt’s Picks: May 24-30

Asia North 2022 is a two-month festival that celebrates the Asian communities of Baltimore through performing and visual arts. Many artists, curators, organizers, and businesses work in partnership to put on exhibitions, community gatherings, concerts, and theatrical performances local to the Charles North neighborhood, also known as Koreatown. This multicultural affair is organized by Joanna Pecore and Nerissa Paglinauan of the Asian Arts & Culture Center at Towson University, Center Baltimore Partnership, and the Station North Arts District. Exhibitions and events are being held at Stillpointe Theatre and Motor House until May 28, 2022. The closing party will take place on May 27th, 2022 at various locations in Station North.

HellBond: Dancing with the Spirits was one of the spectacular events produced for this festival. Curators Michael Young, who goes by Miki, and Jia Le Ling transformed the basement of the James E. Hooper House into the chambers of Hell. Here they hosted experimental live performances across two weekends that invited audiences to experience the concept of Hell as it is depicted in Chinese folk religion. Instead of being a place of fear and an everlasting punitive prison, in this version, Hell is described as a place for metamorphosis. As described in the introduction to Hellbond: Dancing with the Spirits, it’s a “rite of passage for all souls, good or bad, to pass through in order to reincarnate into a new life.” 

On April 30, four artists improvised a live performance of movement and sound inside the installation. Azumi Oe, a Butoh artist painted in all white, and Hsiao-Chu Hsia, a performance artist dressed in all black, used their bodies to fill the space with intense visceral movements to the sounds of Korean drumming and looped bassy cello played by Dami Soh Schlobohm, and shakuhachi (a bamboo flute) performed by Hideo Sekino.

In the following interview, curators and performers from Hellbond: Dancing with the Spirits discuss Chinese folklore, Korean drumming, psychological aspects of performance art, and more. 

 

Saskia Kahn: How did you decide to produce Hellbond: Dancing with Spirits? 

Miki (Co-Curator/Artist): Jia Le and I had another project we worked on called Unrest Unravel and while chatting casually, Jia Le said he wasn’t sure he would remain in the United States, so I mentioned we should do something together in case we do not cross paths again for a long time. Around that time, Asia North emailed me about proposing something for Asia North 2022, since I had worked with them in the past. Then we got together to discuss a production. 

How did you come up with the concept? What does the word Hellbond represent? 

Miki: The concept of Hellbond: Dancing with the Spirits came from Chinese mythology. I was envisioning a situation similar to set designs used in older Chinese folklore and horror films. Jia Le and I had a good relationship and I knew Jia Le could extract ideas well and put them into physical settings. Once we sat down and threw out ideas it came very naturally. Hellbond is a word chosen as imagery to explain bonds created in the journey of hell. “Hell” traditionally is meant to scare whereas “Bond” has a more lighthearted and gentle approach. I also see the word Hellbond as symbolizing a journey where an unfortunate thing may happen but along the way, something unexpected may happen to change that path. Finally, Hellbond to me is like a river flowing.

What was your inspiration for the installation?

Jia Le Ling (Co-Curator/Set Designer): I was definitely inspired by many of the stories I heard as a child about Hell in Chinese folk religion. These stories of Hell were not only told to be scary but often portrayed to be an uplifting place. In a lot of Chinese martial arts TV series, the protagonist makes a trip to Hell after being “killed” by the antagonist but comes back stronger and wiser. (Kind of like when Gandalf from Lord of the Rings “dies,” he came back stronger.) I think the installation is also trying to extract the duality that exists in Hell, where death/suffering and rebirth/joy is closely linked together. Whether it is Chinese opera or my grandmother, stories told about Hell are exciting, dramatic, and fun, which is an important element I hope to capture in the installation. 

 

How did you begin working with artists in Japan?

Miki: In 2005, I was trying to promote my band in Asia after we got on some labels in Indonesia and Malaysia. Those labels recommended we try Japan and introduced me to a label in Tokyo. I was not that familiar with Japan at that time, besides from what I knew from such films as Suicide Club by Sion Sono and Dead or Alive by Takeshi Miike. I was invited to a house by the contact given to me by the label, and I saw some amazing Japanese musicians. I formed many relationships and began inviting performers to the US and organizing their tours in 2008. Japanese people have been like a family to me and I had felt I really wanted people in the USA to understand the same experiences I felt from many years traveling to Japan. I think this is the reason I just have continued inviting Japanese artists to the US.

The performance is influenced by multiple cultures including Chinese folklore, Japanese Butoh, and Korean drums. What excites you about integrating different traditions? 

Jia Le Ling: For me, the most exciting part is the way in which these different traditions come together so gently and harmoniously while still allowing their individual practices to come through and shine. While creating a cohesive performance, each performer was able to stay true to their artistry, allowing the audience to witness the strength and uniqueness of each cultural art form. 

It expresses a kind of camaraderie I hope to see more of within the Asian community, especially during the pandemic. The different traditions are also not the only things coming together. There is also the integration of modern and traditional art forms. Dami with her cello and Korean drums, and Julia’s (Hsiao-Chu Hsia) contemporary movements against Azumi’s Butoh movements. The level of integration is manifold, chaotic, and dynamic which speaks to the kind of energy I hope to portray in a site like Hell. 

A big message in this piece is to awaken people to the fact that all cultures and traditions have something important to teach us. In the context of Asian art, I hope that this production opens people’s minds toward Asian culture as something that is more than just ornamental and exotic but empowering and potent in the lessons it can offer. 

What are the instruments you played for the performance?

Dami Soh Schlobohm (Musician: Korean Drums & Cello): For this performance, I brought my 5-string NS electric cello and Helix LT multi-effects pedalboard to set the ambient back-tone. The Korean drums were the janggu (hourglass drum) and the buk (barrel drum). Korean music follows specific rhythmic patterns. I took bits and pieces of familiar rhythms and placed them according to the dancers’ movements. As for the cello, I used a loop pedal to create a low pitch drone using a mix of pedals to get that “cosmic” sound on top of which I added a few extra layers for flavor.

 

You traveled from Baltimore to Seoul to learn Korean Musicology. What was it like to return to Baltimore and play Korean drums and cello for this performance?

Dami: It all started with a class I took during my undergrad years called “Musics of the World.” I’ve always had a fascination with the relationship between music and culture and just the vast array of different genres out there. I fell in love with each new sound introduced and even played in my school’s Gamelan ensemble. UMBC allowed me to work towards an emphasis in Musicology with my Performance degree. To obtain this, I was required to present a research project in addition to my senior recital. I jumped at the opportunity and figured, where better to start than the country of my own heritage? I soon connected with my mentors at KPAAA (Korean Performing Arts Academy of America), Pastor Hyung Joo Cho, and the late Ms. Soon He So. There I started to learn how to play Korean drums and began my training in Traditional Korean music which became the topic of my senior presentation. By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to keep exploring and, after saving up a bit, I applied to Seoul National University and blindly flew to Korea before even getting my acceptance letter.

Upon my return, my mentors at KPAAA welcomed me back with open arms and we put on several major performances together. Unfortunately, Ms. So passed away unexpectedly last November after an intense battle with hepatic cancer, and her husband, Pastor Cho, has been in mourning, so opportunities to perform the drums had come to a sudden halt. Being able to play in this performance was a bit of a tribute to my mentors for everything they’ve taught me. As for the cello, I’ve been playing around with electric cellos and effects pedals for years but I felt like I finally got a chance to create and showcase something outside the norm and show everyone what a versatile instrument the cello is. 

This performance was part of a larger celebration of Asian arts. What did it mean to you to perform this piece in Baltimore?

Hsiao-Chu Hsia: I am always proud of where I am from, Taiwan, a small island place that has young but complex histories and cultures. As a result, it is my honor to become a part of this celebration this year, speaking for and supporting our community with other professional artists who are connected to Asian cultures. Also, the experience coming back to Baltimore as an artist is special for me since this is the first city that I settled down in the states, when I came as an art student. Baltimore is always diverse, inspiring, and welcome.

Since Hellbond deals with processing death while interacting with a live audience, how did this performance relate to your background in psychology and community art?

Hsiao-Chu Hsia: Most of the traditional performances we see are one-way presentations. We send messages and information to the people but we seldom hear back from them. Same, as an audience, you go to the event, and to see and take what artists are telling through their works. Most of the time there is a boundary in between, and after all, we leave the feelings behind without debriefing or talking about them which helps us be aware of our mental condition and health. Therefore, I started to question myself if a performance can be a bi-directional conversation for both performers and the audiences so that it forms a specific space and time that allows and motivates all the participants to think and talk right at the moment. 

For me, this is a way that I engage with people and the community as a performance artist. Same from a psychological perspective, people think differently when they are only bystanders but not participants. By creating interactive performances, I aim to provide opportunities for people to not only “see” the topic in my works but to “experience” by joining the process. Connecting this idea to our collaborative performance Hellbond, although this is not a typical interactive piece compared to my personal works, actions like staring at audiences’ eyes, climbing between people, and asking for a way to pass non-verbally are alternative methods that I interacted with them. I want people to feel they were together being at the place that brought rebirth through these moments. They were not only witnesses from a distance but participants along with us, the performers.

 

How long have you been working with dancers?

Hideo Sekino (Shakuhachi Master): I have been collaborating with dancers for more than twenty years. I like it! We have a different focus when we’re together. Like musicians in collaboration, we grab the microphone and come together and say let’s do it [make a recording], but dancers or theater people as soon as they get into the space you cannot go back anymore. It’s so intense. It’s 10 times more in magnitude and there’s a difference in tension. I do a lot of collaboration with dance and theater people. 

I am not just playing traditionally. I’m putting out another statement. Utilizing emotion. The way I play, especially for Japanese people, that’s not the expected sound. With Western flute, it’s a very transparent sound. But there are many techniques in Japanese flute playing which are not considered to be “musical.” Sometimes it’s noisy. [He plays and you can hear some sounds of saliva spitting out, and wind breaking up the stream of sound.] It cuts into the traditional sound. So I use that special technique to add to it. And, on top of that, I use my own techniques, like singing simultaneously. [He plays a note where you hear humming coming from his chest.]

Why are you painted white? 

Azumi Oe (Butoh Artist): The symbolism of this white makeup is dancing with a ghost, like I am covered in a dead person’s ash. But it also has more contemporary meanings like an erased identity. Like a white canvas. So I have no identity, no culture, no timeline. It’s just a blank canvas so people can imagine anything on top. 

How do you draw intensity for your performance?

Azumi: I am not trying to make it intense, but it just comes out that way. I’m erasing my identity and making myself empty, and something else comes in. But still, I am connected to my body. My body becomes like a cup or a case and then something else comes in. I am committed to being the cup, to holding whatever comes in. I’m committed to holding it inside of me. So for example, if I make this face [her mouth gapes open] people associate it with a memory or emotion, but I don’t. To me, this is just a muscle movement. So for me, it’s choreography. But for others it triggers something, they associate and create their own story and project it on me. So they see their story through my body. 

The Butoh concept is about losing identity. I have a woman body and an Asian body. Even though I want to erase everything and be neutral. No gender, no ages, no time. But conceptually it’s not about sex, it’s not about me being Japanese, or Azumi, this age, who traveled to New York… and all that; it’s not about that at all! It’s about what it means to be a human being, a body, or not even human. Or maybe what does it mean: life? Or what does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to exist in this place!? Maybe that’s where my intensity comes in. Because I want to exist so bad. I want to exist. Really be here now, as much as possible. 

How long did you rehearse?

Azumi: Four days? Or ten years?

Dami: Well, it is improv! 

Azumi: We started when we were born! And we finish when we’re in the grave.

 

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