Seoul Performing Arts Festival 2006 
A large scale international event from a small country: An overview
- Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, Chennai
Photos courtesy: 
December 8, 2006  

Seoul – a sprawling city – capital of South Korea, which is very much in the news recently – the new Secretary General to the United Nations is from that country – the nuclear issue between North Korea and USA affects that country and its politics imminently. But, it has risen into prominence on account of an international performing arts festival held there annually from the year 2001 onwards. The sixth Seoul Performing Arts Festival, which began on October 7, 2006 concluded on October 29, 2006. A three week festival devoted to the best of dance and theatre performances from all over the world! Seoul had geared itself to meeting the demands of such a festival admirably. After all, a country which has hosted the world Olympics and is going to host the World Cup in Football would not find it difficult to hold a festival of this proportion.

I had an occasion to visit Seoul this year as an invitee journalist and watch a few of the programs. This year, there were fourteen international programs from 12 countries which include, India, Belgium, Romania, Slovenia, Japan, China, Poland, France, Hungary, Israel, England and Russia. There were thirteen programs from Korea also. From this it is evident that an almost equal representation is given to international as well as domestic (local) programs. One has to understand the logic behind this equal representation for international as well as local programs. In the words of the Artistic Director, Chul-lee Kim, "I am not happy with the quality of the international festivals in performing arts held in various centers in Asia. To me, they all seem alike stressing on the popular aesthetic rather than on the serious, experimental and innovative. I wanted to make our local groups aware and sensitive to what is going on in the international arena in performing arts. At the same time the festival aims to give encouragement to the best of experimental and innovative initiatives from the whole world and Korea in particular."

Collection Particuliere
I found this two-fold objective inspiring in as much as it opens the eyes of the practitioners to international experiments and provoked them to bring in that spirit of contemporary and modern expressions into their work.  In addition, the objectives state that, "The 6th SPAF sets off in the belief that the true meaning and values of performing arts can be found in the midst of the most basic and fundamental forms of execution.  The 6th SPAF is focused on addressing the four basic elements in performing arts – body, heart, breath and perspiration. All the productions invited for the festival remain faithful to the basic values and traditions in performing arts and yet offer unrivalled and unique experiences in drama, dance and music that make a contemporary statement relevant to modern life."

The Festival was held in five prestigious theatres in Seoul – Artko Arts Theater, Sogang University – Mary Hall, The National Theatre of Korea, Drama Center and Dongduk Women's University The Performing Arts Center. These theatres can house approximately 300 to 750 persons for one show. The theatres are all equipped with the most modern lighting and acoustic facilities and can facilitate staging of any international production. There is a team of sound and light technicians to help the international groups' technicians to set the stage who work tirelessly from ten in the morning to five in the evening. If needed, they stay on late in the night also. Each team is given three days to set up lights and sound cues and to do rehearsals along with that. The hospitality given to the visiting teams is also of a very high standard. Accommodation in the best hotels, transportation to and from the theaters, tickets for other performances.

The Peach Blossom Fan
I had an occasion to talk to the finance director of the team of ten people who work for the festival directorate, which works all year, planning and doing all the administrative work. There are three directors – the Artistic Director, the Finance Director and the Executive Director to supervise all the activities of the office. Four teams of two persons each work for activities termed as Overseas Programs, Management, Marketing and Operation of the Festival. The Artistic Director is the person who visits various countries, meets artists from those countries, watches the programs and commissions them. The Finance Director manages the finances for and of the festival and the Executive Director oversees the administration and operational details of the festival. The major portion of the finances (80%) comes from the government, through the culture ministry, Arts Council etc and the remaining is assembled from Corporate financing and tickets for the performances. The finance director mentioned that they are working towards  reducing the government’s share in the financing through more active marketing to involve  the corporate sector.

Among performing arts, theatre and dance are given equal importance. This is clearly visible from the number of items chosen under each category. This year there has been probably a slightly greater stress on theatre. S tincehe Artistic Director is the person who visits various countries, watches performances and makes the selections, his own subjective preferences also find some place in the selection of the programs. I watched four programs of the festival – PUSHED an ensemble dance choreographed by Padmini Chettur from India, a modern dancer who has been evolving her own dance idiom for the past fifteen years, CLEANSED, a play by the celebrated author late Sarah Kane, adapted into Polish and performed by Teatr Wspolczesny  in Wroclaw, directed by Krystof Warlikowsky, THE PEACH BLOSSOM FAN, Chinese Opera by Jaingao Province Kanqu Opera Group and COLLECTION PARTICULIERE, a  solo dance from France by D’Urso Maria-Donata. While I could appreciate the dance programs fully as they were conveyed through movements and music, I could not do the same with the theatre programs, as the dialogue was in a foreign language and even the sub-titling was in Korean, which is also a foreign language to me. However, in as much as the body movements played an important part in these two theatre pieces, I could feel the power of theatre even though I could not follow the dialogue. The common factor in all the programs was the spirit of experimentation and innovation, so one could understand why they were included in the festival.

I was left with the feeling that it would have been a great experience if I could have watched all the programs featured in the month long festival. 

Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan is a Chennai based art critic and a regular contributor to