Judy Van Zile


University of Hawaii at Manoa

Performing Modernity in Korea: The Dance of Ch'oe Sŭng-hŭi

Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard once said: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward." British sociologist Anthony Giddens has described modernity as a historical and cultural space that is "in various key respects discontinuous with the gamut of pre-modern cultures and ways of life." I believe these two ideas can provide a useful framework for understanding the dancer Ch'oe Sŭng-hŭi's life and legacy in relation to modernity in Korea.

I will emphasize Giddens' notion of discontinuity as I reflect on the kinds of dance that preceded Ch'oe's involvement with this art form, will then look forward to what was contemporary—in Korea and elsewhere—with Ch'oe's work, and will then look further forward to what exists in Korea today. In doing so, I will briefly summarize key points made in some of my previous studies and will then focus on similarities and differences between the way Ch'oe and her contemporaries elsewhere sought to move forward in their creative endeavors.

Whether filtered through the Japanese empire or emanating from her reconciliation with her heritage and experiences during her late 1930s tour abroad, as Ch'oe, like many of her dance contemporaries across the globe, developed their aesthetic philosophies, they defined modernity in multiple ways.