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Art Project BORA Reviewed by Donald Hutera

It can be gratifying to discover new-to-you talent. Thanks to the second Festival of Korean Dance at The Place I now have a taste of – and for – the work of Bora Kim (or, to put her name in its proper Asian context, KIM Bora).

Since founding Art Project BORA, in 2010, this enterprising choreographer has been making a name for herself internationally. It’s easy to see why. Her dance-based performances are marked by an enquiring intelligence. They’re somewhat strange and elliptical but strongly thought-out, driven by ideas that are rooted in the body. They’re also satisfying to look at and hear –a total art package, if you like.

First up was the 20-minute solo A Long Talk to Oneself (pictured above), in which Kim engages in a kind of oblique, one-sided dialogue with her film self. A man sets up a tall mike then exits. Dry ice drifts onto the low-lit stage. Kim enters from upstage, hair pulled back into a stiff, irregular pigtail. She wears a transparent top, connected to her white shorts as if via cling film. Arms and legs are bare, and her jerky, halting gait is accompanied by a stream of spoken (but untranslated) text. Her moves are precise, neurotic; she’s like a puppet without strings, anxious and unmoored, or a ghost. Occasionally she distractedly scratches her pale skin or, eventually standing beneath the mike, strokes her throat as if trying to summon elusive speech.

Then Kim’s dimly-lit film self appears, in non-descript black, to relay (subtitled) fragments of a dreamy trauma about her grandmother caught in a fire and how that affected her. We also learn that it was grandma who named her Bora, a word meaning ‘See!’ Meanwhile the onstage Kim, so unlike her film self, gestures in gentle futility. At some point, too, we hear Antony and the Johnson’s cover of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. The film stops and the performance ends quickly with the man’s return. Removing his jacket, he mops up Kim’s limbs and the unidentified liquid that has mysteriously pooled at her feet.

Although Kim remained offstage for Somoo, an ensemble dance that pretty much sustained its approximate 45-minute running time, her distinctive physical style – mimetic, even near-butoh, and musical but, with its twitches and waddles, also chicken-and-duck-like at times – permeated the performances of an all-female sextet. Named after what is apparently the sole female classical Korean mask (that of an ageing nun who sells her body), this very feminist-slanted work commenced with a sort of disjointed parade by a cast clad in Insook Choi’s attractive papery, lingerie-like costumes. Somewhat gawky yet never unconfident, the women used their hands to varyingly tug – in crotch-centred, cat’s cradle manner – on the elastic bands extending from round their thighs. What ensued were glancing images of servility and submission but also almost warrior-like strength and liberation set to a percussive string score by Jae-Duk Kim (Bora’s choreographer -husband, whose Modern Table Dance Company opened the festival on May 31).

The work’s central episode featured the five other cast members cutting off of the sturdiest, rangiest woman’s trousers as she was doubled over, and then her striding through a web of green laser-light. Also notable was a false ending that curtailed the audience’s initial spate of applause, but which led to a peculiarly affected, ceremonial yoga-pose coda. The dancers, all of whom seem pretty interesting as individual people, were willing, po-faced participants in what ultimately came across as an intriguing, investigative conceptual game. Based on this evidence I wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to see more of Kim’s work.

The 2019 edition of A Festival of Korean Dance concludes Friday, June 7 at 7.30pm with a triple bill featuring camera and objects (Choi X Kang Project’s Complement), lighting as a mean of converting flesh and bone into optical illusion (Noname Sosu’s SILENTIUM) and a humorous deconstruction of ancient tales (the wonderful Goblin Party’s Once Upon a Time). Box office: 020 7121 1100 or www.theplace.org.uk/koreandance.