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The tragic saga of Choe Sung Hee
The savior of the Korean traditional dance
Korea WebWeekly
12/18/2003



Photo: Choe Sung Hee, the savior of Korean traditional dance. She was for Korean dance what Isadora Duncan was for Greek dance.

Choe Sung Hee was a darling of the world of artistic dancing during 1930 to 1945. Her dance troupe toured not only Korea and Japan, but also China, Europe and the United States. She was a super star that showed the world for the first time the uniqueness of the Korean traditional dancing.

She was born in 1911 in Seoul, Korea, to a wealthy family. She graduated from Sukmyong Girls School in 1926. Her dancing career began quite accidentally. In March 1926, her brother, Choe Sun Il, took her to 'The Dnace Poem', a dance show of Ishii Baku. Ishii studied modern dance under Isadora Duncan (1878-1927), the famed American dancer and revolutionary, and pioneered modern dance in Japan.

She was so impressed by Ishii's performance that she decided to become a dancer herself. She pleaded with Ishii to her in as his disciple. She was accepted and went to Japan to study modern dancing at Ishii's studio. Choe was not the only Korean enticed into modern dance by Ishii. There were several others: Cho Taek Won and Bae Gu Ja became noted dance masters in Korea.

Historically speaking, Ishii was not the first to introduce modern dancing to Korea. Five years earlier in 1921, a small group of Korean dancers from Vladivostok (Soviet Union) performed European dance in Seoul and Wonsan. Although the dancers were college and high school students of modern music and dance and not professionals, they were the very first to introduce Western ballet and classical music to Korea.

In the fall of 1927, Ishii's dance troupe staged another show in Seoul and Choe danced a solo ballet, "Serenade". She became an overnight sensation and the critics gave the most honored title - "The Flower of Korea". In the summer of 1929, she parted with Ishii and founded her own dance studio in Seoul. She was only 19 at the time and her elder brother managed the studio for her. Her studio was dedicated to researching and preserving the traditional dancing of the ancient Korea.

With the exception of Cho Taek Won and Choe Sung Hee, the Korean dancers were content with learning and emulating Western dance and ignoring the traditional Korean dance. In contrast, Cho and Choe applied modern dance methods to the Korean traditional dance and music. Instead of merely aping foreign music and dance, these two created their own unique dance forms based on the old dance art.

On February 1, 1930, her Korean dance troupe debuted in Seoul to a smashing success. Some critics faulted her dances for looking too much like these of Ishii and this she agreed. She wanted to break completely from Ishii's mold and sought advice from Han Sung Jun, the premier expert on the Korean traditional dancing. On the following year, she married Ahn Pil Sung, a leftist writer. Her husband became her able agent and put her the world map.

In September 1933, she staged a dance show in Tokyo under Ishii's auspice. The audience loved her interpretation of the Korean traditional dancing and her fame spread among the dance aficionados of Japan. In 1935, she set up a dance studio in Tokyo and in October of that year, she staged her second show. It was a resounding success and her fame began to spread to Europe and the United States. Solomon Hurok, a noted promoter of the performing arts at that time, sponsored a world-wide tour for her.

In January 1938, she performed in Paris to an audience of over 2,700. This was followed by two more shows in June that filled the 3,000 seats of the Paris theater. Among her avid fans was the famed painter, Picasso. In 1939, she hit the Broadway in New York and earned the title - "One of the Top Ten Dancers of the World.". In 1940, she toured the United States, Europe, China, and Korea staging more than 130 shows. While in China, she studied the traditional Chinese dancing and incorporated Chinese flavors into her repertoires.

Upon liberation of Korea, she returned to Seoul in 1945 but went to North Korea in 1946 with her leftist husband. She founded the Choe Sung Hee Dance Research Institute in Pyongyang. She published a number of dance shows: The Chunhyang Story, The Drum Dance, The Saber Dance, The Liberated Korea, The Song of the Spring and other revolutionary shows. In 1955, she was awarded the People's Actress Medal.

She was supposedly purged in 1967 for counter-revolutionary activities. When, where or how she died is yet to be uncovered. She simply disappeared. In South Korea, her contribution to Korean art is seldom acknowledged; in fact, until recently, it was against law tp mention her name because she went north and worked for Kim Il Sung. Furthermore, there are Korean nationalists who find fault with her collaboration with the Japanese, claiming that shed danced for the Emperor of Japan.

It is hoped that Kim Jong Il's reformist government will restore Choe Sung Hee to a place of honor she so well deserves.

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