TBA: shamanism for today

Korean performer Dohee Lee's blend of technology, ritual, and engagement gets TBA:17 off to a stirring start

Dohee Lee’s performance Mu at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 15th annual TBA festival is only one of the elements of her ongoing, multidisciplinary Puri Arts project. The Korean word, “puri” refers to the relieving and releasing of suppressed or suffering spirits, while “Mu” means shaman. From the start of the show (which opened Friday night and repeats at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, in the Winningstad Theatre) it’s clear that these are not allegorical titles. Lee is embodying her own new form of performative shamanism which combines traditional spiritual and theatrical elements with modern technology, contemporary settings, and current events. The large-scale projection that opens the show follows Lee as she literally brings her rituals to the streets of the modern world, walking in full costume through the streets of New York as if she was leading a procession of monks instead of curious spectators filming her on their phones.

She accompanied the large-scale projection on Korean barrel-drums, wearing the same amazing costume seen in the video. She was draped in a coat of hundreds of long paper strips bearing writing mostly in Korean, though some appeared to be in English. She wore a simple but elegant and somewhat official folded paper hat and brandished a small hand gong that carried remarkably well through the theater. The paper strips, which could easily be prayers or spells or remembrances of the dead, fluttered behind her on her long sidewalk processional as she chanted, danced, and performed a series of genuflections. While clearly following a set ritual, she demonstrated a seasoned performer’s ability to adapt to the unscripted interruptions from the world around her.

Dohee Lee’s technological shamanism.

One of the most affecting moments in that video came from an encounter with a police SUV. First appearing in the background for a moment, it later dominated the frame when the scene cut to Lee in an alleyway, kneeling in a doorframe and reciting something to herself. The SUV bristled with authority, aggressively stating its right to be where it stood. Its presence seemed to underscore Lee’s status as interloper, as the trespasser interrupting the everyday with a spiritual duty. At the moment it seemed the cops might get out of the car or squawk their siren, Lee stood up, held out her gong, and without looking back processed out of the alleyway, as if she were leading the SUV. It was the first of many moments where the line became blurry between whether Lee was using ritual as a type of performance, or she was performing an actual ritual.

Throughout the show, Lee displayed a visible effort to what she was doing, though not from lack of skill. Trained “at the master level in music and dance traditions rooted in Korean shamanism,” she was entirely in control of her craft, and transitioned between movement, drumming, and singing effortlessly. Rather, it was the job of the ritual or rituals that seemed to weigh on her. She looked busy with the tasks of what she was chanting– pained sometimes, even. In the first video and later at the last of Lee’s many costume changes, an assistant appeared in the background. She too seemed a little troubled, or harried. Not unprofessional, but like she was helping Lee do something very difficult.

Each of the proceeding costume changes accompanied a change in the music and projection. The second stage took us out of New York, setting Lee’s performance against a background of the ocean and forests, and her performance became a little more wild. This portion seemed to take some cues from the rituals of western, indigenous cultures, in costume and movement, and Lee incorporated some guttural vocal work that may have even slipped into throat singing.

This section was the most similar to straightforward contemporary performance in structure. Many productions are satisfied with this sort of combination of projection, vocal effects, and performance. However, the ritualistic framing and Lee’s at-times-ecstatic energy made it difficult to draw a line between the purely theatrical aspects and the parts that you could imagine were in fact traditional duties of a shaman tasked with blessing or cleansing a space. Like her interactions with passersby or the police car in New York, the duties of the performer became part of her duties as a shaman.

As this section wore on, Lee did more talking than singing. All in Korean, she urgently recited, lectured, and beseeched us. Though most of the audience didn’t speak Korean, much of the message was clear. We were being cajoled and commanded to listen, to pay attention to her story.

Things really turned when she began speaking in English. “It’s hard” she said. “Do you know what I mean? I need your help.” She asked this many times, and the nonverbal understanding that the English-speaking audience had developed began to crystalize into something more specific. Lee was able to begin directly addressing us without leaving the high-energy state she had entered, and the audience continued to understand her more deeply even though she spoke circuitously. “This place is on fire” she said. “I came through that. I came through the fire.” That’s true, she had to have flown through the smoke of the Columbia River Gorge fire to come to Portland, but it touched on a feeling that produced a rumble of agreement throughout the room. With simple mentions, like “villages underwater,” she activated the energy she had built up in the room and attached it to the many troubling events of 2017 that have made most of us feel our own version of the urgency and unease behind her words, whether we understood them or not.

I won’t spoil the surprise, but she led this conversation into some of the most intense audience engagement I’ve ever seen. She used her performance to do what rituals are meant to do – publicly engage a large group of people in activities that let them collectively process and identify with forces in the world that affect them all. The Winningstad was an excellent venue for this, being both stately and intimate. In the end, what she did was very simple. She threw herself into a performance to show the audience she cared and would try even though it was hard, and then asked us to help her, and gave us a way we could help. It felt great.

The best pieces at TBA have the presence, scope, and skill of shows that would fill a major venue, yet are so peculiar, intense, or hybridized that they can’t really be defined as anything that fits in that market. Imagining the performers’ careers, you think, where else in town could they perform this thing? It’s a good reminder of what TBA is for, and this show is an excellent way to start the festival.

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