It is a cool Sunday afternoon in October, and Lee So-jin, Kim Tae-hee and Chang An-lee have landed in Boise, Idaho, in the United States. None of the three, all members of the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company (KNCDC), has ever heard of the place, let alone visited.
A city of just over 200,000 people, plenty of trees and not many big buildings, Boise epitomises pleasantness - hence its ubiquity on the "best places to live" lists that American magazines so like to compile. It is famous for little beyond the Broncos, the university football team. Yet over the past five years, it has become known as the home of the Trey McIntyre Project (TMP), one of America's leading contemporary-dance troupes, and the Korean dancers' host.
Trey McIntyre, the daring American choreographer who leads his eponymous troupe, greets the three women at their airport gate. As they walk towards the baggage-claim area and begin to descend the escalators, they hear the curious rumble of some familiar music.
"Hey, sexy lady …" Lee begins to giggle, covering her mouth with a sheaf of papers; Gangnam Style!
As the lower level comes into view, they see 11 TMP dancers all riding and lassoing in sync. The three women drop their bags and join in, and then, as the song comes to an end, the trio find themselves wrapped in the most American of welcomes: hugs.
THAT THE AMERICANDANCERS chose Psy's megahit to welcome their Korean counterparts says something about the inroads that the current cultural wave known as hallyu is making, even in the US. And it says even more about the spirit of collaboration underlying the Koreans' visit to Boise.
The trio were in Boise to develop a dance piece with TMP, as part of a programme called DanceMotion USA that is sponsored by the US government and produced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City. For the past three years, DanceMotion USA has dispatched American artists as cultural ambassadors - so far, to nine countries on three continents - and last summer, TMP toured China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Korea. The hope is that such tours - with their emphasis on troupes, not troops - will prove to be a potent type of person-to-person diplomacy, bolstering the US government's efforts to soften the image of America abroad. "People talking to people can be much more effective than diplomats talking to diplomats," says DanceMotion USA project director Michael Blanco.
These trips have been as educational and eye-opening, if not more so, for the visitors as for the visited. DanceMotion USA troupes have encountered logistical and cultural challenges they did not foresee: how do you lead workshops in Indonesia, where the few Muslim women who dance do so completely covered? How do you perform without offending sensibilities in parts of Egypt, where it's forbidden for men and women to dance together? The Trey McIntyre dancers returned to Boise from their four-country tour bubbling over with stories of all the things they had seen, from traditional dance in the Philippines to workshopping with disabled young people in Vietnam to wandering lantern-lit Seoul on Buddha's birthday.
But what does one do with such inspiration? Recognising that this programme is about bilateral exchange, not one-way propaganda, last year, for the first time, dancers from one Asian troupe, the KNCDC, were chosen to come to the US to collaborate with their American counterparts. In Boise with the TMP, Lee, Kim and Chang created a work that would debut a few weeks later, in New York City.
Movement can be a powerful tool for leaping over barriers of language and culture. After all, "dance is a universal language", as TMP executive director John Michael Schert notes.
Dance in some form is indigenous to every nation - and historically it has been more than mere entertainment. In many cultures, dance has been used to communicate with the divine, from rain dances among native Americans to the religiously inspired exertions of the ancient Israelites - the Psalms call them to praise God "with tambourines and dancing". In Africa, kings sent delegations of singers and dancers as tools of diplomacy and in China emperors entertained honoured guests with musicians and dancing.
Dancing for diplomacy these days, though, seems quaintly naive, as if a Lady Gaga-like order to "just dance" would solve anything. Even if you assume that it is an effective tool, dance has myriad dialects and local idiom. The key question, as Blanco sees it, is this: "How do you speak dance?"
MCINTYRE CAME UP WITH a title for his dance before deciding on the moves, and it was a curious one: The Unkindness of Ravens.
A few years ago, during a creative residency at the White Oak Plantation conservation centre, in Florida, he happened upon an odd poster in a bathroom. It featured all kinds of names for bird groupings - familiar ones such as a "gaggle of geese" and a "bevy of quail", and more unusual and descriptive terms, such as a "parliament of owls" and a "watch of nightingales". An "unkindness of ravens" struck McIntyre as so curious that he tucked it away in his mental filing cabinet.
When he went back to Korea in late in 2011 to gather inspiration for the collaboration, ravens seemed to be everywhere: stuffed and raised high on sticks in a piece performed by the KNCDC; on the walls of a royal tomb near Sejong; perched in the trees when McIntyre visited a textile artist out in the countryside. It seemed to be a sign. It was certainly a suggestion.
"We know that these birds have a sense of humour," McIntyre says, explaining his inspiration for the 15-minute piece. "They make jokes, and they use that as a survival mechanism. A raven might go up to another animal eating a carcass and fall back on its butt, to be silly, to disarm the other animal so that it will let the raven in to also feed off the carcass. It made me think about how we tend to malign humour in human culture. How do we use it as our own survival mechanism? Why does a pun work? Why is [something] funny to you when it would never be funny to people in another culture?"
McIntyre did not stop there. Humour became his gateway. Throughout the piece, he explores a range of human activity - laughter, loneliness, anger, desire, sex - that transcends the barriers of language, country and culture.
One day, during rehearsals, McIntyre was working on the lighting when he glanced over at the five dancers - two American, three Korean - who were sitting on the stage, giggling and talking. As he eavesdropped, he noticed, "they were conversing, but they weren't really saying things", he says. Eventually, he realised that one of the guys was trying to get Kim to repeat one line: "Mmm boy, he look good."
"It was openness," McIntyre says. "It was about being here and about wanting to communicate."
So - how do you speak dance?
Though both the KNCDC and the Trey McIntyre Project come from the world of contemporary dance, differences are instantly apparent in their work. For instance, the Koreans rarely touch; the TMP dancers are all over one another. Then there is the speed: the Koreans, deliberate and precise, often seem to be moving in slow motion while the Americans are choreographic quicksilver.
The Unkindness of Ravens, which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November, leans towards more extroverted American expression and, more specifically, the high-energy, rapid-fire, don't-look-away movement typical of McIntyre's work. And in this dance, he deploys spoken word - at various points, a Korean dancer tells a joke in English and an American dancer tells one in Korean - and evocative costuming: black mesh and lace that would not look out of place on a Maison Martin Margiela haute-couture runway.
The whole thing is multisensory and multisensual. Even the performers' facial expressions seem to dance, from anxiety to lust, from pleasure to pain. There is laughter. An absurd pair of black wings is passed from one dancer to another. There is confetti. There is an eclectic soundtrack that, typically of McIntyre's work, draws heavily on American staples - the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, Johnny Cash, A Chorus Line - integrated with Buddhist chants. And though some critics noted moments of roughness that betrayed the fact the dancers had only been working together on the piece for a creative millisecond, to the casual audience member, the five seemed to dance as one.
Getting to that point was not easy. From the first moments of rehearsal in Boise, "we were a little bit worried", says Kim.
"Different culture, different style. We thought we might not be able to follow very well." If there is a metaphorical lesson here about diplomacy and cross-cultural communication, perhaps it's that a strong desire to make things work is what, well, made things work.
"This was our chance to work in a very American style," Lee says. "We came to learn."
One of the biggest challenges was establishing near-constant eye contact. In Korean culture, sustained eye contact, especially with someone you don't know well, can seem immodest or even rude, but Brett Perry, one of the two American men in The Unkindness of Ravens, was especially firm on breaking the habit of looking away. Of all the American dancers, he is perhaps the most garrulous, but a conversation with him is much more than an exchange of words - it's a multisensory experience. He holds your gaze. To make a point, he'll grab your wrist or press your knee. Onstage, talking isn't an option, hence Perry's belief in the importance of communicating with the eyes.
"If we're going into a lift, I want to make sure I see you and you see me, so we're on the same page," he says.
"But if you do that in Korea, it looks … funny," says Kim. "If I did that in Korea, my fellow dancers would say, 'Your eyes are going to pop out! Why do you look at me that way?'" Perry so obsessed about the eye contact that the Korean dancers soon had a nickname for him: Laser Laser, for the way his gaze would bore into them.
There were also moves that were foreign to the Korean dancers. For instance, the part of The Unkindness of Ravens when Lee must "hump" Ryan Redmond. She found out she'd have to do this on her second day in Boise.
When McIntyre first demonstrated what he wanted her to do, Lee blushed, giggled and covered her pixieish, expressive face with her hands. There are times when her face can seem blank, but then it melts into the tenderest of smiles or sparks into wide-eyed wonder. This time, when she took her hands away, it said: "You want me to actually do that? You want me to hump this man?"
The next day, McIntyre gave her something to work with: "I was very careful to really explain why it is a part of the piece. I wanted to make sure she knew there was no joke on her," he says. "It's animal. In her duet with Ryan, she's presented as a forlorn, lonely character, and Ryan is drawn to her. He thinks, 'This is the love of my life. This is someone sad and broken-hearted.' Just when he thinks this, she reverts to her animal nature and humps him in the most base way possible. It speaks to one of the dualities of being human: love and sex."
When I ask Lee about this, two days after the piece's premiere, she is in turns giggly and solemn, rapid-fire in her speech and then halting.
"With a stranger! To feel that closeness …" she says. She shakes her head. "Even today, I feel uncomfortable and awkward. It is a cultural thing. We don't do that at all. It is totally awkward. But they keep saying it's part of the work. So I have to be professional."
She turns away, sighs and fans herself.
DANCEMOTION USA costs the US government a little over US$1 million a year. It is, in the context of a US$3.8 trillion budget, a monetary mite. But at a time of yawning deficits and divisive debate in the US about public spending, programmes such as these raise eyebrows.
When I ask Perry why his project is a good use of taxpayer dollars, he tells a story about an improvisational creative exercise that the dancers sometimes do.
"It's called 'What's in the Box?' There's an imaginary box," he explains. "You have to reach in and grab something and then say the first thing that comes to mind: 'It's peanuts!' Or, 'It's paper clips!'" The next person then expands on that and keeps the dialogue going. "It has to do with saying yes to the offer."
His point, I think, is that too many people shut down the cross-cultural conversation, but that every aspect of this opportunity has been a chance to converse and collaborate - though it surprises me that he says almost nothing about what the Trey McIntyre Project was trying to take abroad and much more about the lessons it brought home.
"That's the spirit I wanted to bring to this: sharing. Listening. Seeing. Saying yes," he says. "There are people dancing all over the world, creating their own voices. To see it and to be a part of it is wonderful. It opens up the mind."
During their tour, the TMP dancers performed for and met with hundreds of people. Back in Brooklyn, they and their Korean partners danced The Unkindness of Ravens for hundreds of schoolchildren, who peppered them with questions afterwards about the creative process, about working together, about Korean culture. What price can you put on that?
ONE MUGGY SUMMER evening, the dancers went for dinner at the home of the American ambassador in Seoul. A stage had been set up in the garden and before sitting down for the meal, half a dozen Korean companies - hip-hop, ballet, contemporary - and the Trey McIntyre Project took turns dancing for one another and for the gathered guests. After dinner, all the dancers moved inside to hear a musician play the fiddle-like haegeum.
Well, dancers are gonna dance: "It broke out into this amazing improv dance circle," recalls Perry, a grin of retrospective wonder spreading across his face. One of the Korean dancers, who happened to have a drum on hand, brought the beat. The ambassador himself helped push the coffee table and couch out of the way to make room.
As the sound of the haegeum swirled around the room and the drum kept time, the dancers took the impromptu stage one by one, moving to the centre of the circle. When Perry had his moment in the middle, he turned to a modern classic of American movement: he began voguing, with fellow American dancer Chanel Da Silva chanting in accompaniment.
The evening "was all love", Da Silva says. "No competition, all love."
Adds Perry: "It was such a moment, such a feel-good moment." He pauses and smiles. "We felt there was no barrier."
Trey McIntyre (left) practises with, from left, Chang, Lee and Kim of the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company.