Dance show Hi-Kick a hit for football and dance enthusiasts alike
A beautiful game of football and dance from South Korean Edinburgh Fringe favourites
This article is from 2012.
Football is a very big deal in South Korea. It’s difficult to imagine, say, the Scottish Government giving the country a half-day off for World Cup matches (should our national side ever make it back to the biggest football tournament on earth), or hanging giant screens on the Scottish Parliament building for a million people to gather outside and watch. But then, in Seoul, they like to do things on a larger scale than most: bigger crowds, bigger screens, bigger buildings, bigger entertainment.
South Korean theatre tends to be slick and spectacle-driven, finely-honed pieces of technically beautiful showmanship, designed to wring out gasps and cheers from a large, appreciative and involved audience. Why yes, that does sound a little bit like a professional football match, now you mention it.
‘I love football, because it’s one of the few entertainments that can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere in the world,’ says Yoon Jung Hwan, director of San, one of Seoul’s best-known theatre companies. ‘I watch European leagues as well as Korean games, because it doesn’t need any translation: audiences who watch the game understand the same wordless language as the football players, and everyone is caught up in the emotion, the passion of the game together. It occurred to me that I wanted to fill a theatre with this kind of passion, with the thrill and pleasure people get from watching football together. It was suddenly obvious to me: I should put football on the stage.’
And he has, with Hi-Kick. Any non-athletic types already rolling their eyes and turning the page at yet another sport insinuating itself into an already sweaty summer can stop right there, because Hi-Kick is the sort of big, joyous show (in the PT Barnum sense of the word) that the Fringe does brilliantly. Even avowed football-haters and World Cup-only armchair fans like your humble reporter here will find themselves hankering for a scarf to wave.
The loose plot focuses on a rag-tag bunch of poor kids who love football but lack skills, training or expensive equipment, and are sneered at by their local professional side when they attempt to use the pitch. After a tough coach with a heart of gold (natch) takes them on, the two sides build their skills and an eventual friendship together, allowing shenanigans and a sweetly underplayed love story to ensue. It’s a very Korean combination of simple, wordless storytelling, gulp-worthy acrobatics, enjoyably silly slapstick and spectacle that audiences familiar with 2010’s Chef! or 2006’s Jump, both brought to Edinburgh by the same company, will recognise.
However, Hi-Kick scores higher (sorry) for sheer inventiveness. Trying to channel the sort of mass excitement and communion found at football matches into the more contained environment of a performance space, Yoon and his choreographer Lee Lanyoung have created an entirely new and jaw-droppingly impressive fusion of dance, martial arts, acrobatics and football skills. It’s all the more extraordinary given that neither the choreographer nor several of the nine-strong cast had any understanding of football before they started.
‘I hated football,’ laughs Lee, one of Seoul’s most celebrated choreographers for musicals. ‘I just tried to ignore it, and never thought of it as anything that could equal or be in any way like dance. But for this show, I had to really study it hard. I started going to games, watching the players and their movements intensely. And when I watched, I realised that there were some movements the players made that really did look like ballet or contemporary dance. Blending the two was tricky, because sports and dance have very different energies; when I watched football in action, I noticed that there’s no rhythm or softness to it. But if you add rhythm to the movements a football player makes instinctively, it becomes a dance. I really wasn’t expecting to find such great new movement in this mix of sports and dance. We’ve created something much more energetic than you’d find in straight dance, something very alive. We’ve invented soccer-art!’
Watching the performers flick balls between their feet and heads, roll them over their bodies, turn a simple game of keepy-uppy into a spectacle of endurance or even, at times, tap out breakdance spins with the ball between their knees, it would be easy to assume they’re all professional dance-footballers. Unfortunately for the company, that’s not a career path followed by too many performers. ‘Trying to find dancers who also had football skills was not the easiest task we set ourselves,’ Yoon admits. ‘What we decided was more important was to assemble a cast that was prepared to endure with us, to put in a lot of hard work, learn a lot of new skills and stay with the production long-term.’
In fact, while all of them are professional actors, only two of the cast have extensive dance experience. Some, like Kim Min, who not only plays the coach but helped train her cast-mates offstage, had played football to college level. ‘Unfortunately, there’s no professional women’s league in South Korea,’ she says. ‘I was basically made to abandon football altogether until Hi-Kick came along.’ Others, like romantic leads Yoo Kyungryeol and Supakarnkamjorn Kasidinthorn, had been professionals in related sports like futsal. However, those such as trained martial artist Choi Youngjo (already familiar to Edinburgh audiences from his death-defying flips and kicks in Jump), found themselves beginning from scratch. ‘We had to start out training with the ball, all of us, no matter our level of skill, until it became part of us. Only then could we begin to work what we knew into dance, into comedy, into action. We’ve been working on our skills almost every day for a year and a half with long days and long weeks, but it has brought us together. We’re a family now, a team.’
On the night I watch the show, an audience spanning very young children and teenagers to grandparents begin, gradually, to move and cheer and gasp as one. There are Mexican waves, enthusiastic participation in handball games and a small girl so delighted to win a football that she squeals.
‘I’m very keen that Hi-Kick isn’t perceived as just for men,’ says Yoon. ‘It was very important to me that we cast female performers too. I wanted to focus on one of those mass spectacles that brings harmony between countries, communities, ages and genders. Sure, sometimes when two teams take the pitch, they play against each other as enemies, but playing football together can also be an act of friendship, something that bonds people. At the climax of Hi-Kick, both teams realise that the point isn’t winning or losing, but that they’ve come together, from different economic backgrounds, and overlooked their differences to play. We’re really just using football as something universally understood, something that gets that message across in every language.’