“Bereishit,” meaning “In the beginning,” is the first word of the Book of Genesis. It’s also the name of the Korean dance company that Soonho Park founded in 2011. “Creation of a piece is like the creation of a world,” Park has explained, and indeed the two 25-minute pieces that Bereishit is presenting at New England Conservatory’s Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre this weekend, as part of the Celebrity Series’s 2019-20 season, start from scratch to create their own worlds.
Bereishit is making its Boston debut with these performances, though the company danced at Jacob’s Pillow in 2016. The bill on that occasion was the trio “Bow,” for two male dancers and a wooden bow, and “Balance & Imbalance.” The Boston program replaces “Bow” with “Judo,” which is danced by six men, in black vests and trousers, on a grid of judo mats arranged in a square.
“Judo” opens with two men, in silence, wrestling in slow motion. When the remaining four men arrive, there’s a sequence of fists pounding the floor and breakdancing, and then the recorded music begins. The dancers bounce on the balls of their feet and shift position. Five cover the fallen sixth with their vests, then raise him aloft; when he stands, he’s wearing the five vests as a nightmarish headpiece. Three dancers slap their vests on the floor while the remaining three lift and balance one another.
Toward the end, a repeated move has one dancer leaping over another, brushing that man’s face with his inner thigh, knocking him down. Eventually it’s the same man who’s knocked down, over and over. He’s the victim of the piece’s violence and aggression but he’s also a competitor, alone and upright on stage as the lights dim, crouched, ready for more.
“Balance & Imbalance” is performed by five dancers in street clothes and three musicians — two male percussionists and a female vocalist — stage left in traditional Korean garb. Cheolin Jeong and Jaewoo Jung begin by advancing toward each other and shaking hands, but the handshake turns into a test of wills and then a series of balances — one dancer on the other’s hip, or thigh, or back — interrupted by breakdance inversions. The third man, Gyungjae Mun, and the two women, Chorong Oh and Hyeayoon Kim, come and go.
Meanwhile the music starts up. It’s the Korean solo operatic form called pansori, and this particular pansori is “Sugungga,” the story of a rabbit and a turtle and the dragon king of the southern sea. Seohee Lee sings it in Korean. Park once said that he would like to have had titles so everyone could understand the lyrics. But he added that he was also interested in having the audience forgo the words and draw meaning from the music and the emotions of the dancers.
It’s certainly clear that Lee is making fun of Mun when he comes out bare-chested and flexing his muscles and she joins him center stage. He falls prone, she spanks him, then starts beating on his back in a rhythm that the drummers pick up. He rises and begins a dance of empowerment, part martial arts, part breakdance floor exercise.
When the other four dancers return, they form couples, with the men looking to dominate the women and the women looking for balance, if not independence. Yet Mun’s reentry leads not to imbalance but to a line of five dancers stamping and gesticulating before walking upstage and swaying with their backs to us as the ferocious drumming comes to an abrupt halt. It’s not the most original conclusion. But the dancers, here as well as in “Judo,” are exceptional, what Park creates for them looks fresh, and along the way there’s room for thought as well as movement.
BEREISHIT DANCE COMPANY
“Judo” and “Balance & Imbalance,” by Soonho Park. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At New England Conservatory Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre, Feb. 8. Repeats Feb. 9. Tickets $60. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.