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Making Zen of dance

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Passing through Sun Ock Lee explains what Zen dance is all about. She hopes the World Dance Museum on the anvil becomes a platform for dances from across the world

S un Ock Lee's hands seem to have a life of their own as she gracefully sketches a movement in the air, emphasises a point or describes a sequence to explain what Zen dance is all about.

“It is something I created in 1972 while I was studying Zen meditation from Korean masters. As a dancer, I found it difficult to sit still. So I asked my teacher if there was any other way I could meditate without sitting in the lotus position,” says Dr. Sun.

His reply in the affirmative made her wonder why she could not mediate while dancing.

Meditative dance

“That was how I began creating a new system of dance that incorporates the serenity of mediation, techniques of breathing and Buddhist mudras. It is a system of dance that has two separate aspects – artistic and therapeutic,” says Dr. Sun. She was in the city to participate in the World Dance Forum.

Dr. Sun feels that Zen dance is an ideal panacea for a “modern chaotic world” as it helps the dancer and the viewer connect with their “inner serenity.” A trained dancer who made the stage her home at the age of six, Dr. Sun was already a seasoned performer of Korean traditional dance, Western contemporary dance and Martha Graham technique, and a teacher at New York University when she began her quest to develop a language and grammar of movements for Zen dance.

“For 10 years I had been teaching very slow movements, each movement was meant to soothe. But after a performance in Washington, my daughter told me that most of the audience had slept through my performance,” laughs the petite danseuse.

She took a break to spend three days in a Zen monastery in Pongamsa, Korea, to rethink the dance she had recreated because she “certainly had no intention of sending people to sleep.” “One morning, I woke up to see the dome of the temple bathed in dew. As I watched, I saw it disappear in an instant as the sun's rays lit up the temple. That was a kind of awakening in me,” she remembers.

The AH-A moment helped her understand that nature is composed of opposites – light and dark, fast and quick, life and death. She integrated the innate yin and yang of nature into Zen dance and then there was no looking back.

Removing the interesting rings from her fingers, she demonstrates an intricate mudra of Buddhism that also signifies harmony in Zen dance. Perhaps it was this harmony in her choreography and performances that helped her and her Son Mu Ga-Zen Dance Company dance all around the world and associate with renowned dancers and musicians, including artistes from India. “In 1995 all my choreography was preserved in the Lincoln Center Dance Library and I felt I had done all that I wanted to do in the United States (U.S.).” After living in the U.S. for 28 years, 12 years ago she decided to return to Korea. But it was not a homecoming she had expected. “Young Koreans wanted ballet, modern dance… not indigenous dance.” Not one to give up, she began teaching and performing Zen dance at Sangmyung University's Dance Department. In 2000, Sun set up the Asia Pacific Performing Art Network (APPAN), under the patronage of UNESCO, to promote dance on a global pattern and also hold workshops, seminars and performances.

Saraswathy Nagarajan

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