Review- Scent of Ink- Hong Kong Arts Festival


By: Chloe Chia


Minimalism, purity, harmony. These three words would be my top picks to sum up every aspect of the National Dance Company of Korea’s “Scent of Ink”. 


Minimalism is the core principle where the whole stage performance takes form. From colour, lighting, stage design to costume, every form visible on stage derives from this one core principle. It is always difficult to present a rich repository of historical traditions without falling into the web of overwhelmed complexity. To Korean’s top-notch costume designer, Jung Ku-ho, the best way of presenting it is to navigate the opposite direction: keep it simple. 


Being a modern rendition of the Korea traditional dance, “Scent of Ink” is essentially simplistic and tastefully elegant. There is no excessive decoration of the set, no heavily glamorous jewelleries donning the head of female dancers, and no fancy moves to show off the dancers’ remarkable talent. Jung’s costume design may not reflect the real costume details worn by dancers in the Joseon Kingdom-era (1392-1910), but he believes the way of modernizing the tradition is to get back to the roots and find the essence of the culture. He does this by minimalizing the overly elaborated decorations of the traditional costume, retaining only the silhouette of hanbok and featuring simple lines. When he does emphasize a detail, like the bell-shaped skirts, it is only to accentuate the fluid flair of the female dancers. The stage and lighting are also kept to minimum, where only one vivid colour splashes against the pure white backdrop in each scene. 


Purity is used to describe the theme and content of the choreography. Choreographed by the former NDSK artistic director Yun Sung-joo, the dance is an expression of the Joseon scholars’ refined noble spirit, represented by the “Four Noble Plants”—plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo— in four seasons. Unlike the country’s current pop music scene where quick-changing moves and bedazzled lighting take over the dance, Korean’s traditional dance is slow, fluid and subtle. There is not much content of contemplation in each scene. It is pure dance alone that accentuates the beauty of the performance. While the traditional dance does not have much quick stunning moves, the most difficult yet often dismissed technique is “travelling”—stepping from one place to another—of which all dancers did a splendid job. This could be particularly seen on the female dancers. As they don long skirt which fully covers their feet, you could feel as if they’re floating on water when they walk. While the ladies take small and steady steps under their garments, the men take bigger steps, also fluid without any bumping effect. 


Harmony marks the philosophy of Korean traditional architecture in palaces. In ancient Korea, each palace is designed to reach balance and harmony between human and nature, which explains the closeness of leisurely garden beside the buildings (distinctively different from the concept of architecture in ancient China’s royal palaces). In dance terms, the architecture is choreography. Unlike most dance pieces, this choreography does not give much opportunity for solo performance. In fact, the dancers are not quite distinguishable from one another. Each dancer is given nearly equal parts, signaling the harmonious energy within the group. After portraying the four seasons in vivid colours, the final scene converged into black-toned ink to convey the harmony, nobility and order of nature. 


My favourite scene is the winter bamboo theme, which the evergreen, upright bamboo symbolizes the noble, unyielding spirit of scholars. It is at this scene where the flute is in perfect harmony with the percussion drum, highlighting the courageous spirit of the male dancers with warrior dress gracefully rising into air with their long poles.  


This is a performance that requires us to retrain our eyes into appreciating simplicity and originality. Do not attempt this show with expectations of rich visual elements or educational content. The only thing you should do is simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the pureness of beauty. 


Scent of Ink is playing through February 28th. For more information, click here.


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