Director's Note on The Sweet Science Suite
To successfully serve this majestic suite in five movements for a live 19-piece big band, integrated with energetic martial art choreography, one of the biggest challenges was to harmonize the movement and the live concert. Since the core of the production was Fred Ho’s masterpiece and virtuosity of his Green Monster big band, I wanted the dance performance to support the journey of the suite, rather than to pull focus away from the musicians. However, from the performing side, we were also fully developing a daring, energetic, and revolutionary dance theater using martial arts, acrobatics and contemporary dance. I had to find a smart solution to highlight both. This aspiration led me to set the band on an apron and establish a gigantic performing area inside the proscenium on a 5’ raised-up stage. Our creative team decided to cover the proscenium arch with a black scrim to create a magical environment inside by utilizing projection and lighting. With the exception of important moments, including when Fred Ho appeared on the stage to play his baritone saxophone cadenza, the scrim stayed in the proscenium line and created a fourth wall, almost serving the dance performance like a three dimensional projection screen.
The significance of this setting was highlighted at the beginning of the performance especially. Most of the audience was there to see Fred Ho’s concert, and they were accustomed to the traditional concert setting. They would not anticipate a martial arts-driven dance performance or a magnificent stage inside of the proscenium when they first saw the projection on the scrim at the top of the performance. I wanted the first appearance of the dancer to be unexpected and thrilling to support the composer’s vision of the first movement, “Shake up the world!” which announces the arrival upon the world stage of a protean and prodigious force in the persona of the young Cassius Clay. I wanted the audience to speculate and celebrate the birth of the hero, Muhammad Ali (who used to be Cassius Clay until he empowered himself by refusing his slave name and changing it to Muhammad Ali when he joined nation of Islam) and his struggle as a minority in the segregated world. Breaking the audience’s expectation amplified the power of the scene as well as supported the musical narrative of the scene. Audience gasped with excitement when they first saw the actors on the stage, and this buzz stayed through the performance, keeping them engaged with not only the dance but also the musical performance.
Throughout the performance, Ali’s story heavily inspires the ideology of the martial arts choreography. Ali’s journey, his personal and social conflict and achievements were portrayed by the movement in the style of contemporary dance and diverse martial arts including Karate, Kung-fu, Boxing, Tai-chi and Capoeira, among many others. At the very early stage of the production, Fred Ho, as a pioneer of a new genre of performing arts for which a variety of descriptors have been applied, such as “manga opera,” “martial arts ballet,” etc., wanted to continue his legacy of martial arts ballet in this production to support the dynamism of his epic tale.
Previous to the rehearsal period, I established the plot of the production based on the music after in-depth research about Ali’s life and the discussion with the composer Ho. At the same time, choreographer Emmanuel Brown and I explored various styles of movement and martial arts to do the groundwork for the actual creation process. We continuously discussed challenging the norm of dance and traditions of combat practices as we went through the development process, and we came up with the experimental and yet narrative expression of performing arts while the core of the movement could still embrace the philosophy of those martial arts.
As one example, the scene from Photo 2 (above) portrays the young Cassius Clay’s anger and resistance when he faced the glass ceiling as a minority boxing gold medalist. This section of choreography was heavily based on Karate but not limited to its traditional form. Karate may be considered as the conflict within oneself or as a life-long marathon which can be won only through self-discipline, hard training and one's own creative efforts. Young Cassius’s story and philosophy of Karate marry together and inspired us to come up with a new style, a combination of karate and lashing jump rope movement, which illustrates the exasperation and despair of Cassius Clay.
Another significant moment in this scene is the usage of the projection. In The Sweet Science Suite, the projection was used in various styles and purposes, such as to suggest the figurative world that Ali lived in, portray Ali’s psychological journey, and reinforce the dynamic of the movement, etc. In this scene, I wanted the audience to encounter the basis of human suffering and battle as they live through this theatrical and musical experience: a jump-rope-based ferocious movement expression with Ali’s screaming image on the projection.
When I first worked on the character development, I wanted to explore the style of a Greek chorus to support the Muhammad Ali’s journey. Based on this idea, I created three chorus characters who served Ali in variety of manners; sometimes they commented on the themes from Ali’s perspective and beyond, sometime they created conflicts, and sometimes they morphed into an individual character to unfold the story.
This scene in the photo 3 (above) is from movement 2, “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Afro Asian Bumblebee!” which is about the virtuosity that Ali has shown through the “sweet science” of his boxing technique. In this scene, I wanted to create two different worlds: one is an imaginative world (the SR side of the photo 3) that celebrates the Ali’s spirit from his virtuosic boxing technique and vigorous personality, and the other is the real world (the SL side of the photo 3) with Ali boxing against numerous opponents.
To conjugate this concept, we borrowed the characteristic of Ali’s boxing style to inspire specific movements in the choreography. In this movement, I wanted to show Ali’s most iconic techniques, such as his dancing-like foot work and quick, speedy hand movement. Wing-Chun style was the main source of the Ali’s graceful foot work, which was often called “dancing-feet” to capture rhythmically sharp and yet feminine foot steps. To illustrate Ali’s left hand jab, Emmanuel and I decided to explore the movement of Nunchucks, which is one weapon technique in the style of Kung fu.
As a Korean who bears the history of an imperialism, a war, and division of country, movement 3, “No Vietnamese Ever Call Me Nigger!” came across my heart deeply, and I wanted to convey this deep empathy for the level of human experience. At the early stage of the production, this music vividly took me into the Vietnamese War and the heartbreaking conflicts of various people such as indigenous people and soldiers—whether it was Vietnamese or American soldiers who were drafted to the war. Like Ali perceived the Vietnamese war as an inhumane and degrading event, I wanted to approach this movement from the transnational perspective. Eventually I wanted to take the audience through Ali’s personal struggle and his strength to stand alone against the injustice.
The scene you see in photo 4 (above) is a portrayal of war as a global dimension of human experience. Followed by a long battle between Vietnamese and American soldiers, this scene brings the audience into the inner struggle of an American soldier as Ali witnesses the scene from the back. Once again, choreographer Emmanuel and I explored using the movement with Kama (a weapon technique from Kung-fu) to express the entirety of human strife in the war. As Ali stands alongside the soldier, the scene proceeds to the next section where Ali’s championship is stripped away by the power-holder and he stands alone in the face of powerful adversity. The significance of the scene is how much we incorporated martial arts movement as the primary vocabulary of an intensely revolutionary image and approached the war in the past as a human experience still resonating to a current world audience.
This scene is a conceptualization of the victory of “the less-developed” based on the legendary epic bout in Zaire in 1974 called “Rumble in the Jungle.” Muhammad Ali emerged triumphant from this match against unbeatable young boxing goliath George Foreman, using a boxing technique called “rope-a-dope,” the strategies in which one party purposely puts itself in what appears to be a losing position, attempting thereby to become the eventual victor.
From my discussions with Fred, I wanted to capture the personality of Ali as a trickster that would turn the tables and result in glorious triumph over an unconquerable force—some odd-makers bet big on his death in this match!—a metaphor for his lifelong victory as a minority facing injustice. Inspired by Ali’s loud, entertaining personality, I envisioned this scene as capturing Ali’s humorous side as well as the thrill from the breathtaking legendary match.
I used three members of the chorus to illustrate the invincibility of Foreman against Ali, alone himself. The choreographer and I discussed creating a movement that combined boxing and Kung fu, playing with an elongating slow motion demonstration of rope-a-dope and a bursting massive punch for Foreman’s steel punch. Like other choreography, we explored finding a technique and style of martial arts movement that could embrace the style of Ali’s technique, and we decided to use Drunken fist, which is one style of Kung-fu that imitates the movement of a drunkard. The core of this style is drinking, swaying, and falling with great momentum, which is used to throw off opponents. As the power must be in the heaviness of the apparent losing position, we were thrilled to blend the philosophy of drunken fist with the story of rope-a-dope.
Fred Ho died in April 2014, a few months after the successful running of The Sweet Science Suite, after a years-long battle with cancer. Fred and his friends and colleagues knew when we were working on The Sweet Science Suite that he didn’t have much time left, and we knew—as did he—that this production was going to be his last opus. Fred Ho often told me that Ali’s bold, multi-talented, defiant and spirited resistance to the forces of American racism served as constant inspiration to him when he grew up and when he was battling the cancer. I know that, like Ali did to him, Fred Ho brought huge inspiration to people, especially people in the Asian-American community. I wanted to honor Fred Ho and his influential hero Muhammad Ali in this production, especially considering how much both Ali and Ho relentlessly sought meaningful connections to people in the world, and the possibilities of a new world that transcends national, cultural, and institutional boundaries.
My vision in this scene was to bring the audience to a new generation of people who are empowered by all the greatness in the world, who fight against injustice and inequality to achieve self-respect, dignity, and liberation. In other words, this scene is the summoning and evocation of a spirit of triumph by the underdog through empowerment and self-love. Throughout movement 5, the audience witnesses the chorus become each individual character. Moreover, as the production progresses, Ali, who bore his struggles alone in the beginning of the production, stands together with the chorus.
In photo 6 (above), which comes right after each individual’s explosive solo dance scene using a martial arts weapons technique, the dancers set down their weapons. In contrast to the western perception of weaponry, the essential philosophy of martial arts and its weapon techniques—whether from Taekwondo, Karate or Kungfu—is to defend and empower oneself. In Eastern culture, we’ve learned to pick up the sword to defeat the sword. But when the sword has been defeated, it must be set down. This is one of the most significant moments of the production, which both concludes the epic journey of Ali’s life and embraces Fred Ho’s philosophy on peace and love.
I conclude this writing with one of the quotes that Fred Ho stated in his book, Legacy to Liberation, which stayed with me through the production: “Revolutionary art must...inspire a spirit of defiance, … Revolutionary art must energize and humanize; not pacify, confuse and desensitize…”
Watch the excerpts of The Sweet Science Suite