Gender identity would seem to be more settled in the world of traditional Korean music and dance than in any other corner of the world of performing arts. Classical gagok songs are divided into female and male repertoires, and women and men both dress in the gendered costumes of the Joseon Dynasty (hanbok) as they perform ultimate expressions of Korean moral rectitude—the story of the faithful wife, the filial daughter, the benevolent brother, the loyal minister. But a closer look reveals that gender roles in the old forms are not quite so fixed. This is particularly true, and increasingly so, in Korea’s traditional folk genres. Internationally renowned cross-dressing Geonggi Folksong (minyo) singer Lee Hee-moon, with his various ensembles, including SsingSsing, is but one of many Korean artists playing with the eum (yin) and yang of gender in their performances of traditional arts today. Among Lee’s mentors and collaborators, the traditional/avant-garde Korean dancer and choreographer Ahn Eun-Me is composing, choreographing, and performing irreverent and transporting works that, through movement, makeup, and continuous exchange of costumes, seek to redefine Korean gender ideals. Both Lee and Ahn point to Korea’s roots in shamanic ritual, in which shamans channel and embody both male and female gods and spirits, as a source of inspiration for their work. This article looks at modern performances by Lee Hee-Moon, SsingSsing, and Ahn Eun-me, exploring the ways these artists are breaking down old notions of gender while carrying forward into a digital space dominated by the popular genres of the Korean Wave their updated renderings of traditional Korean music and dance.
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