#MeToo and challenging Asian beauty standards in Sung Im Her’s Nutcrusher | review

Words by Stella Rousham.

I, along with the rest of the audience, enter to pulsating, whirring music. As I wander over to my seat, my eyes are immediately drawn to the three dancers who are appear like shadowy silhouettes within the white box of the stage. Engulfed in full body black morph suits, the faces, identities and expressions of the dancers are entirely obscured. They are simply bodies. Forms that move with robotic precision through characteristic, model-like poses, as if they are on a video that is being played and re-wound repeatedly.

This process of objectification, fetishisation and dehumanisation through the gaze is cleverly and creatively enpacked in Nutcrusher, a recent dance work by choreographer and performer, Sung Im Her. Originally premiering in Korea, I had the privilege to see Nutcrusher at Dance Base, Edinburgh this August, as part of the Horizon 2022 showcase.

Following the performance, I had the opportunity to speak to Sung Im Her about the creative process behind Nutcrusher, the political climate of #MeToo which inspired the piece and potential future developments. Nutcrusher offers a highly nuanced, creative and deeply critical examination of intersecting power relations of race, gender and nationality in the context of an online digital, consumerist culture. Through bold, imaginative and thoughtful use of costume, movement and sound, Nutcrusher bravely tackles intersecting contemporary issues relevant to audiences across the world.

Stella Rousham: To start the interview, would you like to introduce yourself and your work?

Sung Im Her: My name is a Sung Im Her. I have a Korean background. After finishing my BA and MA in Korea, I wanted to study more, so I moved to Belgium when I was 28 to complete a choreographic course at P.A.R.T.S. Since then, I’ve been working with lots of different companies. In parallel, since 2012, whenever I have time, I try to choreograph my own work. Six years ago, I moved to London to join my partner.

SR: Great. The show you have taken to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year is Nutcrusher. I was wondering if you’d like to introduce Nutcrusher and what the show means to you?

SIH: Nutcrusher, was first of all, of course, inspired by #MeToo. Before that, I had been working with a lot of male artists and directors in Europe across theatre, acting and dance. I had a feeling that what these male, Western artists wanted to see from an Asian female body was very stereotypical. If I wanted to cut my hair, they were like: “Oh, no, no, no, you have to have long, black, hair”. In their view, Asian women could only be seen as very fragile, poor figures fleeing from Asia. I wanted to break this image about the stereotypical Asian female. There were and are lots of issues [related to #MeToo] in Korea, but, because it was so repressed, it hit Korea 8 or 10 months after Europe. It was during this time, that I made this Nutcrusher.

SR: I was intrigued by the name of the work – Nutcrusher – it immediately reminded me of The Nutcracker. What was your thinking behind the name?

SIH: The name Nutcrusher indeed came from the Nutcracker. My original idea for the show was to turn the original Nutcracker upside down, particularly in relation to the gender roles. In traditional, classical dance shows, like the Nutcracker, the male and female roles are so clearly divided – the female ballerina is like a feather; fragile and skinny. The male dancers have the role to support the females and be very strong. 

SR: I wanted to ask a bit more about the movement itself, it’s quite repetitive and restrained. What were your thoughts behind the movement that you chose for Nutcrusher?

SIH: The movement is, as you said, it’s very repetitive, and it’s broken down into very small pieces. The movement itself is taken from K-Pop. I stripped out all the other essences or sentiments. From this, we decided that the most important part of K-Pop movement, was shaking the hip up, having a naked back and long hair. Therefore, we did not stop shaking our hips from the beginning to the end. And then it transformed into the headbanging. It kind of looks like a rag doll or whipping. At the same time, we are enjoying it and thriving. It also has a very simple, powerful movement, but he has a lot of dynamics in a way. And that’s why we chose this. Although there are lots of movements in the piece, I don’t like to have too many different movements in a show. It doesn’t register anything. It’s just you showing how great you are. But what kind of relationship do I have with this movement?

SR: That’s really interesting. And immediately when you mentioned about the hair, it made me think of some of the movement that you do in the piece. Hair is quite an important tool for how you move in Nutcrusher. Similarly, one of the positions that the dancers do, with your hands behind your back, sometimes it seemed like they were almost tied and restricted but it was quite a powerful position. There’s two contrasting elements in the same movement.

SIH: Indeed. The movements and positions give different kinds of illusions. The first position that we hold in the repetitive section, after you look at it for a long time, their backs start to look like their front, with her hair forward. It almost mimics a stereotypical, Asian female figure bowing. Then, at the end of the piece, we hold a position where we are resting, leaning on each other, but the audience can’t see our faces.

This final position was a striking and disconcerting way to end the work. Whilst holding the end position, the lights did not fade, the music continued to play on a loop, leaving the audience apprehensive about what to do next.

SIH: I didn’t want to make a performance where the audience would give the applause and forget about it. I wanted them to hold the final position to underscore the statement about the issue of empowering the female body, but also to mark that the gender unbalance that is still there. It isn’t solved immediately. It’s very interesting because when we performed at The Place in London, people still gave a lot of applause and then left after five minutes. And when we performed in Korea, people were very, like, “Is it okay?” – they were really confused. When we were in Belgium, when we performed, the audience stayed for 45 minutes after the ending. They left to get beer and they came back to their seat, sitting and watching like it was a whole installation or movie. 

SR: I hink it’s so interesting the way people responded to that ending. When I went to see it, there was one person in the audience who initiated the clap, and then decided to walk out after only five minutes. Gradually, everyone else began to trickle out. It was up to the audience to decide when they wanted to leave and make that decision for themselves. I would love to hear a bit more about the creative process behind Nutcrusher? The version I saw at Dance Base had three dancers – Martha Pasakopoulou, Chihiro Kawasaki and yourself – did you work together to choreograph the piece.

SIH: My creative working process is never clear. When the piece was first made in 2019, my original dancers Yen Ching Lin, Taiwanese dance artist now working with Punkdrunk and Martha Pasakopoulou, a Greek dancer, helped incredibly with the research and development. We did a lot of improvisation, we created a lot of material and then we stripped it back, saying “Okay, keep this” or “I don’t need this”.  I had a year of creation time overall to think, make, try, fail and remake. It was absolutely necessary to have a time to fail and rebuild, learn each time and re-construct what you are aiming to. In the UK, it seems like you create most of performance within three weeks. I mean, it’s possible, but it’s way too little time too really create. This creation time is one of the most important processes for me. Building this piece was how I started to develop my language and practice. 

SR: In terms of the sound and music, much of the piece was accompanied by your counting and the breathes of the dancers. What your thoughts behind the music and sound of the piece?

SIH: At the start we do have music. It’s quite dark, heavy music. Then we thought, how about we don’t have any music? So we started to introduce our voice. And the counting became our rhythm. It’s funny, when we performed in Korea, there was a whole film crew recording the performance. Once the film was edited, they erased the whole counting sound, even thought it is a very important part of this show. It has to come back. Vocal is a very important body expression. 

SR: Being around Edinburgh, I saw the posters for the show quite a lot. The costumes were quite iconic, especially the colourful, shiny leggings. I was just wondering if you could describe your intentions behind the costumes and what role do you think the costumes played?

SIH: I think I wanted to wear something very sparkly and shiny to catch to your eyes. Especially because our movement starts really slow, with only hip movement, something big has to come out. In the beginning, the dancers are dressed in black morph suits because I was interested in the gaze. Who is watching who and who is observing who? In the first part, we [the dancers] see you [the audience], but you don’t see us because of the black morph suit. And then, later we give you a focus to see our hip and that’s where your vision goes. It was all about the gaze, power and relationships. 

SR: I think that came across really effectively at the beginning, especially because the set was the plain white background and the white floor. When the audience walked in, it reminded me of a photoshoot.

What do you see for the future of the piece, Nutcrusher, and when will you perform again?

SIH: We have just been invited to perform at Nott Dance, in Nottingham, to reach more audiences in October 2022. We have a lot of interest from different countries and continents, so we will push it forward, to see where we can go with this performance. I would be very interested to see a male version of this – that’s just an idea!

To find out more about Nott Dance, visit https://2022.nottdance.com/events/. To keep up to date with Sung Im Her’s work, make sure to follow her social media. 

Instagram: @sungimher

Website: https://www.sungimher.com/