Amy and I had thought our festival season over after Andong, but events conspired to take us to one more. I ran into Sunny quite by accident on the bus out of Seoul, and he invited us along to the Anseong Namsadang Baudeogi Festival (안성 남사당 바우덕이 축제) – a traditional performing arts event held in a small city just to the south of Yongin.
To provide some background, a Namsadang is a wandering troupe of performers who specialise in a certain skill set (principally acrobatics, singing, playing music, puppetry and dancing). In ancient times they would have wandered from city to city plying their trade, but these days the centre of the Namsadang universe is Anseong (close enough to Seoul that members of the aristocracy could travel to see performances, but far enough away to retain the folksy roots). Baudeogi, or Kim Am-Deok (김암덕), was the most talented Namsadang performer ever to grace the festival squares – adopted into a troupe at the age of four, she excelled in all disciplines and was eventually elected kkokdusoe (꼭두쇠; troupe leader) – unheard of for a woman at that time. She died in 1870 at the age of 22, and the festival is held in her honour.
After fighting our way through crowd of people watching pungmul nori (풍물놀이; traditional music and dance), we made a beeline for the Ssireum (씨름) competition (something that I’d never seen, and was quite interested in). Ssireum is traditional Korean wrestling, with two opponents in a sand ring grappling via a fabric belt tied around the waist and thigh. A bout is won by forcing an opponent to the ground, which often makes for acrobatic throws and impressive feats of strength. As it turned out, we were watching the local stockbreeders – traditionally, Ssireum was practised mainly by farmers (plentiful in Korea’s agricultural society) and the prize for winning a contest was an ox.
The festival site contained the usual assortment of food stalls, local produce and traditional craft stalls, as well as several highly precarious bridges over the river which would never pass health and safety regulations back home. We wandered for a little while before settling down on the edge of a performance square to watch some deolmi (덜미; puppetry), predictably surrounded by children. Like the mask dances of Andong, deolmi satirises the ruling classes and religious orders and thus provides much relief and hilarity for the peasant farmers. We were possibly watching a shortened version as I didn’t see any monks, but considering the lack of high-tech gadgetry and subtitles it was quite entertaining.
Our next encounter was with a group of clown-esque students, who seamlessly blended traditional and modern influences to create a thoroughly confusing and chaotic atmosphere. After walking in a circle banging gongs and drums, some members sat down whilst others cavorted in the centre. I wasn’t quite sure if it was a spontaneous gathering or if it had required weeks of careful choreography and planning.
Just before nightfall, we came across a jultagi (줄타기; tightrope walking) performance that had been set up next to the puppet area. A tightrope walker, balanced by a fan, would go out onto the rope and perform some tricks (generally walking, kneeling or sitting astride) while exchanging witticisms with another performer on the ground. Most of the banter went over our heads, but we did get to see Korea’s top jultagi expert do a few spins, jumps and possibly painful drops-to-sitting-astride.
Finally, with night upon us, we stopped to see a performance of drumming intended more for the noble courts than for the village squares. Surprisingly young women played a multitude of drums in a very soft and highly choreographed rhythm to give an almost relaxing impression. A traditional wedding dance followed, which we didn’t have time to stay for, but as we made our way out we caught from afar the climax of the international dance showcase – performers from all the nationalities involved doing a kind of global square dance with one person from each country in each group.