Crawl, Wriggle, Squirm, Walk, Run, Jump!

“My mother told me I was very good at art, singing and dancing so she wanted me to be an artiste like her. But my life changed after I contracted polio,” says Manri Kim, the youngest and tenth child of Honju Kim, a Korean traditional dancer. Polio eventually led to Manri’s paralysis when she turned three. Her mother was devastated.

Her mother would have been proud now. Manri went on to become the founder and artistic director of Taihen, the world’s first performing arts group comprising physically disabled persons. Established in 1983, Taihen has toured all over the world and garnered rave reviews for its performances. With 51 productions under its belt, Kim has strived to bring recognition to the outfit and has succeeded. Her shows have been invited to Switzerland, Berlin and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Taihen aims to transcend not just the performers’ own physicality, but the prevailing sensibilities of contemporary dance. The company policy, as is spelled out on their website, says: “Yes, TAIHEN is a troupe of the physically disabled performers, but we deny to be categorized as ‘the disabled’s art’ and say ‘no, thank you’ for the special seat of ‘outsider art’. Inside the mainstream, our activity would contribute to the innovation of performing arts.”

This weekend, Manri presents a solo entitled My Mother at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. Jointly produced by The Actors Studio and Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur, Kim pours her heart out in this piece, expressing her loss and yearning for her late mother who died in 1998 at the age of 86.

But her feeling toward her mother when she was younger was markedly different. “My mother had a mindset for disabled people… that family must take care of them but I wanted to change that type of thinking,” Kim says through a translator. Her childhood days had been spent at hospitals. Eventually, Kim was admitted in a rehabilitation institution, which also doubled as a hospital and school, from the ages seven to 17.

At 18, she returned home only to find that her identity was that of a disabled person. Kim found it stifling that everybody was fussing around her. Teenage angst and frustration took over. Kim fled from home.

She explains, “My first attempt to run away failed but the second time it worked! Fortunately I had friends who shared similar belief and it was easier to convince my mother that this was something I had to do. Naturally my family was against it. They were worried and wanted me to be safe but I believe that was the only way to develop my own identity. To struggle is a necessary process of life.”

After a one-year adjustment period, Kim found her footing, so to speak. With supportive friends, she joined the disabled persons independent movement and succeeded in being the first disabled person in Japan to live independently.

Her mother, Kim proudly says, was an asset in Korea. When she moved to Japan during World War 2, she continued to teach and dance albeit secretly. With a father heavily involved in the anti-Japanese movement and not putting bread on the table for his brood, Kim’s mother had to perform to bring in the dough. In due time, he managed the mother’s company.

Sadly, there are no records of Hongju’s performances but Kim remembers how beautifully mother moved and even participated in one of the classes she taught.

“I’m not taking after my mother’s activity. I’m doing something that is original. I think my art is modern art, very different. I’m very proud that I didn’t take any professional lessons so I’m not influenced by any form,” explains Kim. While the senior Kim’s work took on a classical structure, the daughter explores uncharted territories.

“My way to proceed is not to strictly follow tradition but not ignoring it either. I wanted to create art for the disabled people and to actualise this philosophy, I had to go through the struggle with my mother,” reveals Kim, who recently concluded a three-day workshop with local disabled people and hopes to produce something with the participants next year.

Now based in Osaka, Japan, Kim runs her own school and holds regular classes for the disabled. Her students range from 30 to 68. Her company, comprising invited members rehearses diligently once a week or more if a production is coming up. On the average, Taihen does 5-6 productions a year.

“As for me, I train with my students once a week and that is my way of conditioning the body. Rehearsals are good enough for me!” she cheekily quips. Kim has devised her own warm up method and encourages her students to discover their individual potential. Due to their limitations, facial expressions are of paramount importance. Movements are performed from seated or lying positions. TAIHEN is a troupe of physical performers deeply expressing their inner self. The website frankly describes their movement vocabulary this way: “The performers mobile time is far from standard ability but they crawl, wriggle, squirm, walk, run and jump unaided. Though their individual expressive line may not look straight nor look stable, in any case, their inevitable movement is finely balanced.” The dancers are cued on stage entrances and exits by a backstage crew called kuroko.

“The physical expressions by disabled persons are opposite from conventional aesthetics. I believe it’s beautiful, especially from those who are spastic or bed-ridden. These people give me the inspiration to create ideas and set choreography.” Kim usually encourages such people to join her classes but the finally decision is ultimately theirs.

Japanese Butoh exponent Kazo Ono supervised Kim in My Mother, using elements of Butoh and Korean classical dance. The process was a challenging one as Kim had to commute once a month to Yokohama, where Kazo lives. The commute went on for half a year before the piece took shape.

“My message… My life is like a middle of a stream; my existence comes from my ancestors and to live a fruitful life, it is important to pass down to the next generation. I’d like the audience to see that our lives are not spontaneous. It is strongly connected to our ancestors,” concludes Kim before her translator whisked her off to her room.

My Mother is staged at Pentas 2, KLPac, on Friday (Jan 20, 8.30pm), Saturday and Sunday (Jan 21-22, 3pm). Tickets are RM30 for adults and RM15 for disabled persons, students and JFKL members. KLPac 03-4047 9000.


Revathi teaches pilates, yoga, jazz, tap, aerobics, journalism, and everything else. And she writes too.

First Published: 18.01.2006 on Kakiseni

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