FOCUS Superorganic Performance from a Faraway Future

Just Jerk became prominent by winning a world-famous dance competition and appearing on a popular American TV talent show. Enjoying an enthusiastic response at home and abroad, this amazing dance group performs a new kind of dance never seen before that combines hip hop and popping with elements of traditional Korean dance.

I once heard about an impressive scene on the shore of the South China Sea: a curtain of flickering light formed by a host of fireflies against the night sky, which is as spectacular as a “galactic show.” Just Jerk’s dance, stunningly dynamic and controlled, reminds me of this perfect dance of light with tempo and rhythm that human beings would hardly dare to match.
When this Korean dance group appeared on “America’s Got Talent” in 2017, the judges, including the idiosyncratic Simon Cowell, were excited, even eager to comment on their performance. They praised the group, saying their performance was “as precise as a machine.” I consider the word “machine” positive. The description is accurate from the perspective of cybernetics, which argues for integration of living organisms and machines, and also from the perspective of the cyborg, the fictional superhero made of frail flesh and mighty machine.
Just Jerk performs as if they came from a faraway future, skipping through the evolution of humankind. Contrary to such grand rhetoric, the group’s dream of “dancing on stages in Las Vegas” sounds rather humble and innocent. The members call themselves “dance nerds.” Seemingly, they know and love nothing but dancing.

Just Jerk amazes the judges and audience with their new and unique performance on America’s Got Talent in 2017.

Freedom that Resists Uniformity
Just Jerk started to introduce their unique dance to a global audience when they won the Body Rock Dance Competition in 2016. Basically rooted in hip hop, they combine popping, locking, improvisation, and traditional Korean dance. To respond to ever-changing moments, they freely use the language of dance. Shaking off any uniform pre-conditions or dogmas, they select the essence of diverse dance genres from the choreography tool box to express their ideas. It is this freedom that should be the focal point for discussing their dance.
Interestingly, from the standpoint of choreography, their dance is distinguished by the expression of the cultural DNA, or meme. Using the excitement of hip hop’s scant melodies and off beat, they call on the dance code of traditional Korean outdoor shows and masked dance dramas, and even further back, to the ways of the hwarang of ancient Silla. Just Jerk outwits our time quite creatively, adjusting and combining hip hop with the culture of the ancient warrior youths, who enjoyed dance and song 1,500 years ago. In that sense, the hwarang, who obviously disappeared a long time ago, are still present in Koreans’ subconscious.

Seoullo 7017 is seen through the windows of a café near Seoul Station. The new landmark has changed the cityscape viewed from nearby buildings.

Awakening the Latent Spirit
Overseas travel for Koreans became completely unrestricted in 1989, and Korea fully opened its market to overseas culture in 1996. Over the 30 years since then, in the confusion of joining the global community, Korea nurtured its ability to digest other cultures through repeated experimentation and integration. In the process, the reception of culture was not entirely one-sided. Culture moved in both directions as Korea explored its own cultural potential, resisting or accepting outside influences. In these circumstances, it is worth noting that experiments inspired by folk theater and outdoor performances (madang nori) injected new energy across society. That is, Just Jerk did not appear abruptly like a mutant but was the result of Korea’s maturing cultural identity and potential in the process of importing overseas culture.

Just Jerk performs as if they came from a faraway future, skipping through the evolution of humankind. Contrary to such grand rhetoric, the group’s dream of “dancing on stages in Las Vegas” sounds rather humble and innocent.

Just Jerk quickly gained a reputation after winning the 2016 Body Rock Dance Competition, held in San Diego, California, United States.

Just Jerk’s brilliant group dance manifests what it means to be selfless for the sake of the team. For the unity and harmony that comes from pinpoint accuracy, the members have explored cultural reinterpretation through their bodies, using the energy triggered by emotion, the DNA and the unconsciousness.
Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham believed she could express emotional and spiritual themes through her dance. Just Jerk’s dance is not simply the creation of some individual street dance technicians of like mind; in tune with their volatile emotions they create matching movements with their bodies. Their dance, trying to reach the state of selflessness through ceaseless training and practice, seems to proclaim: “Dance means to awaken the latent spirit in people.”

Just Jerk’s dance has set off on a new journey and will likely continue to reach new stages as it flows amongst the grains of time, representing an evolutionary stage in Homo sapiens’ attempts to unify body and mind. The group’s ingenious efforts to try something new will hopefully continue into the future.

Being Good at What You Like,
Working Hard on What You’re Good At

Interview with Sung Young-jae, Leader of Just Jerk

The year 2016 didn’t mark the first time that Just Jerk participated in the Body Rock Dance Competition. The group had entered a couple of times before, but failed to win. Still, their outstanding performances brought them a lot of attention, and finally, on their third attempt they experienced the glory of winning.
Sung Young-jae, leader of this dance group, started to learn dancing when he was a high school student and training to be a boxer. Boxing was hard and his body ached, but dancing gave him a new joy and sense of achievement. Realizing that dancing was what he really wanted to do and what he was good at, he changed direction from boxing to dancing. The following are excerpts from an email interview with him:

KOREANA When did you start the group? How many members are there?
Sung I was bored dancing alone. It was no fun, so I persuaded Choi Jun-ho to join me. It was just the two of us in 2010. Afterwards, we added three more members and danced together as a group of five until 2014. In 2015, we selected members for the Just Jerk Family through an audition, and now there are 13 of us. Three are women, who dance as powerfully as the rest of us.
KOREANA Are the members professional dancers?
Sung They all perform as dancers but work in different areas. From university lecturer, choreographer and artist to trainer and musician, their jobs vary. Being 26, I’m one of the older members of the group. Most of the members are younger than me. The average age is about 23.

KOREANA Everybody has a different job. When do you train?
Sung We all have other jobs, so there is no time to gather during the day. We meet around midnight and practice until 5 o’clock in the morning. We sleep a bit in the morning after training is finished. Day and night are turned upside down, and our biorhythms are disturbed, which affects our health. But we can endure it because we’re happy while we’re dancing.
KOREANA Don’t you think the group is too big?
Sung With so many members, the energy we produce can be explosive, and as we each have our own strengths, we can show much more variety. It’s never boring. Of course, having fewer members would be an advantage when performing more subtle movements. As leader, I find it difficult to show the interest and provide the support that each member needs. I think, though, we’re dealing with the problem well enough.
KOREANA What process do you go through before performing on stage?
Sung I have been interested in stage management since childhood, so I am the one who directs the team performances.For each part, I tell them who can lead, distributing their roles, and then they choreograph the rest themselves. We revise the dances over and over to improve and perfect them.
KOREANA As the team leader, how would you evaluate Just Jerk?
Sung Our team’s specialty is probably “dancing in perfect unison.” We can also dance a mixture of genres and styles. If I could add one more thing, I would say that we continually try to show our own unique dance without imitating famous overseas dancers.
KOREANA What does it take to create perfect harmony?
Sung The first thing is a lot of practice. The second thing is excellence in performance. As excellence comes from practice, we put everything into our practice. I think that you should be good at what you like doing and work hard at what you’re good at. The choice of music is also crucial. We keep asking: Does the music express the theme of the dance well? Does it reveal the characteristics of our team properly? Does it sound good to everyone? And so on. There are many factors to consider.
KOREANA What sort of dance does Just Jerk pursue ultimately?
Sung There is no set frame. We’re interested in various genres and practice broadly. Externally, we want to do performances that a broad audience can appreciate and enjoy. We want to offer continuous fun with different challenges.

Kim Nam-soo Dance Critic; Lecturer, School of Visual Arts, Korea National University of Arts
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