"Still waters run deep" is a phrase perfectly suited to both the dances and the dancers of the Chang Mu Dance Company, the Korean-based troupe that made its Washington debut last night at Baird Auditorium. Under the artistic direction of Kim Maeja, the group performs works rooted in traditional Korean dance styles but filtered through a contemporary sensibility. The movement is hypnotically slow and sinuous and deceptively serene -- deceptive because after a time one notices a subtle tension and drama seething beneath the placid surface.
This interior element makes itself known in small but telling ways: the slight dislocation of a woman's shoulder, a troubled glance, a keening sound from the stringed instrument known as the kayagum. And it gives this predominantly soft, curvaceous, even languid movement style an unsettling, mysterious edge.
This dialogue between the outer and inner self came through in all three works presented. "Salp'uri" ("Exorcism Dance"), traditionally performed as part of a Shamanistic ritual, featured Maeja as a beautifully composed and garbed figure whose minute changes in stance and facial expression spoke worlds about control and the lack of it.
"My Answer," choreographed by company member Kim Young Hee, was a group portrait of women in conflict. Six meticulously coiffed women in silken robes of white and pastels enter, greet one another, begin to whirl and hop in unison. As the dance progresses, the atmosphere grows more somber, and the women seem to retreat into their own private worlds. As a man and woman sing and howl like wolves, these delicate creatures are transformed -- by means of shifts in direction, frozen poses, clenched fists -- into complex women with vital interior lives.
Though it went on too long and lacked the dynamic sophistication of the first two works, Maeja's "The Wedding Shoes" sets up a tantalizing contrast between an alternately resistant and compliant woman and the uniform and unquestioning society in which she dwells.
Though the Baird stage did not provide adequate space for the company's endeavors, the dancers shone both technically and expressively.