Dohee Lee World Premiere

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Written by:
David E. Moreno
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In Three Parts



Mago: as work in progress




“I had a dream.

There was a woman who had long hair

like a thread from the deep ocean.

She gave me a book –

It had symbols and letters that I could not understand.

She placed a bell in my hand and it vibrated throughout my entire body.

Its energy made me sing and dance.”


Part 1: Grand Lobby


Thread of Karma

Dream of Deepsea


Mago is the creator goddess in ancient Korean mythology, and central to the practice of Korean shamanism. Her myth is the basis of this richly encrusted multimedia performance by Korean performance artist Dohee Lee, who magically brings Mago to life with every articulated gesture, vocal intonation, and dramatic imagery. As Mago, Lee first appears at the end of an installation in the grand lobby at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), a sweep of white cloth from the ceiling at one end—with Korean characters and an image of Mago projected on it–to the cubic platform at the other end. Dressed in a white kimono, wearing a traditional Korean wooden mask, Lee creeks at a pace slightly faster than that of Butoh Theater, instantly establishing a captivating presence that enthralls viewers who sit and stand in close proximity. The capacity to create this ambiance so early in the performance in a lobby with flat overhead lighting, floor to ceiling windows at one side and a counter is itself quite a feat.


Once on the other platform Lee establishes another central them to her transformational piece, which is birth and death. Like a butterfly hatching from a cocoon, she peals away the kimono, the electrically wired mask, and the infinitely long braid that is attached to her head still dragging on the floor behind her—“like a thread from the deep ocean.” Completely dressed in yet another costume hidden by the kimono, she emerges in a blood red dress with a white fur pelt apron. Lee achieves her first of many metamorphoses, as she makes her way back to the first cubic platform where she beings to tremble and shake speaking in other worldly languages. In a trance-like state she mumbles as she starts to roll her hands behind the fur pelts until the apron takes on a life of its own. Like a throbbing vagina it calls the world into it until she mysteriously gives birth to these pelts, transforming them into a baby, which she swaddles with the rest of her skirt. This transformation is as raw as it is stylized and powerfully impacting. The costumes were designed by Alenka Loesch and Lee.


Part 11 – Auditorium



A Calling of The Spirits

Marching of The Spirits

Invited Ritual – Crow


The audience is led from the lobby to the YBCA’s “Forum” which is a multiuse space, and into risers fanning the stage. The set is minimal with two large floating video screens and a sculpture that is mirrored by one suspended above it. Here the talent of Steven Sanchez (animator) creates the space with his manipulated archival footage and block print like renderings. The imagery is truly exquisite from underwater pictures to waterfalls flowing sideways, with figurative pictures fading in and out of view. Donald Swearingen’s brilliant sound design continues throughout the piece and also helped established the ambiance in part one. Each of the different segments of this section are noteworthy in and of themselves and Lee’s uses media as if it’s a part of her, even disappearing into the video images and reappearing in different costumes.


When a murder of crows fill the screens behind her and the defining sound of crows cawing fill up the room, Lee appears wrathfully dressed similar to that of a crow. Crows, she feels, witnessed the massacre on her homeland in Korea and she hears their cawing as the questions, “What did you see? What did you hear?” As vague images of that massacre fade across the screens, she orchestrates the audience to caw back and they did just as unruly as crows. To call humanity back to a time when we were more aligned with nature she starts beating a drum to create the heartbeat that we all remember but often forget. She is soon joined by several accomplished Korean percussionists who transform the space with their tribal beating as Lee dances between each rhythmic beat, never missing a strike to her drum.


Part 111 – Lobby


Again the lobby is used as the place for rebirth as the audience finds its way back to the installation where they are led to chanting as glass goblets are played and Lee more accessibly engages with the audience. “Its energy made me sing and dance.”


“Mago” is an ambitious and richly successful, nearly two hours in length, one-woman show that is as personal as it is global, contemporary as it is timeless. It has a background cast of musicians, sound technicians, animators, costumers, light designers, sculptors, and a Greek/geek-like chorus, and audience participation that are all spellbound by Dohee Lee’s singular vision. “Mago” is also a collaborative art performance produced from a two-year residency at YBCA in San Francisco that included a series of site-specific and seasonal rituals in and around the complex. It will continue a touring version of the performance in 2015.







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