Kim Dae-Gyun : The last living exponent of the traditional Korean Tight-rope Performance

by Lee Myong-jun
Head of the Traditional Popular Culture Study Center

 Lonely as an island floating alone in the midst of the ocean, Kim Dae-Gyun is the last living exponent of the art of the tight-rope yet his rope is always at the same time the end of his painful solitude. Perhaps that is why he is so fond of the hills of the Korean countryside? There trees, streams, sky ever lie open and fresh, warm and welcoming as a mother's breast; no wonder he is so fond of the hills.
"Lonely people should walk the tight-rope."
"Only lonely people can walk the tight-rope well..."
 After twenty-five years entirely spent on the rope, Kim Dae-Gyun surely knows what it is to live in solitude, and so he speaks like that.
 He was born in 1967 in a small village near Chongup, North Cholla Province, the second son in a family of three sons and two daughters. From the time he was born, he struck his father Kim Nae-mun as being no ordinary child. In his youth, his father had begun to learn traditional pansori singing and drumming, and had dreamed of life as an artist, but his mother objected, while he himself felt his own limitations and had given up the idea, with deep regret. Hoping that Kim Dae-Gyun might fulfill his own unrealized dreams, in 1975 he brought his family up to live beside the Folk Village near Suwon. Kim Dae-Gyun was then in his ninth year. Since his father was employed in the Folk Village, he used to visit there every day and attracted the attention of the traditional tight-rope Master Kim Yong-ch'ol, who was performing there at that time, and who was in search of a successor. Thus he began to walk the tight-rope, in part from his own interest, in part from others' encouragement. For three years Kim Dae-Gyun practiced on the rope, until finally, determined to become a practioner, he went to the Master and asked to be taught the full range of dialogue and other elements that would enable him to become a full performer.
 However, things do not always go according to plan. Kim Young-ch'ol suffered a stroke and was never again able to walk the tight-rope. Grasping the wrist of little Kim Dae-Gyun, who still knew almost nothing of the craft, he simply whispered: "Dae-Gyun, so long as you can walk this one rope, you'll go far in the world." Kim Dae-Gyun's father then took Kim Yong-ch'ol into his own home and Dae-Gyun began to learn the art of tight-rope performing in earnest. It was a long, hard and painful process. The Master could no longer perform on the rope himself, so that Kim Dae-Gyun had to learn from his words and facial expressions what he should do while up on the rope. He practiced all day every day, until he was virtually eating and sleeping on the rope.
 So Kim Dae-Gyun continued until he was in his sixteenth year. By then he had mastered the entire repertoire of the tight-rope performance transmitted by his Master and in the autumn of 1982 he began to perform officially on the tight-rope at the Folk Village on a professional basis. In the spring of 1983, having given a formal performance of the repertoire of the Major Intangible Culture Treasure 58, he was acclaimed as having mastered fully the repertoire of his Master Kim Yong-ch'ol. He was duly named the recognized exponent of his tradition, the youngest person ever so recognized in the whole domain of Intangible Cultural Treasures.
 From that time he gave more and more performances as the successor of his Master Kim Yong-ch'ol, while his skills grew accordingly. Today Kim Dae-Gyun recalls those as having been the happiest days of his life. Finally, in 1988 Master Kim Yong-ch'ol passed away. Since then Kim Dae-Gyun has had to endure the loneliness of being the sole living exponent of Intangible Cultural Treasure 58, without there being any recognized Master. That was when he began to long for the hills, when he found himself left alone, his Master having quit the tight-rope and vanished into empty air. Even when he is sitting quietly on the rope, Kim Dae-Gyun has always to bear the burden of knowing that he is the last surviving performer of his art.
 Putting an end to his regular appearances at the Folk Village after 12 years, he set out to make a deeper study in order to become a more accomplished total performer. He received lessons from Master Lee Dong-an, the former companion of Kim Yong-ch'ol and the last surviving recognized master of vocal arts, in order to perform adequately the dialogues and musical elements of his own repertoire. At the same time he studied Pansori from the senior exponent Song Woo-hyang.
 Kim Dae-Gyun has a high esteem for his life and art, and for human relationships. Each time he performs, as he sits calmly on the rope, he addresses the spectators below :
 'It's all very well for you. Sitting there comfortably, you only have to watch the performance. Suppose we exchange places? You put on a straw hat, come up here and walk the tight-rope, while I sit down on the mats where you're sitting and watch you perform up here? That way, you'll realize how hard it is for me."
 Perhaps he really does long to live as a comfortable spectator of life in this world. The tight-rope is a lonely place, and he feels shy at having that solitude turned into a spectacle presented to the watching crowds. Yet at the same time, being up on the rope means having a heart that is that much closer to heaven, it's as simple as that. From the rope he can look down on this crooked world, and up to heaven. Up on his rope he walks, and dances, sings, and loves.
 As a result, Kim Dae-Gyun's rope is no rope of desire leading toward power or riches, it's the rope of selflessness and limitlessness suspended in the midst of the void. This year, belatedly, Kim Dae-Gyun began formal studies in the Institute of Traditional Arts of the Korean United Art College, in order to acquire a clearer theoretical approach to his own art of tight-rope performing. His main goal is to widen his vision of the world, abolish prejudice towards others from his heart, and above all to sense that his life and art are developing further. Today it is Kim Dae-Gyun's wish to give full performances of the traditional Korean tight-rope art, not mere scraps of it. Truly, he is dreaming of a very special journey as he advances into the new millennium.