On Episode 43 of KultScene’s K-pop Unmuted, Alexis Hodoyan, Tamar Herman, and Stephen Knight look back at Kpop releases from June 2019. We discuss Chungha’s “Snapping,” Sulli’s “Goblin,” Yesung’s “Pink Magic”, Monsta X’s “Who Do U Love,” NCT Dream’s “Don’t Need Your Love,” and Stray Kids’ “Side Effects.”
Last year, I wrote about how K-pop groups use their bodies as a whole to convey meanings within their songs and overall careers. It focused on groups like EXO and Nine Muses and how that affected them following lineup changes. I also took SHINee as the ideal of what a group can do as a collective whole. Unity was the idea that stood out, focusing on how larger groups tend to suffer thanks to more inconsistency while smaller groups keep themselves tight on and off stage.
A year is a long time in K-pop though and groups have since surfaced that are challenging what choreography can do for their respective groups. Seventeen and their plucky performance team are showing how a group can best express themselves when given a chance to be a part in all aspects of creative production. Cosmic Girls are performing other worldly feats to corral 13 members on one stage. And, finally, SM Entertainment’s limitless boyband NCT’s need to use their dances as a way of communicating with all the world, considering they plan to take it over someday. These groups are putting many of their peers and predecessors to shame with the amount of precision and invention that goes into their movements on stage.
I already wrote a bit about Seventeen’s choreography but they have progressed even further since (and what I wrote was not up to my usual standards if I do say so myself, although definitely a good starting place to read what I think about their dancing). Seventeen place a large emphasis on their members’ role in creating their music. While that is in vogue with most new groups, few can claim to have choreographers in their team. Seventeen’s Hoshi does exactly this with the help of the rest of the performance team (Dino, Jun, and The8) and choreographer Choi Youngjun (who previously worked with the longest lasting K-pop idol group, Shinhwa). I’m generally sceptical when it comes these kinds of idols it’s hard to deny Hoshi’s work given Seventeen’s style.
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Seventeen’s choreography plays up their youthfulness. Every one of their performances incorporates masses of group expressions the likes of which we rarely get to see on stage. The members shine as individuals thanks to the moments in between big moves. There’s always more than one thing to enjoy when watching Seventeen dance. With their latest singles “Pretty U” and “아주 Very Nice,” Seventeen have added to their already strong repertoire.
Like most, my first listen of “Pretty U” was underwhelming.There’s something very safe and simple about the song that doesn’t catch your attention straight away. Add in the performance and it becomes something else entirely. The use of the couch isn’t just gloriously fun but apt given the song. It’s a relaxing piece of furniture for a relaxing piece of music. Best of all though, it gives Seventeen many new opportunities to show their character. Members pop up out of nowhere, jump on top of it, lie on it, and much more. All with effortless transitions too. For instance, when some of them stand in front of the couch for the chorus those behind them can re-position easily without distracting the viewer’s eye. This is also used to signify actual changes in the song as well, with nearly every musical transition moving the choreography from the couch to the stage and vice versa. This is usually achieved by the member currently singing getting up and walking towards the crowd serving as not just a seamless switch but also adding dynamic forward movement.
In essence, it’s a routine you might see in a High School Musical film and that’s why it suits “Pretty U” so well. The primary objective here is fun and both Seventeen and Hoshi know how to deliver that without going overboard. It even makes sense when the couch is taken away as the song goes into total climax with its increasingly strong vocals.
To balance out the cheesy fun of “Pretty U” Seventeen went for power with “Very Nice.” There’s a lot to love about “Very Nice” but the thing that struck me the most is how Seventeen obviously knows how hot they are when performing this. There’s a power and precision that isn’t present in any of their other dances. It certainly looks like their most difficult routine. It may also, surprisingly, be their simplest. The focus is on big formations with all the members rather than moving them around the stage. Their flourishes are not gone however, as they make some of the best parts such as in the second chorus when they all shout simultaneously. For all the skill involved “Very Nice” is still clearly a Seventeen dance. It’s a niche they can truly call their own when so many other boy groups focus solely on strong hip-hop routines. Constant innovation in choreography is what led to Seventeen’s success. Without dance crazes happening in Korea as much as they once did (“Gee,” “Tell Me,” “Sorry Sorry” etc.) that is hard to quantify but I find it hard to believe Seventeen would have stood out if they had regular routines.
Cosmic Girls face the same numbers problem as Seventeen. They have the same amount of members but don’t seem to have the same level of skill as Seventeen. To best use up space on stage they are adopting a system of groups of threes. Used ineffectively in their debut songs “Catch Me” and “Momomo,” Cosmic Girls perfected it with latest single “Secret.” In those debut tracks they sometimes set up the three teams on stage and had each group sing a line in a verse while the others stood there waiting for them. That means if the camera isn’t doing it for us, our eyes have to locate who is singing. This isn’t inherently a bad thing but here it leads us to look at members who are not doing anything.
“Secret” situates the three groups in the same way, one on the left, one on the right, and one in the centre. The numbers in each group constantly changes but a symmetry is contained at all times with the left and right sides nearly always having equal amounts. What “Secret” does differently is that the centre group always has the singing member. This means that even when someone is singing not in the exact centre of the stage she is framed on both sides (horizontally or vertically) by other members. These frames draw our eyesight, making it easy to follow the performance. There’s nothing too complex about the dance overall as the individual moves are nothing new but the formations are all precise. It’s something that works well with their cosmic nature too, the symmetry mirroring a destiny that lies in the balance (which is something that rookie groups Lovelyz and Oh My Girl have done well at).
Cosmic Girls, like Seventeen, can be split up into groups by their very nature, their alternate title WSJN is an acronym of their sub-units (Wonder, Sweet, Joy, and Nature). So mixing them up betrays none of their original ideas or unity. Today’s K-pop groups are a malleable bunch. Their collective bodies can express a number of different ideas in many ways. Where last time we saw groups losing members as a consistent hindrance to their dancing, it is built into groups today.
None more so than NCT, SM’s latest experiment of creating groups with detachable parts. With groups like these, who plan to debut all around the world, choreography will clearly be an important part of how they communicate. It also means that the idea of a single unbroken body as an expression of the group’s ideas does not exist for them. NCT can have any number of members in any number of variations of groups.
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So far NCT have not had consistently similar choreography. They have, however, been consistently pushing onwards to outdo themselves (and everyone else) with every turn. I already doubt we’ll see better choreography than NCT U’s “The 7th Sense” this year. It’s almost more an interpretive performance piece than a piece of pop choreography. The mix of martial arts-inspired moves and hip-hop is as abstract as it is flawlessly performed. When they first announced NCT it seemed SM was ready to create yet another group of flawless robots designed to look good and sell records. A debut like “The 7th Sense” questions this though by being too fluid to be considered robotic but too well executed to be believably human.
NCT 127’s “Fire Truck” also pushed boundaries. It is more standard K-pop fare than “The 7th Sense,” although the majority of moves fit into the song are extremely difficult. It is notable for the heroic extremes it goes to with each chorus move by Chinese member Winwin. His influence is notable throughout the entirety of the choreography in fact. His background in traditional Chinese dance is seen with his front cartwheel, his twisting move that makes all the other members spin, and more. His technical expertise isn’t quite a surprise, considering he might have influenced “The 7th Sense” or been influenced by it given that his teaser has the same name.
The latest NCT single, NCT Dream’s cutesy “Chewing Gum” was probably not expected to be as experimental with their choreography. For the most part that is correct. and it might have seemed simple although still intense if there weren’t hoverboards. Yes, hoverboards. (You know, the ones illegal in New York City) The actual dancing with the hoverboards is still pretty straightforward but considering the skill necessary to stay on top of one of them while singing and moving in formation, the dance of “Chewing Gum” becomes something else entirely. It’s a testament to the work ethic of SM’s trainees that they can pull this with such effortless glee, especially Mark who has taken part in every NCT promotion so far! #rookieoftheyear
It may take some time to find out what the collective body of NCT looks like, if we ever do see it ever as one single entity. It’s clear to see though that they are not going to be easy to pin down as an act, especially when it comes to choreography.
Between them these three young groups are carving out a new path as to what K-pop choreography can be. For Seventeen it can be the perfect expression of your personalities. Cosmic Girls show a dedication to symmetry and perfection, something every group strives for but it takes someone special to pull it off. For NCT the path is full of unknown possibilities and we hope they will continue to push boundaries. For all of them there is an understanding that the single group is not the only way of expressing unity. K-pop performance has become something new where SHINee were once seen as the pinnacle now groups are taking a different route to beauty. They are prepared for change, their individual bodies only small parts of a whole coming together to excite us in ways we never could have imagined. If one of their members leave it won’t be easy for them to rearrange but there is a feeling that they are prepared no matter what.
What do you think of these groups’ choreography? Are there any other groups standing out for you? Share your thoughts and quiz results in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, andTumblr to keep up with all of our posts.