Monday, August 25, 2008

Day 3 (part 2) - gymanstics

Alright, now the circus. It's really been a while since I've seen a real circus, and they didn't disappoint. The gymnastics and the trapeze works were fairly impressive, and interspersed between them were various magic/gag acts. Everything seemed fairly safe to me, not like some things that could be possible in a Communist country. A small band accompanied everything, with the help of some strange Communist-sounding electronic sounds.

I found the second act to be an absolute riot, though I may be alone here. A magician in a funny looking suit came out, and asked for a volunteer from the audience. He picked a woman, and they went onstage. After messing around for a bit, she went into a black cloth enclosure, with two holes for her white-gloved hands. They started talking about some things, and she did some things with her hands, like tying a handkerchief and whatever. It was pretty obvious to me that it was somebody else's hands doing the moving, because her shoulders didn't even move with her hands. Eventually, even the audience started catching on to this - when she occasionally reached up to scratch 'her' face or whatever, people started laughing. Finally, she took her hands out, and went and sat back down. Then the white hands poked out of the cloth again, sans body, making what everybody knew even more obvious. The magician hurriedly ran over to put them back in, and continued with the rest of the act, pulling down the cloth to reveal...nothing. Then, just as the lights were coming down, he 'accidentally' pulled the cloth over a little further, to reveal the lady hiding underneath it, dressed in tight black clothes. At which point there was nothing at all magic left in the act, it was just pure comedy. It whole thing seemed like a good metaphor for our entire trip - despite all the bells and whistles they were constantly showing us, they didn't really expect to be able to change our minds about anything.

The circus was fun, but the real attraction was still to come. The Mass Games are truly the greatest show on earth. As our guides never hesitated to remind us, it holds the Guinness world record for the biggest performance, with around 100,000 performers. And, just as we were approaching the beautifully lit stadium, with all the crowds of people surrounding it, my camera batteries decided to run out of juice. So again I'm hoping my tripmates upload good stuff..

As we got into the stadium, opposite us was a huge wall of schoolkids with big colored notecards. In a feat of coordination that would probably be impossible in any other political system, thousands of them flipped their cards in a coordinated display to make images. There were so many of them that even the cards flapping made a sound that resonated throughout the stadium. And then the lights dimmed and the thing begun...

Thousands of dancers came onto the floor, in something that looked a lot like the Olympics opening ceremony. There was evidently a meaningful story behind all of this. First Korea was under Japanese occupation, and then there was obviously a nuclear bomb...actually the story kind of ends there, as our guide was out cold for most of the rest of the performance. I didn't try to wake her. No matter, there was no shortage of things to look at, and most things had a pretty obvious meaning. There was a Taekwondo act - very nicely done so that the motions were big enough to see from a great distance, but still very natural-looking - and something with children jump-roping. Also a weird one with dancing bunnies and eggs. And some gymnastics - nothing extremely elaborate, but I had to wonder how they could get so friggin many of them with at least that basic level of talent.

One act was clearly the highlight of the performance. The lights dimmed, and focused on a metal ring suspended high above the stadium floor. (I mean high; one of our guides later told us 70 meters.) Two people were hanging on the ring as it slowly moved across to the center of the arena; they climbed down until one was fully supported by the other. Then he was only holding on with one hand...then she let go and dropped down towards the floor. The whole stadium watched as she seemingly floated there - a couple of seconds, but she was so high that it only seemed like she wasn't moving. She wasn't suspended by any sort of cables. Some people - not me, of course - were relieved when then lights turned on to reveal a net below to catch her just in time. But later, I really did get a little bit nervous, when they started shooting people out of some kind of catapult device onto the net. They would have somebody sitting on the net, just a few feet away, to counterbalance their momentum when they landed. Had there been any contact, that would have been disastrous for both of them. But their whole system had pinpoint accuracy. One of the catapultees - travelling head, not hand, first - went right through that metal ring, not much more than a body length wide. Though it may be hard to visualize without pictures, these guys were travelling a long way. I would guesstimate they were in the air for four seconds, and where they landed was more than halfway across the soccer-sized field. Putting this guy through the ring was really threading a needle, and - as flawless as the execution was - I have to say I was a little bit glad when this act was over.

The whole thing in fact was without any kind of major incident, which is just incredible considering the number of people involved. Though I was kind of skeptical about the whole thing, and the fact that we had to come see it as the reason we were getting our visas, the blog descriptions I had read before coming truly didn't do it justice. As much as the North Koreans may have screwed themselves over economically to make this spectacle, you just have to sit back and admire it for what it is, because something like that simply doesn't exist anywhere else in the world.

After that, we were all kind of tired, I think. Basically most of the major points of the trip I had been looking forward to were already accomplished, and we had just one more day.


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