Gay choreographer and SMU alum Joshua L. Peugh returns to Texas with his Korean troupe’s U.S. debut


HEAD OVERSEAS | Choreographer Joshua L. Peugh, who spent six years dancing in Korea, brings what he learned as an ex-pat to the American debut of his Dark Circles dance company. (Photo by Sergio Garcia)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

When Joshua Peugh graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in dance in 2006, he accepted a plum position with a renowned ballet company. The thing was, the troupe was in Korea. Still, that didn’t deter him a bit.

“I loved living in Korea,” he gushes about his six years there. He was accustomed to living in culturally diverse surroundings. Peugh grew up in Las Cruces, N.M., less than a hour from the Mexican border, and was exposed to Latin culture early.

“Hispanic culture is similar to Korean culture because family is No. 1 — it’s about the group more than the individual,” he says. The choreographer in him might even call it esprit de corps.

But when the Fort Worth dance legend called Peugh in late 2011 and invited him to join his new company, the Bruce Wood Dance Project, he decided it was a good time to return to friends and family in Texas.

“It was a job I could not turn down, but I really connected with Korean culture,” he says.

Earlier this summer, Peugh left BWDP — not to form his own company, but to present its American debut.

Peugh started Dark Circles Contemporary Dance in Seoul three years ago, and even after he left Korea, the company continued. It makes its U.S. debut in Fort Worth this week. And like its Asian counterpart, this company reflects Peugh’s own pan-continental sensibilities: Korean themes and music filtered through the eyes of an American expatriate.

Peugh has some unique perspectives on that dichotomy — how Americans perceive themselves versus how much of the world does — from his stint overseas. After he personally observed American soldiers throwing bottles at an old Korean man and heckling him to “speak English,” he “made it a specific point to stop meeting ex-pats and westerners and spend all my time with the Koreans,” he says. “Some — the older generation — would say, ‘We love Americans — they helped us during the war, I have friends who are American.’ The opposite was a man [who assaulted me] when they found out I was American. I think we are geniuses at self-deception — we view ourselves very differently. That’s kind of what my new work is about.”

One of the works, which Peugh was working on while with BWDP and inspired by his Korean experience, was originally called The Great American Shit Show. He has since changed that.

“I realized it was more important to get people in to see it than to make a political point [with the title],” he says. “Most of the time, when I’m making a dance [I’m] trying to figure out an issue I’m working on in my life. Everyone brings their own perspective and experiences to the table. That’s why I never include program notes —I don’t want to tell people what it’s about.”

The piece, he stresses, is not in itself “traditional” Korean dance, as Peugh is not himself Korean. It’s a hybrid.

Screen shot 2013-09-18 at 4.19.18 PM“People have this idea of Korea either as rice paddy where we had a war or think of Korea as only North Korea with this crazy guy with a nuclear weapon. That wasn’t the Korea I love and wanted to show it was something beautiful. I’m using traditional Korean music and some Korean movement, but that’s not my culture — it’s my perspective of that culture. So I mix it with drumline music, which helps me decide how I fit in these two worlds,” he says.

Peugh is even working with a Fort Worth-based costume designer who is unfamiliar with native fabrics, which he’s embracing to make this an American work as well as one with Asian influences. (Most of his dancers are local, the one veteran of the Korean company has created an American premiere piece called Fighting Games for this production.)

Peugh has high hopes for Dark Circles’ American arm, but his aspirations aren’t to headline at the Winspear in two years. His aesthetic is more intimate than that.

“I’m interested in smaller black box theaters, not the proscenium houses,” he says of his decision to debut at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. “The patrons that go to see dance performances [in most companies in the U.S.] are white women 45 to 55; our audiences in Korea were young professionals and students. That’s who I want to cultivate.

With dance, you’re building something with the audience. If you can be closer physically to the work, you will be more involved in it.”

And, he hopes, that narrower divide will unite not just artist and patron, but our different worlds.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 20, 2013.