After the whoops and cheers half an hour earlier, the auditorium feels strangely quiet. The smiling faces on stage – mirrored by those in the crowd – have gone, and the audience has left. Another successful performance of Hi-Kick is over, and everyone has gone away happy – and why wouldn’t they?
Having walked into the theatre with a degree of scepticism, I’m now a complete convert. Football and dance can, it would appear, occupy the same stage without either form losing out. Football fans had their appetite for fancy footwork satiated, dance fans saw some impressive choreography. Both could see the remarkable skill involved in fusing the two together.
Following the fortunes of two football teams – one slick and professional, the other well-meaning but inept – Hi-Kick is a straightforward “underdog-comes-good” tale. Using dance, physical comedy and intricate ball control, the nine performers take us from hope to heroism, forging friendships and even a little romance along the way.
A collaboration between SAN Theatre and Seol & Company, the show was developed in South Korea, but with an eye firmly on the global market. So what better, and completely non-verbal, subject to reach out to international audiences than football? I may not speak the same language as the people who surround me in this theatre on the outskirts of Seoul – but we all understand the pain of losing, the joy of winning, and the spirit of collaboration Hi-Kick espouses.
The theatre itself, like most buildings in the South Korean capital, is modern. It’s also in a vast shopping centre, which might feel incongruous to British sensibilities, but is a great way to bring art to the masses. From here, Hi-Kick is transferring to Edinburgh. For some involved in the production, visiting Edinburgh is nothing new. They enjoyed previous Fringe success with shows such as Chef! and Jump!
For one cast member, however, the entire experience of performing on stage is novel. Discovering this is something of a surprise to me, and it’s not the only one. The “underdog” team comprises a male ballet dancer, chef, martial arts expert and a schoolgirl – and it’s the girl who catches the eye. With a petite build that belies her strength, Kasidinthorn Supakarnkamjorn looks like a teenager and embodies her character perfectly. Speaking to her after the show, however, it transpires that, not only is she well out of her teens (she is 27), but Hi-Kick is the first production she has ever performed in.
“I’d never been in a show before,” she says, “so I had to learn how to dance and act and be a performer. I only had one skill to begin with, and that’s ball control. But my character is a high school girl, and I used to like playing football at that age, so I just became my younger self, and used those feelings.” Supakarnkamjorn admits it was hard to learn the dance moves, but unlike some of the cast, getting to grips with the ball was a breeze. In her native Thailand, Supakarnkamjorn has won gold medals and played at national level in Sepaktakraw, a mix of volleyball, football, martial arts and gymnastics, which she has been playing since she was eight.
When Hi-Kick auditions were held, Supakarnkamjorn decided to go and asked her sister to take her. “She was only going to drive me to the audition,” says Supakarnkamjorn, “but when I told the director my sister was even better than me at Sepaktakraw, he asked to see her, so now she’s in the show, too. The performance is really tiring, and my elbows, ankles and knees sometimes hurt. The company wanted to make sure we didn’t get injured, so I perform one day, and she performs the next.”
Supakarnkamjorn and her sister may have had existing ball skills, but they still had to learn how to incorporate them into the show. Along with the rest of the cast, they rehearsed from 10am to 10pm, six days a week, for one year, then five days a week for a further six months. For Youngjo Choi, who plays the chef in the underdog team, those early days in rehearsal were fraught with anxiety.
“I was a kick boxer originally,” he explains. “Then I became an actor and had to train in martial arts to be in Jump! Although I was a fan of football, before Hi-Kick I had never really played it. At the start of rehearsals, I didn’t do very well and made lots of mistakes. I didn’t have the skill to stop the ball or pass it and that was upsetting. Now that I’ve learned those skills, I’m a bigger football fan than before, I really respect what they do.”
Responsible for drilling the team, and keeping morale high, was Hi-Kick director, Junghwan Yoon. During auditions he was on the look-out for a range of skills, not just footballing prowess, but admits it wasn’t easy to get the show to the level it’s at now.
“It was hard to find people who had great football skills,” says Yoon. “But I held auditions, saw what they could do, and their potential with training. Some of the performers used to play football when they were younger, but most of them had been nowhere near a football ground. So we had to watch lots of games together, live and on television, and really study football.”
Yoon brought in a trainer to show the cast basic moves, but most of the ball skills you see in Hi-Kick were devised by Yoon and the cast, then incorporated into the dancing by choreographer Lee Lanyoung, who trained in London and has worked on some of South Korea’s biggest musicals.
“It took 18 months and was really hard, both physically and mentally,” says Yoon. “We had to repeat every football move more than 100 times within the choreo-graphy, and that for me was the hardest part. For the performers, it was exhausting – they had to train like real football players.”
All their efforts have paid off, because the skills on display in Hi-Kick are genuinely impressive. But that’s not all the show has going for it. Yoon didn’t set out to recreate a Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford, he wanted to make a piece of theatre, with all the associated human emotions that go with it. Not to mention some very enjoyable dance, ranging from contemporary to ballet to hip hop.
“Hi-Kick is performed in the theatre, it’s on stage not on the field,” says Yoon. “It has to be enjoyable for an audience, so I was aiming to make a performance, not just a game of football. Each skill is repeated several times, to turn it into a piece of choreography, not a training exercise.”
• Hi-Kick, Assembly Hall, until 27 August. Today, 4.05pm.