Simultaneously, in another part of the world, Koreans may have been developing their version of rope-walking known as Jultagi. There is no hard evidence of when this practice originated, but many believe that it could date back to as early as 57 BC. Jultagi is now considered an integral part of South Korea’s culture and is even officially included and protected in their list of Important Intangible Cultural Properties.
Korea’s rope walking is far from simply walking on a rope. While most tightropers focus on purely acrobatic skills, the traditional Korean performance of Jultagi is a unique art that distinctively combines music and witty dialogue to tell a story and entertain viewers. The performance generally includes a rope walker who executes a variety of acrobatic feats on the rope, along with jokes, mimicry, song, and dance, while an earthbound clown engages the tightrope walker in joking banter, and a team of musicians plays music to accompany the entertainment.
A ritual to the Gods for a successful rope walk takes place before the performance. After that, the clown will begin to create friendliness and familiarity by sharing food with the audience and lightening the atmosphere while the band heightens the ambience. The tightrope walker starts with simpler feats, gradually moving to more difficult acrobatics that can last several hours. There are more than 40 kinds of Jultagi techniques including leaping with one foot on the line, touching the nose with feet in the air, sitting and lying on the rope, jumping up after kneeling with one knee and then landing on the rope in a cross-legged sitting position, and sometimes pretending to fall down. Only one who has mastered acrobatics, sound, witty talk, and dance through endless practice can walk on the rope.
When such various skills mix and find a balance, the tightrope walking performance becomes an art in and of itself, and the skills of the rope walker are evaluated by his ability to carry out such elements of the performance. While the rope walker performs in the sky, the partner clown rest on the ground. Depending on the atmosphere of the audience, the partner clown sings and dances. He not only facilitates communication between the rope walker and the musician, but also encourages the audience by actively participating in the performance. The main repertoire of the clown dialogue is criticizing and mocking corrupt monks and aristocrats. The rope walker expresses the emotions and sentiments of commoners by performing on the rope and harshly satirizing the nobility on behalf of the commoners. For example, when the rope walker sits cross-legged on the line, it can be representative of the commoners pretending to sit like the fancy aristocrats.
At the climax of the performance, the rope walker begins the act of Salpan. The performer bounces high in the air, executes a complete turn in mid air before sitting cross-legged on the rope. This is when he shows off his best, most demanding techniques. After the excitement dies down with the Salpan, the performance comes to an end.
Today, Jultagi performers are frequently invited to local festivals that take place throughout the country, particularly in spring and autumn. Transmission of tightrope walking in Korea is currently centred in the Jultagi Safeguarding Association in Gyeonggi Province. There are two types of training: apprenticeship education where masters educate practitioners and take on students, and public education which takes various forms such as school training, experience classes, and summer camps.
*Fun Fact: A group of Gibbon athletes visited Korea in 2010 to appear on a television show about the similarities between slacklining and Jultagi, and were shocked to see traditional Jultagi performers doing many tricks very similar to those in slacklining. A between-the-legs butt bounce is now named “The Korean” out of respect for a culture that has been performing it for more than 2000 years.*
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