One of the ways the Korean music industry distinguishes itself from the Western music industry is through the element of performance. Although Western artists also have performances, which can feature choreography, backup dancers, and the like, usually the performance is meant to supplement the music. In contrast, K-pop choreographies are not meant to only highlight the song but actually go hand-in-hand in creating a fully encompassing performance. This focus on performance as a whole is what allows K-pop artists to perform the same song multiple times a week, for weeks, on music shows without the performances becoming repetitive or boring.
In order to showcase how influential performance is in K-pop, here are my top ten picks of the most creative K-pop performances. All ten of these artists took full advantage of the choreography aspect of K-pop.
Notably, these performances are not the only ones to use these elements and many other creative performances exist. But these are performances that stand out to me and I included a brief list at the end of this article of other performances I had considered.
Creativity in storytelling
“Side Effects” (Stray Kids)
The performance of “Side Effects” walks on a razor’s edge between chaos and synchronicity, which is purposeful as the song’s lyrics explore the anxiety that accompanies taking a risk and forging your own path in life. By taking the nine Stray Kids members (at the time) and adding nine backup dancers (I won’t get into my analysis of how each backup dancer is meant to represent an alternate version of each member), Stray Kids are able to create a phenomenal visual. They take moments of simple, clean, perfectly in-sync choreography (1:33-1:38) and intercut those with jarring, organized chaos in which the performers face different angles, stay at different levels, and execute different moves while staying perfectly on the beat (0:46-0:50). This constant change in style coupled with the continued “ripple effect” (1:07-1:09) and the frequent sub-groups in which only some members are dancing (1:26-1:29 or 2:02-2:11) take what could be a normal, powerful boy-group choreography and make it into a captivating performance that perfectly expresses the meaning of the song.
Just like “Side Effects,” “Heroine” fully uses backup dancers as a means of expressing the song’s story through choreography. “Heroine” is about the uncertainty of a relationship that causes both happiness and pain, about not knowing how to proceed. Throughout the performance, Sunmi is surrounded by continually changing numbers of backup dancers; she starts the performance on a chair a distance away from four male dancers before they surround her (1:11), only to be replaced by four female dancers (1:31), etc. These unpredictable, ever-changing numbers and formations quite literally depict the uncertainty detailed in the song. And, when the song finishes with Sunmi walking back to the chair, alone (3:26), there is a sense of finality with no unexpected changes to come. To further the “push and pull” of the relationship, Sunmi is also constantly playing with levels. Using the chair as a prop, she sits on it, stands on it, and even is carried off of it. Similarly, the bounces in the chorus of the song (1:38-1:41) further her indecisiveness in positioning herself. And there is indecisiveness in spacing as well, as Sunmi starts the performance at the back of the stage, to move forward, closer to the audience (1:27), only to end the song by returning to where she started. Although the choreography itself is simple and memorable, through the use of backup dancers and spacing, the performance is a dramatic telling of the story Sunmi is singing.
“Voodoo Doll” (VIXX)
Like Sunmi, VIXX takes a singular prop and through it are able to tell an incredibly eerie story in their “Voodoo Doll” performance. The stick, which is used as both a microphone and a pin used for stabbing voodoo dolls, is passed around seamlessly from member to member throughout the performance. The song is about watching the person you love go through a breakup and, respectively, the stick is used as a microphone as the members dramatically promise to do anything that would make her happy again, and used as a pin to represent both their willingness to harm themselves (by ignoring their feelings and just supporting her) and exact revenge on the other guy. And while using the stick as a pin, the choreography is dark as members stab themselves and each other, not shying away from how sinister the lyrics actually are. Parts of the choreography were actually even changed for the live stages due to broadcast regulations (which is why I linked the dance practice instead); at 1:01-1:04 Ken stabs N, but in live performances, he stabs the floor, and at 1:56-2:05 N stabs Ken, but once again in the live stages N simply raises Ken up with his arm. The effective, and often dark, use of this prop coupled with the members’ purposely stiff, puppet-like movements truly encapsulate the story being told, making “Voodoo Doll” an immensely entertaining performance.
“You and I” (Dreamcatcher)
Like VIXX, Dreamcatcher embraces dark concepts. In fact, each member is supposed to represent a different nightmare in their story universe. “You and I” is a performance in which they show this willingness to portray the ominous. Although the choreography is superficially nothing too dark, minus some vampire imagery (0:14), a sense of being restrained (0:22), clawing (1:52), and frequent references to clocks to give the sense of running out of time (through many precise arm motions), Dami’s rap is where they truly showcase the dark aspect of this performance. The song is an incredibly sinister profession of love, centering around the idea of being together in dreams, or more aptly nightmares. Dami’s “magic trick” (1:37) is a reference to the song’s music video in which she uses the stick to break out of a glass dome. And, just like in the music video, Dami uses the stick to “shake” the stage (1:42). But instead of any sort of escape from a dome, in the performance, her gesture is followed by the rest of the members alluding to strangling themselves with handkerchiefs (1:44-1:48), which is clearly not any sort of escape as the members then continue to dance with no change to their reality. This performance hints at an inability to escape the toxic relationship depicted in the lyrics of the song through reference to their music video (which is, alongside performances, an essential part of K-Pop) and Dreamcatcher’s ability to portray darkness onstage.
“Tomorrow, Today” (JJ Project)
Although certainly not the only time mirrors have been used in K-pop performances, “Tomorrow, Today” uses a mirror perfectly to depict the song’s discussion of preparing for the future while being limited by the present. As both present and future (today and tomorrow) are not exact mirrors of each other, neither are JB and Jinyoung. The two start the performance by directly mirroring each other (playing with levels and a chair just like Sunmi), but their different stage outfits are the first indication that they are not perfect mirrors. At 0:39 the mirror’s frame disappears from the stage and Jinyoung steps on a chair behind JB as the two proceed to copy each other’s moves rather than mirroring them. This transitions into a synchronized chorus (0:56) which includes suddenly present backup dancers. The rest of the performance contains a blend of synchronized actions, mirrored ones (including a reappearance of the mirror frame prop), and even some solo parts where Jinyoung focuses on singing while JB continues to dance with the backup dancers (1:18-1:21). Although maybe “Tomorrow, Today’s” choreography does not rely on the controlled chaos that “Side Effects” does to express concern about the future, through simplistic choreography this performance effectively demonstrates the confusion between the intersection of your present and planning ahead for your future.
“Black Swan” (BTS)
“Black Swan” relies on artistic choreography not typically found in K-pop performances, which is the point as the song is about the fear of losing one’s passion for creating (in BTS’ case, the fear of losing passion for making music). Throughout the performance, the members enter and leave the stage which is surrounded by forest imagery, evoking a sense of getting lost or wandering. At times the members dance in perfect synchronicity (1:01-1:08) and at other moments their choreography, angles, and levels are different in order to create beautiful visuals (3:04-3:13). In my opinion, the changes between the solos or sub-group parts, the synchronization, and the differing choreography are to represent how BTS functions as artists; even amongst their group they release solos and work in collaborative units, and even when they release songs with all seven members they rely on the others’ strengths for their performances. As much as they fear the thought of losing passion for their craft, they function as a group and ultimately rely on one another.
And, of course, it would be a disservice to this song to not mention the performance piece done by MN Dance Company, which is a five-minute-long art film with different choreography from what BTS performs. Sadly, it would be far too much of an endeavor to try to analyze it too.
Other notable creativity
“First Love” (AfterSchool)
Although most K-pop songs have accompanying choreography, which can vary from easy, memorable moves to intense, powerful ones, I could have included any of AfterSchool’s performances in this list for how passionately they tried new skills and incorporated them into their stages. For “Bang!” they learned how to play the drums, they tap-danced for “Let’s Step Up,” and for “First Love,” the song I ultimately chose, they incorporated incredibly difficult elements of pole dancing into their performance. Throughout the entire song, members not only use the poles to perform acrobatic-like skills, but they even take advantage of the raised platforms (1:04-1:09) to add dimension to their stage. Not only was the idea of using pole dancing for a performance surprising, but the flawless integration of the skill makes the performance not only simply creative but beautiful to watch.
“Butterfly” (Weki Meki)
Unlike the rest of the performances on this list, “Butterfly” does not boast any powerful choreography and although the members’ synchronicity is well utilized to create some beautiful visuals (2:00-2:05) and unique moments (3:11-3:23), the creativity behind this performance lies in their incorporation of sign language into the choreography. Throughout the performance the moves are very simple, relying mostly on sign language to express the lyrics of the song. The performance shows a choice to forego the normal K-Pop attempt at impressive, captivating choreography and focus instead on making the performance accessible to a wide audience. And, of course, it makes sense that the choreography was more direct and universal as the song was released for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Although sign language does not define “Thanks'” choreography like in “Butterfly,” the members sign “thanks” at 2:29. Similarly, although not a part of sign language, they make a gesture for “promise” at the beginning of the song in their performances (which is not included in this linked video since I felt that this camera angle was better served for showing off the formations and overall stunning effect of the dance). Throughout this choreography, Seventeen relies on their 13 members and incredible synchronization to create stunning visual images, including using their formations to spell out “T H X” (for thanks) at 1:26 and 2:26 (which can be seen from above). Although practically every Seventeen choreography could be included in this list for their innovative formations, jaw-dropping synchronicity, and great storytelling ability, “Thanks” was the first song that came to my mind when assembling this list and I think the video speaks for itself without me explaining any further.
Much like Seventeen, LOONA relies on their 12 members to provide interesting variations in formations, in “Butterfly” in particular, often creating visual images of a butterfly, while using their synchronicity to make their performances exciting to watch. Like many groups in this list, they are not afraid to break into sub-group sections in order to play with levels and angles, creating a performance you cannot look away from.
Other amazing performances
Of course, I have biased opinions and have not seen every performance ever, but to further my list here are the other songs that I debated adding.
AfterSchool’s Bang! & Let’s Step Up, Astro’s Hide and Seek, Ateez’s Hala Hala, BOA’s Woman, BTS’ Boy Meets Evil, Chungha’s Gotta Go, Itzy’s Wannabe, KNK’s Sunset, NCT U’s Seventh Sense, NCT127’s Cherry Bomb, Red Velvet’s Be Natural, Seventeen’s Don’t Wanna Cry & Getting Closer & Left and Right, Sf9’s K.O, SHINee’s Everbody & Lucifer, Taemin’s Move & Idea, VIXX’s On and On.