Top left to bottom right: Kang Taehyun, Choi Yeonjun, Erin Bowers (MDC), Selina Huang (MDC), Virginia Moresi (MDC), Choi Soobin, Choi Beomgyu, Huening Kai, Emma Weber (MDC) and Bryce Saavedra (MDC)

Auditioning for national K-Pop dance competitions is standard fare for Auckland’s five-piece group, Memes Dance Crew (MDC). Making it to Wellington’s K-Culture Festival was a miracle in itself, but advancing beyond that was just a dream — until it came true. Performing a cover of ‘CROWN’, the debut song from superstar rookie group Tomorrow By Together (TXT), MDC’s journey took them all the way to South Korea, where backstage at the 2019 Changwon K-pop World Festival, they caught the attention of their idols: TXT themselves. 

I recently met with Bryce Saavedra, Virginia Moresi, and Selina Huang, at Auckland’s High Street Korean dessert parlour, Mellow, to chat about their once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

MDC was formed in 2016 when Huang, a high school senior at the time, was asked to organise a group to perform at a local festival. “I’ve grown up with them,” says Huang. “I was a trainee and then I debuted,” she laughs, riffing on the K-Pop industry process in which idols work as trainees for a period of time before debuting in the industry.

Despite having now performed to 30,000 people in South Korea, MDC are quick to remind themselves that they are just regular people with regular lives. Saavedra recently graduated from AUT with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering (Honours) and Huang is about to enter tertiary study for the first time. “We’re not really a formal crew that does auditions or an initiation,” says Moresi. 

Spontaneity is the game for this crew as most dance covers are decided on the spot. “It depends on who’s free and such because of work schedules,” says Saavedra. “We’re getting a bit older now.” When I ask them how old they are, Moresi jokes: “Korean age?” referring to Korea’s custom that everyone is a one-year-old from date of birth and gets a year older each New Year’s Day, so you wind up being older in Korea than internationally. 

The stars aligned for MDC when they decided to enter two teams into the Wellington K-Festival. “I feel like we’re a very competition based team,” says Saavedra. “We’ll just be silent the whole year and then some competition will pop up and suddenly everyone’s free.” Competing crews must replicate a K-Pop song, right down to the exact amount of group members, meaning MDC’s usual twelve-member crew became five, including Emma Weber, 22, and Erin Bowers, 21.

“Our plan was just to get to Wellington because we didn’t get in last year,” says Saavedra. “Miraculously we got in. So we’re buzzing out; flights to Wellington. We said just have fun with it, don’t expect anything from Wellington. Anything after that we did not expect at all.” 

South Korea wasn’t new for some members of MDC, who had visited before. But for Moresi and Bowers, the cultural explosion was something remarkable. “When we found out that we were going to Korea I was at work, getting missed calls,” says Moresi. “I thought it must be a scam.” It was not. Amongst an all-expenses paid trip to the homeland of K-Pop, MDC sported hanbok (traditional Korean attire), rehearsed an awful lot, and although not dissimilar from their eating habits at home, ate Korean food. “We eat a lot of Korean food on the daily here [in NZ],” says Saavedra. “The most unique thing I think we had [in Korea] was live octopus.” They recall mixed reactions from the group. “That was awesome. I was going at it,” says Huang. 

Anticipation built with every hour until performance day arrived and MDC took to the stage to perform ‘CROWN’, even lip-syncing to their own professionally produced vocal track. I confess to the members that I may be responsible for the majority of YouTube views of their audio cover. “Why would you do that to yourself?” laughs Moresi. It may come as a surprise though, that recording the Korean pronunciation was the least of their worries. “It was just strangers there, all professionals. You’re in there by yourself, not with your members,” says Huang. The group gives high praise to fellow member, Bowers, who is the most fluent in Korean and therefore took on the rapping section. “We’ve always been ambitious,” Moresi says. “But it was real nerve-wracking.” Watch below:

Their ambition paid off, because what they didn’t know was that the original artists of the song they performed were set to surprise them backstage. Meeting TXT was an honour for MDC and just recounting the event makes their hearts race. “I was down-buzzed the whole time,” Saavedra says as MDC’s translator, Bradley Yoon, had very slyly downplayed TXT’s presence at the festival, convincing the group that their idols weren’t going to surprise them. Despite this, they speak fondly of Yoon. “Get him to New Zealand,” Moresi jokes. “GoFundMe.”

Tomorrow By Together (TXT) is comprised of five members; Choi Soobin, Choi Yeonjun, Choi Beomgyu, Kang Taehyun and Huening Kai. Fans are called MOA, which stands for Moments of Alwaysness and is unrelated to the extinct native NZ bird. Having taken on the choreography of each member in TXT, MDC prepared Kiwi-themed gifts for the members, in the hopes they’d actually be able to give it to them. “Cameras had been set up so we could review our rehearsal performance,” says Huang. But in reality it was a ploy to capture the meeting on tape. There’s a visible, infectious energy shared between the two groups as they introduce themselves, below:

“I gave Soobin a sheep that squeaked and he kept playing with it,” says Huang. I’m told he was entranced by the sheep plushie, purchased from Rotorua’s Agrodome, for much of their encounter and that he loved it. Other members received a koru necklace, Whittaker’s chocolates, Kiwiana socks, our national spread Marmite and our famous soft drink, L&P. We joke that TXT’s producer Bang Si-hyuk totally has a stash of the L&P in his office that he enjoys on occasion. “They felt like really genuine people,” Saavedra says of TXT. “There was not this ‘idol vs. fans’ thing. They were down to earth.” Later, TXT reacted to MDC’s live streamed performance, below:

Much has changed since MDC formed. “We used to practice in AUT, in a public mirror space,” says Moresi. Auckland’s Chancery Square has now become K-pop central: “You see other groups practicing so we almost have to fight for our spot. It’s more out-there.” Other crews such as K-Pop Dance Auckland (KDA) have raised the profile of K-Pop dance with performances at the Armageddon Expo. “There was a K-Pop showcase and there were around twenty performances. Whereas in our time, when we were performing it was one or two crews facing each other,” Moresi says of the pop-culture expo. 

It’s an empirical fact that in the last few years, Korean music has rooted itself in western society. What we’re seeing in NZ is a gradual penetration of the pop-culture zeitgeist, from BTS reaching No.1 on the Albums chart with two releases to TVNZ’s upcoming K-Pop Academy series hosted by choreographer Rina Chae. Speaking on western society’s rampant xenophobia and unwillingness to engage with foreign artists, Saavedra argues that K-Pop’s growth is undeniable. “We shouldn’t bash idols or fans for their love of K-Pop,” says Saavedra. “At the end of the day, it’s the same as any other hobby or lifestyle choice.”

If anybody new to K-Pop needs a taster of hot tracks, MDC give their personal recommendations of ‘Euphoria’ by BTS, ‘CROWN’ by TXT, and ‘Psycho’ by Red Velvet, the latter of which was covered by MDC, below:

When I suggest that K-Pop has brought a diverse bunch of Aucklanders together, Saavedra is quick to give his stance. “We’ve got pretty much every culture but we just bond,” says Saavedra. “MDC isn’t just about K-Pop. I reckon we’re just good mates.” That’s what has sustained MDC since the beginning. And it took them all the way to Korea.

Saavedra sums up the entire experience. “I felt like I’d won the Lotto.”