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A NEW La Bayadere.

ONE'S FIRST disconcerting sight of Seoul is that it looks very much like any other modern Asian metropolis. Plonked down in the skyscrapered middle of it, a Westerner would, I think, have difficulty in knowing whether he was in Seoul, South Korea, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, or even, perhaps nowadays, Shanghai. It is a huge, sprawling city--with a larger population than New York, and traffic impenetrables that could make even Cairo's clogged main streets seem like a freeway.

I was not, however, drawn to Seoul to inspect the traffic, but to see the ballet--and South Korea is fascinating in that even more than most Asian nations, it has become particularly hospitable to Western culture, including, of course, Western dance. Looking back over the past few decades of dance, two major trends, often passing generally unobserved, are underlined, almost symbolized, by the presence of Korea's Universal Ballet and its recent, splendidly effective new production of Marius Petipa's 1877 Russian masterpiece La Bayadere at the Sejong Cultural Center here in Seoul. And those two trends? Simply the phenomenally rapid growth of classical ballet in Southeast Asia and the spreading, enlarging Russian influence on world ballet since the end of the Cold War, enabling Russian dancers, teachers, and choreographers to spread their wings freely and fly West--or South.

Korea already had, and still has, a government-subsidized national ballet. However, that has been certainly nudged out of the international picture by the Universal Ballet, which was founded fifteen years ago and remains largely funded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church and, in more popular parlance, the Moonies. Originally it was intended as an appropriate living memorial to Moon's son following his death in a car crash, for his widow, Julia A. Moon, was then a more than promising dancer. Born in Washington, D.C., she studied first in Seoul, then later at the Royal Ballet School and with Marika Besobrasova in Monte Carlo. Briefly dancing with both the Ohio Ballet and the Washington Ballet, she returned to Korea upon the founding of the Universal Ballet.

In its first season the company offered a staging of Cinderella, with Julia Moon in the title role, partnered by the late Patrick Bissell, then a principal with the American Ballet Theater. However it might have appeared at the time, this was not really a matter of nepotism. Soon after the company's founding I recall seeing a group of its dancers at Jacob's Pillow, led by Julia Moon and Jean-Charles Gil, and being impressed then by her dancing. Today she is not only the company's prima ballerina but also its general director, and the troupe itself, which this past summer had a considerable success in a European tour through Hungary, Italy, and Spain, is emerging as a major player in world dance.

Even in the time since it was first seen in New York at City Center in April 1998, it has significantly improved and matured. Considering all the Asian ballet companies deserving international attention--including those in Japan, mainland China and Hong Kong--Universal Ballet must now be counted as among the most interesting, ambitious, and accomplished.

Yet the company is also odd in some ways. Not only is it an impressive indicator of Asia's growing impact on dance (more than eighty percent of the dancers are Asian, mostly Korean), it is unique in having its main school seven thousand miles away from Korea in Washington, D.C. A few years ago Dr. Bo Hi Pak--father of Julia Moon, a high executive of the Unification Church's business interests, the chairman and president of the Universal Ballet and the Korean Cultural Foundation, and seemingly the energizing force behind the company itself--invited Oleg Vinogradov, then director of St. Petersburg's Kirov Ballet, to open a "Kirov Academy of Dance" in Washington, D.C.

This academy, still run by Vinogradov, with his former wife, Yelena Vinogradova, as his deputy, is the official school of the Universal Ballet, although there is a smaller feeder school in Seoul. The 62-year-old Vinogradov (now ousted from the Kirov by Valery Gergiev's regime), who was at first Universal Ballet's "artistic advisor," is now its full-time artistic director. He follows in the wake of Adrienne Dellas, Daniel Levans, Roy Tobias, and, most recently, Bruce Stievel.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian dancers and choreographers have flocked out of Russia like migrating birds, and although this Korean troupe has only a few Russian dancers, it has an almost completely Russian ballet staff, and nowadays, virtually an all-Russian repertory. This new and sumptuous La Bayadere, staged by Natalia Spitsyna and Vinogradov, is a precise reproduction of the Kirov staging, which varies a lot from the Natalia Makarova version created for American Ballet Theater and now given by many Western companies, although this Korean Bayadere has much in common with Rudolf Nureyev's production for the Paris Opera Ballet.

Both the more authentic Kirov version and the more theatrical Makarova have their particular virtues, and I admire both more or less equally. The Korean production is visually a stunner. The Russian designer Marianna Zentchenko has done a glamorous and affectionate period pastiche of the nineteenth-century ballet--sweetly old-fashioned and, in its own traditional way, handsomely spectacular, with a wonderful dummy elephant and other appealing nineteenth-century balletic effects. This version, of course, unlike Makarova's, has no last act, where that temple crumbles, killing all and sundry, while Nikia leads Solor, wandering off into some nearby Nirvana. That act has been lost in Russia, and in Makarova's version it features her own choreography, apart from the dance of the Golden Idol, abducted from Gamzatti's betrothal scene.

Incidentally, I wonder when that last act was abandoned in Russia. I suspect it was as recently as 1931, when it was staged at the Kirov by Vladimir Ponomarev and Vaktung Chabukiani, with the latter completely rechoreographing in his own virtuoso image the role of Solor. However, Nikolai Sergeyev--the man who brought the Stepanov notations of Petipa's choreography out of Russia at the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution--did have notations of La Bayadere, and he planned in 1948 to produce at least part of the ballet for Mona Inglesby's International Ballet in London, as a vehicle for Nana Gollner and Paul Petroff. The idea was dropped in rehearsal--but I imagine that Stepanov notations of La Bayadere are still in the Harvard library, now the repository of all the Sergeyev manuscripts. It would be well worth some dance scholar's time to investigate.

The company--which well might bring this Bayadere to New York for its planned season at the New York State Theater in 2001--supplements its fifty-six-strong roster of dancers with about fifty students, many of whom have serious dancing to do. The style of the company is basic Russian, even KirovRussian, and that delightful former Kirov ballerina Galina Kekisheva is its current ballet mistress. But this is no slavish imitation, and a special charming individuality is already making itself evident.

For this first capacity audience run (the theater holds 3,400 people), there were four different casts, of which I saw three. All of them had real and exciting quality--the youth of the company and its unaffected verve give a special accent to everything it touches. The corps de ballet, as was very much noticed in New York in 1998, has a quite remarkable cohesion to it, and even when necessarily supplemented with students (not all from the company school), it was able to offer a softly lambent quality to the Kingdom of the Shades scene. Even if every arabesque penche was not entirely perfect, the timing was as exquisite as the gravity of the style.

Among the ballerinas, I was most impressed with the soft, lyric maturity of Julia Moon as the temple dancer Nikia and the bright promise of a questing 17-year-old American, Adrienne Canterna (a graduate of the Washington School), as Nikia's aristocratic rival Gamzatti. Moon--as will be recalled perhaps from her Odette--is a natural Romantic dancer, and I would love to see her Giselle. The young Canterna has a dramatic flair and unforced technical aplomb.

I missed Hye-Kyung Lim, but of the two other Nikias I caught, Sun-Hee Park, also remembered from New York, proved particularly forceful and yet poetically stylish, while Eun-Sun Jeon, if less securely confident, had her own impressive, well-placed virtues. The three Solors (that sadly vacillating hero) I saw, Jae-Hong Park, Jae-Won Hwang, and Hyuk-Ku Kwon, all partnered well but danced with more bravery than bravura, although of the three, Kwon appeared to have the most secure technique. I was sorry to miss the fourth Solor, the Romanian-born, Washington-trained Dragos Mihalcea, who had impressed me as Siegfried in New York.

The two very young character dancers, Min-Young Cho and Ji-Hoon Yeom, brilliantly sharing the virtuoso role of the Golden Idol, seemed more at home with their role than did the Solors, and indeed there was quality in the character work, also notable as the various Fakirs and in the second-act Indian Dance, included in this version as are the Parrot Dance and the solo of the Girl balancing the jar on her head. The mime roles mostly lacked something in authority, and as the Chief Brahmin, the veteran Russian Nikolai Ostaltsov stood out like a good deed in a naughty world.

Later this year, Universal Ballet is undertaking a brief United States tour, playing theaters where it would not be possible to perform La Bayadere. However, in 2001, I hope it takes the risk to bring this lavish production to New York despite the size of the undertaking, for it does show this fifteen-year-old company to maximum advantage.
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Title Annotation:ballet in South Korea
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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