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Battle of the ballets.

The beginning of the year is when concert-goers plan ahead for which performances to mark on their calendars. In the ballet genre, the two major ballet companies in Korea _ Korean National Ballet and Universal Ballet _ will be competing back to back this year in overlapping months with overlapping performances. Fortunately, the dates don't coincide so ballet lovers can grab performances from both companies and enjoy comparing them.

Cherry picking

The months of March, April, June and December are when the two companies will be battling back to back with performances, at times with the same repertoire. But there are unique ones that stand out from both companies.

In February, the Korean National Ballet (KNB) will welcome Olympic guests in PyeongChang, showcasing two performances from Feb. 10 to 12 at the Gangneung Arts Center.

One of them is "Heonan Seolheon _ Soowol Gyeonghwa," a creative piece newly introduced by the company. The ballet is inspired by two poems written by Heonan Seolheon, a female writer and poet during the mid-Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). She was a pioneer during the 16th century when she became the first female artist active in public at a time when women were discouraged from pursuing professional careers or being openly vocal.

Choreographer and soloist Kang Hyo-hyung who created the movements to the piece is a rising star who was nominated for the 2017 Benois de la Danse, a prestigious dance award often compared to the Oscars.

Another piece that the KNB will showcase during the Olympics is "Anna Karenina," based on the novel written by Leo Tolstoy. Despite initial criticism about staging a non-Korean piece during a sporting event held here, the ballet was fairly well received by critics when the company staged it last year. Artistic director Kang Sue-jin said she picked a globally well-known piece for the Olympics because she wanted it to resonate with international audiences. The piece boasts visually captivating flamboyant costumes. It will also be performed in Seoul from June 22 to 24 at the Seoul Arts Center. Another piece offered by KNB that stands out this year is "The Taming of the Shrew," based on the Shakespearean comedy. Choreographed by John Cranko, this is one of the very few cases of a comedy turned into a ballet. It breaks the tradition of ballet's gracefulness with comical movements by the dancers. The company holds a unique license for this ballet in Asia so it will be a rare opportunity to watch the performance.

Meanwhile, the Universal Ballet has its own set of differentiators.

The company kicks off with an annual gala performance which is like a buffet of all of its major repertoires. This year's performance held from March 2 to 4 at the Seoul Arts Center includes "Giselle," "La Bayadere," "Don Quixote," "Swan Lake," "The Love of Chunhyang," "Onegin" and Mariinsky's version of "Romeo and Juliet." It will also feature two modern ballet pieces.

Another piece to take note of is "The Love of Chunhyang" which will stage from June 9 to 10 at the Seoul Arts Center as part of Ballet Festival Korea. The piece is based on the traditional love story between Chunhyang and Mongryong, often likened to Romeo and Juliet. The piece returns after four years to Korean audiences, following a renewal in 2014 after its third performance. The piece is gaining global traction, being invited to the Royal Opera House Muscat of Oman in 2015, and is scheduled to be performed in Colombia in September this year.

The third performance to mark off is "La Bayadere," a love story between Indian temple dancer Nikiya and warrior Solor. The Universal Ballet will co-stage the performance with the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Recognized as a difficult masterpiece for performers, this piece is also a costly one that requires hundreds of dancers as well as costumes to fit them all. The Universal Ballet was the first to introduce this piece in Korea in 1999 and has also showcased it in the U.S. at the Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center and the Los Angeles Music Center in 2001.

Compare and contrast

In addition to the annual competition with "The Nutcracker" in December, which is always a sellout performance for both ballet companies, the two companies will compete with "Giselle," as the Universal Ballet's interpretation returns after four years and the KNB's after three.

The KNB's "Giselle" comes first from March 21 to 25 at the Seoul Arts Center followed by Universal Ballet's from April 6 to 15 at the Universal Art Center. The former's offering is a re-choreographed version by Patrice Bart, former assistant artistic director at the Opera National de Paris, from the one originally staged by the opera. This piece dramatizes the tragedy of Giselle, who dies of a broken heart after discovering her lover Albrecht is betrothed to another, which, in this version of the piece, turns out to be her half-sister.

The Universal Ballet piece, however, is the traditional version following the Mariinsky style _ one which the company has kept for 33 years since premiering it in 1985. The traditional choreography passed down to the present day was devised by Marius Petipa, principal choreographer of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, a precursor to the Mariinsky Ballet.

Finally, "The Nutcracker," a year-end sell-out performance for both ballet companies, will be another big match to watch this year. "The Nutcracker" is one of Tchaikovsky's three major works, the others being "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty."

The one staged by the Universal Ballet is choreographed by Lev Ivanov and Vasily Vainonen, scripted by Marius Petipa and scored by Tchaikovsky.

The KNB's version is choreographed by Yury Grigorovich which the Bolshoi Ballet premiered in 1966, focusing more on storytelling and advanced techniques.

For both ballet companies, this piece is one where rookie dancers usually debut on stage, so keeping a keen eye on who stands out will add to the entertainment.
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Publication:The Korea Times News (Seoul, Korea)
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Jan 15, 2018
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