Jang Un-kyu, principal dancer
of Korea National Ballet Company
By Han Sang-hee
In the world of ballet, the spotlight is reserved for the dancers. Among them, however, it's mainly the graceful ballerinas who are applauded and recognized.
Ballerinos (male ballet dancers) are often outshone by elegant dancers of the opposite sex.
Jang Un-kyu, the principal male dancer of the Korea National Ballet Company (KNBC) in Seoul, suffers from this viewpoint. Yet, he's one of the top dancers here, taking the torch from several other top ballerinos, including Kim Yong-geul and Lee Won-guk.
The 33-year-old has been dancing for more than 20 years, and he has seen a difference in reactions and interest toward ballet and, especially, ballerinos.
"When I first started, my friends made fun of me. They were so curious of what I was doing," Jang said, laughing, during an interview with The Korea Times.
Jang started ballet in the third grade when his grandmother took him to dance class one day. He later found out that she was a dancer and actress herself when she was young, but had to give up her dream after marriage.
"I think she wanted to achieve her dream through me," Jang recalled.
It was a bit peculiar for a young boy to become fond of ballet in those days, when it was an activity only socially acceptable for girls.
"I was lucky to meet an instructor who didn't care about winning prizes or mastering difficult skills. She helped me learn the dance slowly and how to enjoy it. That helped me continue to dance all this time," he said.
After studying at the Royal Academy of Dance in England for three years, he returned back to Korea and eventually became a member of the KNBC.
He grabbed the title role in "The Nutcracker" after a year, but as the third casting.
"When you are appointed as the first casting, the choreographers give you tips from start to finish but for the third, you have to practice on your own. By being the last in line, I learned to reinterpret the movements and choreography and make them my own," he said.
From there, Jang learned to study his roles, instead of merely following the exact feelings and movements his coaches taught him.
Despite the illusion that the graceful movements are effortless, behind the scenes, ballet is demanding; dancers frequently suffer from injuries. Prima ballerina Kang Sue-jin once said that if she wakes up in the morning and feels great, she starts to wonder if she hasn't been rehearsing enough. This was the same for Jang, but in a more serious way.
"I have been hurt many times. I've had surgeries, was hospitalized for months but always managed to come back. I was even the first and last Korean ballerino to fall on stage and be carried off by my fellow dancers. They later told me my fall gave them goose bumps. They heard the crack of my heel," Jang said.
At the time, in the mid-2000s, he thought his life as a dancer was over. But his love for ballet couldn't be stopped.
Unlike younger ballet dancers who have been making headlines for their good looks, perfect body and charismatic stage presence, Jang has been far from the spotlight of the media and the public.
"It's true that you need talent, but I think it's hard to pinpoint the qualities to become a ballerino. Looks, height and strength are important, but it's meaningless to set criteria. We don't need to know the right standards for ballerinos because there really aren't any in my opinion," he said, brushing off any pressure for not being in the spotlight.
Korea boasts of a number of talented young dancers who have been winning top prizes at major ballet competitions abroad, including the New York International Ballet Competition and the Moscow International Ballet Competition.
Jang expressed his enthusiasm for them, but pointed out some problems that come with early success.
"In Western countries, academies and coaches suggest that dancers learn slowly, but in Korea, it's all about 'bbali, bbali' (hurry, hurry). But when Korean dancers grow to a certain level, they disappear. The current dance environment can't support them," he said.
Jang said that both in the entertainment and dance industries, Koreans prefer younger, fresher faces. In the entertainment industry, young idol bands are dominating the music scene. Likewise, young dancers are stealing the spotlight, leaving the older and more mature dancers out of the business.
"In other countries, viewers and fellow dancers appreciate older dancers because of their vast experience and maturity. Maturity takes time, and viewers and performance organizers can't wait until then," he said.
When asked what makes a good ballerino, Jang hesitated and thought for a moment.
"You need duality," he said, shaking his head as if he wasn't sure how to explain.
"You have to be strong. Ballet is, without doubt, very difficult both physically and emotionally. You have to have that extra something that will help you move on when you really want to give up. But you still have to have a soft side. You are working with ballerinas, which requires you to be strong and somewhat macho, but you still have to be a gentleman and polite when dancing. You have to have the whole package," he said.
For Jang, ballet has been his passion ever since he took his first dance steps long ago.
"I'm addicted to it. But it's interesting because I don't know exactly what part I am addicted to. I'm sure it's not just the excitement when I stand on stage or hear the crowd cheer. It's so much more than that, but I think I may not be able to explain it with words."