A dancer's dream
By Do Je-hae
A ballet academy is pivotal to lifting Korea levels up in the global dance arena, Choi Tae-ji, artistic director of the Korea National Ballet (KNB) said.
During a recent interview, Choi, 53, who is on her third term, said, “In every country where ballet has flourished, a national ballet school was established first, and then a professional company was founded as a result.
"Korea and Japan are the only countries where the national ballet company does not have its own school for training dancers from ages 8-18,” the Japanese-born Korean dancer said, apologizing for her accented Korean.
Young stars of Korean ballet have made strides recently with the world's foremost troupes in Europe, the U.S. and Russia. Kim Ki-min joined the legendary Mariinsky Ballet, the pride of St. Petersburg, Russia, last year. He is the first Asian male dancer ever to join the company. Seo Hee, a first Korean soloist with the American Ballet Theater, has been one of the most active ballerinas at the elite U.S. troupe this season, taking the lead roles in La Bayadere, Onegin and Giselle.
These are just a few examples of the rise of Korean ballet dancers abroad. But here at home, there has been a glaring impediment to taking the level to the next step ― the absence of a national ballet school that trains professional dancers.
When she first took office in 1996, she says she was alarmed by how unprepared some of her members were to dance professionally.
"I noticed, that some of the young dancers, who had just joined after graduating university, were not familiar with the music to some of the key repertoire, like Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty or Nutcracker. This is just as ridiculous as a new journalist not knowing how to write. It's hard to believe, but this is the reality of Korean ballet education."
"Normally, Korean dancers join a company at around age 24. They mostly arrive without proper knowledge of the repertoire, so we have to train them all over again. Internationally, dancers join at age 18, after having learned the choreography and music and other relevant studies in history and literature at the affiliated schools. Korea will not be able to nurture the 'best of the best' dancers under the current education system," Choi added.
One of the key legacies of Choi's second tenure as KNB chief, which started in 2008, has been to start a public debate on the need for a national ballet academy. The KNB will host a forum on the subject on June 15 at Seoul Arts Center, where the ballet company performs and rehearses. The culture ministry announced in February that it will start a cost-effectiveness analysis on the establishment of a first-ever national ballet school.
She is also envisioning an academy that trains not just dancers, but also choreographers.
"In Korea, there is a tendency among ballet dancers to perceive choreography as something they could consider getting into after retirement. But if proper training is directed toward the right talent, dancers with exceptional musicality and creativity can start doing choreography as early as age 18," Choi said.
Nurturing choreographers is particularly important, since they are the creative force that carves the identity of a ballet company. Legendary choreographers like the late John Cranko of the Stuttgart Ballet or Jean-Christophe Maillot of the Monte Carlo Ballet have made a name for their respective companies with masterpieces that have been imported by troupes around the world.
Choi said that the academy is expected to serve as a place for star dancers to continue their service to ballet through educating the next generation of artists. At the Bolshoi Ballet School, for example, the average age of teachers is over 50. Most are retired dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet who have joined to pass on Russia's treasured ballet tradition.
Established in 1962, the KNB celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a series of special performances in the latter half of the year. A highlight is the collaboration with Hwang Byung-ki, composer and master of the “gayageum” or Korean zither, in two performances on Sept. 27 and 28. The company will also stage a modern production titled “Poise” to the music of Shostakovich and Bach from June 29 to July 1.