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[Herald Interview] Universal Ballet's 'The Ballerina' peeks behind curtain

On-stage dialogue brings new dimension in ballet

May 22, 2024 - 14:08 By Hwang Dong-hee
"The Ballerina" (Universal Ballet)

The Universal Ballet is set to present its original production, 'The Ballerina," a work that offers a glimpse into the daily lives of ballet dancers striving for a shining moment on stage.

The performances will take place at the Seoul Arts Center's CJ Towol Theater from May 31 to June 1. This is the first time the production will be performed in Seoul, following its premiere in Hanam, Gyeonggi Province, and subsequent regional tours in 2022 and 2023.

Choreographed by artistic director, Liu Bingxian, the piece captures the dancers' challenges and competitions in the rehearsal room, on stage and backstage. The story begins with the ballet company’s daily morning barre class and rehearsals, following the journey of a new dancer who steps in for the lead dancer after an injury.

The production uses a frame narrative structure to include scenes of the "Ballet Gala," featuring four original choreographies by Liu, set to the scores of Paganini, MacDowell’s Piano Concerto and Ji Pyeong-kwon’s gugak-based crossover “Mirinaegil” and “Bee Yeon.”

Principal dancer Rhee Hyon-jun, center, performs in Universal Ballet's "The Ballerina." (Universal Ballet)

Notably, the production integrates dialogue with ballet choreography to convey the dancers' emotions and daily lives.

Principal dancer Rhee Hyon-jun, who plays the role of the ballet master, said, “It was really nerve-wracking to speak in front of the audience on stage, having been accustomed to communicating through body movement,” in an interview with The Korea Herald last week.

While Rhee uses a microphone for live dialogue, other dancers lip-sync to pre-recorded lines.

“Initially, the setup involved lip-syncing to a recording of a real ballet master's voice, but this was changed two weeks before the premiere for a more vivid performance,” said Rhee.

For natural delivery and acting, Rhee said he received vocal training from a friend and acting lessons from his cousin, ballerina-turned-actor and film director Kang Ye-na.

“I thought about how to make the performance more enjoyable and started adding slight variations and sometimes using different tones -- gentle, playful, or even stern -- to keep the rehearsals lively and engaging,” said Rhee.

Dancers also bring their personal belongings as props to the stage, adding a touch of authenticity.

"All the practice clothes, skirts, bags and foam rollers are their own. Just like heading to the rehearsal room, we bring these items to the stage," said principal dancer Hong Hyang-ki, who alternates between playing the injured lead dancer and the courageous new dancer on different days.

Principal dancer Hong Hyang-ki performs in Universal Ballet's "The Ballerina." (Universal Ballet)

Both Rhee and Hong agreed on the inseparable link between dancers and injuries. They have both experienced stepping in as substitutes at the last minute and missing performances due to injuries throughout their careers.

"Thankfully, I haven’t had many major injuries, and I was usually the substitute who would go on stage in place of other dancers when I was young," said Hong.

She recalled one memory with 'The Sleeping Beauty" when she had to perform a run-through for filming, substitute the next day, and perform in her original lead role on the following day.

"By the third day, I was so exhausted that I made a mistake while performing the second act. I remember crying so much because I was so upset and frustrated."

Principal dancer Rhee Hyon-jun performs as Romeo in Universal Ballet's "Romeo and Juliet." (Universal Ballet)

Rhee also shared his experience with various minor injuries and chronic conditions like spondylolysis, which required ongoing rehabilitation.

He recently played Romeo in "Romeo and Juliet," and recalled stepping in as Romeo eight years ago due to the lead dancer’s injury when he was the understudy for the role.

“I also felt a similar strain on my calves while performing. I put in a lot of effort to prevent injury.”

Giving up a performance feels like abandoning one's passion, Rhee and Hong said. When a dancer is injured, others step in. And this mutual support, despite the sadness of missing a performance, creates a strong sense of camaraderie and solidarity within the company.

“This atmosphere is depicted in the story when the injured lead dancer hands a bouquet to the new dancer after her successful debut,” said Hong.

“I think it effectively captures the emotions of the dancers, because after all the show must go on,” added Rhee.

Now among the eldest dancers in the troupe, Rhee and Hong reflect on their roles.

“Instead of solely focusing on my own career, I want to be an exemplary dancer for junior dancers as well,” said Rhee.

“Since the pandemic, I have found more joy in dancing. Previously, I felt more pressured to be perfect. Now, I'm truly happy and putting in diligent effort. I want to conclude my ballet career well while still cherishing this joy,” said Hong.

"The Ballerina" will kick off the 14th Korea Ballet Festival on May 31.