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Korea National Ballet seeks new direction

Jan. 9, 2012 - 16:42 By Korea Herald
Troupe’s head Choi Tae-ji to organize ballet-meets-gugak show for its 50th anniversary

The year 2011 was a monumental one for Korea National Ballet. Its March show “Giselle” marked the ballet company’s first-ever sell-out and fueled ballet fever across the nation. Most shows during the rest of the year sold out as well, ballet-related fashion items were popular, and a TV comedy even featured ballet as its main theme.

Then in September, KNB successfully staged “Prince Hodong” at San Carlo Theater in Naples, Italy. It was the first time a Korean original ballet had been showcased in Italy, fulfilling KNB head Choi Tae-ji’s dream to perform in the birthplace of ballet.

It was the most arduous but also most rewarding year in the 49 years of KNB, Choi told The Korea Herald on Thursday.

“The theater was packed for every show, up to the fourth floor, and 98 percent were paid seats. It meant so much to me. I realized that now people really want to see KNB’s show, not just a show led by a star ballerina,” she said.

Choi served as KNB head from 1996 to 2001, moved to Chongdong Theater for a while, then resumed her work at KNB in 2008 and has been there since. Last year she received an Ok-gwan Order of Cultural Merit for her achievements leading KNB. In November she was invited as a jury member for a grade advancement competition held at Le Ballet de l’Opera National de Paris, one of the oldest and most renowned ballet companies in the world. 
Choi Tae-ji speaks to The Korea Herald on Thursday at Seoul Arts Center in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“The history of the competition goes way back, more than 300 years. As the first-ever Korean to be invited, I was so happy because I felt that they recognized the level of Korea’s ballet. A strong country has a strong, recognized culture. Korea also became a strong country, included as part of G20, and the world is recognizing our culture,” said Choi.

KNB celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and is planning unprecedented shows. It is to meet the heightened expectations of local ballet fans, said Choi.

One show is “Poise,” an original modern ballet to be held in June. A September performance will be based on traditional music composed by Hwang Byung-ki, an established musician who plays the gayageum (a Korean zither).

“I always had great interest in Korean traditional music, perhaps more so because I grew up as a Korean resident in Japan. I was fascinated with nongak (peasant music) and samulnori (four-instrument play) and even learned gayageum. I enjoyed talking to Korean traditional musicians while I served at Chongdong Theater.

“Celebrating the 50th anniversary, I thought it was time for us to try something new, like an encounter with gugak. The start is Hwang Byung-ki, and we also want to work with singer Ahn Suk-seon in the future,” said Choi.

Three choreographers will be in charge of the dance, one of them from France. The venture to merge different cultures is also in line with Choi’s goal to create works that reflect not only Korea’s identity but also a common language the whole world can relate to.

Asians especially seem to be unsure of their ballet, Choi said, perhaps because their ballet history is shorter than Europe’s, and Koreans try to affirm their identity with “something Korean.” But he said ballet was a universal language that did not belong to a single country.

“I was confused with my own identity, having grown up in Japan but working in Korea. But I could survive through the days because I had ballet, an art which communicates without verbal language. People understood me through it. That is ballet,” said Choi.

“When I talk to European dancers, they say that Koreans have many values they do not have. It is true; many Korean dancers outclass others in terms of concentration and drive to win. After seeing how we did in Italy last year, I know we are ready to do and make anything they do,” said Choi.

Choi said KNB will perform overseas more this year, hopefully in Spain and China. Now the situation is quite reversed; KNB used to have to rent stages to showcase overseas but now it gets to choose and talk guarantee fees.

“We will never forget our original intention. We will continue to hold free shows in small cities for the underprivileged this year, and always come up with new ideas to entertain the audience,” said Choi. 

By Park Min-young