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[Herald Interview] Universal Ballet's 'Korea Emotion' captures 'jeong' through ballet

March 14, 2023 - 21:53 By Hwang Dong-hee
Dancers of the Universal Ballet perform "Korea Emotion" at the 11th Ballet Festival Korea in June 2021. (Universal Ballet)

The Universal Ballet is set to capture the unique emotion of “jeong” through the language of ballet expressed with traditional Korean music in "Korea Emotion," which kicks off the company's 2023 season this week.

“Korea Emotion,” choreographed by the company's artistic director Liu Bingxian, will be performed at the Haeoreum Grand Theater from Friday to Sunday.

“Jeong” is an emotion for which it is hard to find an English equivalent. It is often defined as a multi-faceted warm feeling of emotional connection or attachment. Although the concept cannot be easily explained, it is a deep-rooted sentiment in Korean culture.

“There is no word for this word in English. That’s why I titled the work ‘Korea Emotion,’” said Liu in an interview with The Korea Herald at the Universal Arts Center on Saturday. A Chinese national of Korean ethnicity, Liu was appointed Universal Ballet's artistic director in 2009.

“Because it’s an emotion, it’s hard to find the right language for it. But we can express that through the language of the body. I believe there are more things in common in the emotions that people feel regardless of country or race,” he said.

Artistic director Liu Bingxian of the Universal Ballet watches dancers practice "Korea Emotion." (Universal Ballet)
Dancers of the Universal Ballet practice "Korea Emotion." (Universal Ballet)

Premiered at the 11th Ballet Festival Korea in June 2021 as part of “Triple Bill,” the dramatic choreography capturing the essence of Koreans’ unique emotions was well-received by critics and the public. Liu added five new pieces, extending it from 25 minutes to a 75-minute performance.

“The last few years have been a difficult time for ballet companies, but during the pandemic, I thought I would like to express Korea’s unique emotions through ballet that can speak to an audience around the world.”

Liu said he realized there is a lot of potential for “Korean” ballet pieces when he saw audiences coming for the company's original ballet “Chunhyang” last year.

However, it was not easy to create something without a plot. The nine-piece performance is a collection of short stories where each piece focuses on different aspects of “jeong,” from the love and longing between man and woman, to brotherly or sisterly affections.

“If I had started from scratch, it could have been easier. But because the audience loved the 2021 version, I felt a pressure to live up to the expectations,” he said.

Dancers of the Universal Ballet perform "Korea Emotion" at the 11th Ballet Festival Korea in June 2021. (Universal Ballet)
Dancers of the Universal Ballet perform "Korea Emotion" at the 11th Ballet Festival Korea in June 2021. (Universal Ballet)

The toughest part was choosing the right music.

“It took me more than six months. I searched through hundreds of Korean music (pieces). I found many very beautiful music (pieces) but in order to create a choreography, I needed something with a lot of dynamic variations.”

Liu looked for something like Ji Pyeong-kwon’s "gugak" crossover album “Daul Project” (2014), which inspired the original four pieces and could harmoniously combine Eastern and Western sentiments with a contemporary touch.

Then he came across the music of “Ensemble Sinawi,” which explores Korea’s musical heritage based on gugak (Korean traditional music). Liu said what was unique in the band’s music is that they improvise, which means there are a lot of variations in rhythm, speed and beat.

He choreographed three pieces inspired by their music: “Rhapsody of the East Sea” where 16 dancers will open the stage with powerful rhythms of "jajinmori," or fast eight-twelve times beat, and "deureongange," or a type of traditional rhythm used in Gyeongsang and Gangwon Provinces -- also incorporating jazz vibes.

“Dancing Moonlight” is a dance by four ballerinas to the melodies of "gayageum" and "ajaeng," expressing harmony and contrast, restraint and eruption while “Cold Rain” is danced by four male dancers to a song inspired by a Joseon poem which compares the heart of a woman to cold rain.

Another two pieces, "Dasome," meaning "love" in native Korean words, were inspired by German composer Peter Schindler's "Jeong -- With Rocks and Stones and Trees."

Dancers of the Universal Ballet practice "Korea Emotion." (Universal Ballet)

What was more important was to convey emotions through the dance and music that could resonate with the audience, emphasized Liu.

“When I choreograph, I think of two things. First, the artistic beauty itself -- like when you drink coffee, it’s so delicious you don’t worry about how much cream, milk or sugar are in it. That overall beauty is something I pursue in my choreography.”

So the director highlighted the lines and silhouettes of hanbok skirts and robes to give a "Korean-ness" while still showing off a contemporary edge.

“Another thing is the emotion that can touch the heart. I want to make the audience feel the emotions and let the feelings stay in their hearts for a long time,” he said.

Liu expressed hopes for Korea’s original ballet pieces to impress on the world stage.

“Korean ballet has progressed by leaps and bounds. All major ballet companies have Korean members and they are taking the lead roles. Likewise, now it’s time for Korean original ballet to shine.”

“Who could believe pansori, soprano and classic ballet could go together? But the combination works,” Liu said referring to the finale piece “Gangwon Jeongseon Arirang” where 12 dancers throw a grand banquet of Korean gugak pansori, classical music and ballet.

“I want to let the audience know that the very essence of Korea can be delivered through ballet. And I do believe someday our pieces like ‘Simcheong’ and ‘Chunhyang’ will become iconic repertoires in the world.”