A year after retirement, ballerina Kim Ji-young dreams about rehearsals

A year after retiring from the Korean National Ballet, ballerina Kim Ji-young is now a dance professor of Kyung Hee University. [LEE KWANG-KEE]

It’s been exactly a year since Kim Ji-young took her final bow as a principal dancer of the prestigious Korean National Ballet Company. Since then, she says she’s been busy teaching students as a dance professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, as well as collaborating with other companies on other performances.

“Giselle” on June 23 in 2019 at the Seoul Arts Center was her last performance with the Korean National Ballet, of which she’d been the face of for nearly 10 years. Although she was more than physically able to prolong the position, she took off her ballet slippers of the Korean National Ballet saying that she should “leave so that younger dancers could take her spot.”

The comment made headlines and Kim jokingly said in a recent interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, that perhaps, “I retired too soon. I should’ve stayed longer.”

"Giselle" on June 23, 2019 at the Seoul Arts Center, southern Seoul, was Kim's final performance as a principal dancer of Korean National Ballet. [Korean National Ballet]

“With the outbreak of the coronavirus, I’ve been quite free recently,” she said. “I’ve been having dreams about dancing with the Korean National Ballet. The company was performing ‘Don Quixote’ and I was practicing [in my dreams] alone and when I woke up, I had mixed feelings. Because you know, when I was a dancer of the company, I dragged myself out of bed every morning to rehearse.”

Kim joined the national troupe in 1997 as the youngest member straight after graduating from Russia’s Vaganova Ballet Academy. From classical repertoires to modern dances, Kim took various roles of a leading female character, gracing the stage with her elegant grand jetes, twirls, pirouettes and fouettes.

To those sitting in the auditorium, each movement was a beautiful expression of the body challenging gravity, but for the dancer on stage, these seemingly graceful leaps and twirls were the cause of endless injuries.

“The more you perform, the more scared you become as you regard the stage as a sacred place,” said Kim. “I even got panic attacks and I had to take pills.”

Kim says she lived a “diligent life” like a “regular office worker” for the past 22 years. After joining the Korean National Ballet Company in 1997, she stayed for 15 years and then left for the Dutch National Ballet in 2002 where she became the principal dancer. Kim became the second Korean dancer to be appointed the principal dancer role in a prestigious national dance company overseas after Kang Sue-jin, current artistic director of the Korean National Ballet, who joined the Stuttgart Ballet in 1986 and was appointed as a principal dancer in 1997.

“I’m astonished by the creativity of younger ballet dancers,” said Kim. She said that creativity is what pushes her to practice at least two to three hours a day. “Because no one is forcing me to practice, I think it’s harder. It’s a battle against yourself.”

Kim is slated to take to the stage in the “Twelve Korean Modern Dance Artists” in July, but she's concerned about whether it will go ahead in the midst of the coronavirus.

“There are a lot of online performances these days but as a performer, it is devastating,” she said. “I had a no-audience performance once during the first round of a competition and I remember not wanting to experience that ever again. Although we live in a digital world, the warmth of the audience members cannot be substituted. I really hope the coronavirus comes to an end and I can feel the warmth of the people.”