Ballerina Kim Joo-won celebrates a lifetimes on the stage

Ballerina Kim Joo-won [EMK ENTERTAINMENT]

Reaching the 25-year milestone in one’s career is special for anyone — but it is particularly special for ballerinas whose careers tend to be extremely short-lived.

That is why it came as no surprise when 45-year-old ballerina Kim Joo-won suddenly teared up during a press conference at EMK Entertainment’s office in Yangjae-dong, southern Seoul, when talking about her upcoming performance.

“These are happy tears. I’m just so grateful because there are not many ballet dancers who are still dancing at age 45,” said Kim, wiping her eyes. “I also am not so sure if I can celebrate my 30th anniversary or my 35th. So I wanted to organize this performance to show my appreciation for everyone who has supported me for the past 25 years of my professional career as a ballerina.”

The poster of Kim's upcoming 25th anniversary piece, ″Reverence″ [EMK ENTERTAINMENT]

The performance is called “Révérence,” the French word for “bow.”

In ballet, the term refers to a movement that looks like a bow carried out by dancers at the end of an act, a solo, a difficult pirouette, or a duet, to pay respect to a partner or the crowd.

“In classical ballet, révérence appears numerous times in one performance. It’s always followed by applause. I don’t know how many times I’ve done that movement and I realized that I’ve grown with all the révérence followed by the applause from audiences. It helped me to become who I am today — a good dancer and a good artist. I wanted to show ‘révérence’ to all those people who have been with me for the past 25 years of my career and show my appreciation.”

“Révérence” is an autobiographical piece. Kim asked her fans what their favorite performance of hers was and weaved their response together into one story — her life story. She also added two new works.

The performance is set inside a rehearsal room, not on a stage. Kim is of course, the protagonist.

“Audiences see me the most performing on stage, but the reality is, I spend the most time in a rehearsal room,” said Kim. “I wanted to show myself in that space by turning the stage into my little studio. I’m working hard with director and playwright Choo Jung-hwa to design the stage.” Kim is the artistic director of the piece.

“Révérence” includes the bedroom scene in “Le Corsaire,” which was Kim’s debut piece as a professional ballerina 25 years ago at the Korean National Ballet, as well as “everyone’s favorite — the Adagio in the second act of ‘Giselle,’” Kim said.

This will mark Kim's first time performing a classical piece since 2017 when she herniated a disc in her lower back.

Kim performing ″Le Corsaire″ as a principal dancer at the Korean National Ballet in Beijing, China, in 2006. [JOONGANG PHOTO]

“I was in bed for almost a month and since then, doing classical ballet became really difficult for me,” said Kim. “But when I did a survey for this 25th-anniversary piece, my fans most wanted to see me perform ‘Giselle’ and ‘Le Corsaire.’ So I decided to find courage and perform them for ‘Révérence.’ Although it’s going to be parts of the pieces, it’s my first classical ballet since the injury.”

One of the two new works included in the upcoming performance is a surprise for Kim’s father. Her father, who is now a businessman, used to be a singer and recorded an album with famous singers of the 1960s like Lee Mi-ja and Kim Sang-hee.

“I wanted to include this new piece as a surprise for my father,” said Kim. “When I was around four or five, I remember dancing to my father’s songs he sang together with Lee Mi-ja and Kim Sang-hee. Since this is an autobiographical piece that portrays my life through dances, I wanted to include that childhood part of my life. Choreographer Ryu Hoi-woong created the choreography using my father’s songs that I danced to as a young girl.”

Kim Joo-won, right, before her debut performance ″Le Corsaire″ with the Korean National Ballet in 1998. Left is ballerina Kim Ji-young. [JOONGANG PHOTO]

Kim debuted as a dancer of the Korean National Ballet in 1998 and was with the company for 15 years. In 2006, she won the Best Female Dancer Award at the Benois de la Danse, the dance world's equivalent to the Academy Awards. Since leaving the Korean National Ballet, Kim has taken on various roles, such as an artistic director creating her own works for her own performances, taking part in other performing arts genres like musicals, such as the Korean production of the musical “Phantom of the Opera,” and the Korean production of a play “L’Appartement,” which is based on the 1996 French film of the same name. She played the lead role with actor Oh Ji-ho in 2017. Kim has also been teaching at Sungshin Women’s University as a professor at the Department of Dance Art since 2013.

Kim, right, rehearses for the Korean production of “L’Appartement,” a play based on the 1996 French film of the same name, in 2017 for a performance at the LG Arts Center in southern Seoul. Actor Oh ji-ho and Kim played the lead roles. [LG ARTS CENTE

Of her multiple titles, her favorite is “of course, a ballerina,” she said.

“In 2017, when I was receiving treatment for the herniated disc, the doctor told me I may not be able to dance ever again [...] I was devastated but I didn’t want to give up,” said Kim. “I focused solely on rehabilitation and pushed myself really hard. And here I am, dancing on the floor again. I think it’s a miracle.”

While “practicing to walk” for many hours a day after her disc surgery, Kim said she often took a break by lying down on a bench in a park.

“I gazed at the blue sky and then I realized that it’s been such a long time since I took time to look up, enjoy the breeze, look at the trees and listen to the birds chirping. I was so busy and inundated with work,” she said.

Kim explained that is why many of her works she created after 2017 talk about the universe, life, death and love.

Many of her previous dance partners will appear in the “Révérence,” said Kim. Eight young children who have never danced before will also join her on stage to depict young Joo-won who just began to dream about becoming a ballerina. The children are from a dance education program launched by the Korea Arts and Culture Education Service under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Kim has been an honorary ambassador for the program.

“I’m not married and I don’t have a kid of my own but I love kids,” she said. “Ultimately, I want to further study about child welfare and want to contribute my life and profession to work with kids and education in the future,” she said. Kim began her graduate studies in social welfare in 2013.

“Many ask when I see myself retiring from the stage,” said Kim. “Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t want to retire. I want to dance on stage as long as I can. That is why at age 45, I wake up at 5:30 in the morning and exercise for three hours, every single day. Sometimes, I dread getting up in the morning and ask myself why am I doing this when I can just do something else. But I can’t. I just love it too much that I sometimes hate it too, like many husband-and-wife relationships, or so my friends tell me. Dancing on stage just makes me so happy and I am so in love with it.”