Korean National Ballet shines bright in Balanchine's 'Jewels'

Dancers shine like rubies in the Korean National Ballet’s "Jewels" on stage during its run of the performance from Feb. 25 to 27 at the National Theater of Korea in central Seoul. The company chose the Balanchine masterpiece to celebrate the beginnin

George Balanchine’s non-narrative ballet "Jewels" is an ambitious choice for ballet companies. For the Korean National Ballet, even more so.

Korea has a wide and ever-growing balletomane community, but it still has a relatively young history of ballet. This explains why "Jewels" made a long-awaited debut in Korea only last year. Some voiced concerns that it could be a bit too early for a non-narrative repertoire without tried-and-trusted plots. Nevertheless, the debut staged by the Korean National Ballet in October 2021 was a huge success, winning both critical acclaim and popularity. After all, the Korean ballet audience was more than ready to “see the music, hear the dance,” just like the immortal quote by Balanchine.

Kang Sue-jin, the world-renowned dancer-turned-artistic-director for the company, again surprised the critics earlier this year as she picked "Jewels" again this February. Not only because it felt rather too soon, as only four months have passed since the October performances, but also because it happened to be this year’s very first stage by the Korean National Ballet. This year also marks the company's 60th anniversary, which naturally means a lot.

The Korean National Ballet salutes this year with 10 repertoires, ambitious not only in quantity but also in quality. But it was neither classics like "Swan Lake" (October) and "Giselle" (November) nor the company’s beautifully rendered originals like the "KNB Movement Series 7" or "Heo Nanseolheon" that were chosen to go first. Instead, Kang handpicked "Jewels" to celebrate the beginning of this important year.

Last week’s performances at the National Theater of Korea proved that her choice was right. What was immediately noticeable was that the dancers looked more at ease with this pure dance choreography. For last year’s premiere, Balanchine’s repetiteur Sandra Jennings traveled to Seoul. With her teaching, dancers of the Korean National Ballet digested the quintessence of the Balanchine poetry, which requires different — thus demanding — movements like port de bras. Jennings told Han Jung-ho last year that she was impressed by the “energy” of the company’s “wild” dancers. It gives you a certain pleasure to see how dancers evolved to the Balanchine choreography under Jennings.

A scene from "Emeralds" of the "Jewels" by the Korean National Ballet. Dancers visibly enjoy being on stage. [KNB]

And the dancers did not waste the last four months. This February’s performances proved that. Last year, the dancers looked quite ambitious. They were visibly eager and tense — in a good way — on stage. This year, however, the dancers showed off a more polished, softer-around-the-edges performance. They have been like sponges to absorb Jennings's teachings, and they have become one. They were not just dancing like Balanchine. They were the "Jewels" itself.

For one thing, the dancers did not look simply ambitious on stage. They looked more natural. Kim Ki-wan — brother of the Mariinsky principal Kim Ki-min — shines in "Emeralds" with more composure and exquisite expression. Shin Seung-won, the company’s star principal, could not have had a more fitting farewell performance than in her main role in "Emeralds." Meanwhile, "Rubies," which can be a bit challenging with its pleasantly whimsical and beautifully unconventional choreography, showed impressive growth. From principals like Park Seul-ki to the corps-de-ballet Jung Eun-ji, all dancers show almost immaculate technique.

A scene from "Diamonds" of the "Jewels" by the Korean National Ballet. [KNB]

What deserves attention is the chemistry among dancers. Especially in the magnifique stage of "Diamonds," what appealed to the audience was not just the beautiful grand pas de deux by the principals like Kim Li-hoe and Joung Eun-young. The euphony of all dancers on stage added an emphatic glitter that was quintessential. You could tell that the corps members were pouring their all into the performance. Achieving this steady level of quality of ensemble on stage is much easier said than done, mirroring the years-long effort by the dancers themselves, staff members on and off the stage and the artistic director.

All in all, "Jewels" this year gives you the confidence that there will be more Balanchine performances available in Korea. The Balanchine ballet is often called the poetry of dance. The latest performance of "Jewels" by the Korean National Ballet was the answer to anyone who questions whether the country is ready for such poetry. Korea is ready to “See the music, hear the dance.”

The writer is a JoongAng Ilbo staff reporter.

Chun Su-jin []