Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ballet as never seen before: cinematic productions to hit Korean stages

Korea has become an exciting place for ballet as it has emerged as one of the most popular forms of stage entertainment here.

Earlier this month, the Seoul-based Universal Ballet Company took its sell-out rendition of “Giselle” on a tour across Japan, and now fans can look forward to two cinematic productions on the local stage.

The National Theater of Korea has invited China’s Liaoning Ballet to present the sweeping epic film-turned-ballet “The Last Emperor” this week, while the Korea National Ballet will team up with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra for their version of “Romeo and Juliet” next month.

Cinematic epic

“The Last Emperor” will be onstage Tuesday and Wednesday in Seoul as part of the 5th World Festival of National Theaters.
Made in collaboration with Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet, it is reputed as one of China’s signature pieces in the genre alongside the National Ballet of China’s “Raise the Red Lantern” and Shanghai Ballet Company’s “The White Haired Girl.”

As its name suggests the production chronicles the dramatic life of Puyi, who ascended to the throne as a small boy before becoming Japan’s puppet emperor and a prisoner of the communist authorities.

The storyline may be familiar to many, as it was inspired by the 1987 biopic of the same title by Italian master director Bernando Bertolucci. The ballet spinoff is likewise an ambitious, big-budget production that involves Italian talent.

It features original choreography by Ivan Cavallari, an Italian born and Russian trained ballerino who was a principal dancer at Stuttgart. He is also known among Korean fans for making his debut as Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet” opposite Korean prima ballerina Sue Jin Kang. As a choreographer he showcased his work here through the Universal Ballet’s 2009 “Onegin.”

For “The Last Emperor,” Cavallari studied Chinese history as well as books and films on Puyi for over three years. He also collaborated with European artists to create an infusion of Eastern and Western traditions: the piece features not only classical ballet but also elements of jazz and waltzes as well as Beijing opera, kung fu and the Lion Mask Dance.

While the ballet pays homage to the original film by featuring some of the soundtrack, it stands apart in terms of narrative. Rather than presenting Puyi’s story in the larger context of Chine’s modern history like the film, it focuses on the protagonist’s personal experiences.

Some of the most notable scenes include depicting his encounter with the West through his English teacher Johnston via a pas de deux. A puppet show-like dance sequence then demonstrates how he becomes a mere tool for colonial Japan and climaxes in a seven-minute-long solo that depicts Puyi’s solitude and despair. Liaoning Ballet’s principal dancer Xiao Yuanyuan plays the lead role.

The ballet will be staged at the National Theater of Korea, Seoul. Visit for more information.

Shakespearean romance

While homespun ballets have boasted largely impeccable production values, often the lack of in-house orchestras provided some rather underwhelming interpretations of classical scores.

The Korea National Ballet will collaborate with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time in October. Fans can thus expect to enjoy a performance that is not only visually pleasing but also aurally enticing — just like a movie.

Maestro Chung Myung-whun, the prolific music director of the Seoul Philharmonic (who recently made headlines by visiting Pyongyang) will conduct the original music by Prokofiev.

The Shakespearean romance has inspired numerous works of art, from theater to film and musical pieces, and compelled Prokofiev in 1935 to create a score. The Russian composer in turn motivated many choreographers to create dance sequences. The upcoming version will feature the iconic 1996 creation by French maestro Jean-Christophe Maillot which the Korea National Ballet premiered here in 2000.

Maillot’s version is unique in that it brings a modern edge to what had usually been a classical approach to the story about two youths from feuding families falling in love.

Principal dancers Kim Ji-young and Kim Joo-won, who will share the role of Juliet, impersonated a bashful, obedient young woman in the Bolshoi version in Moscow last year. In the upcoming piece fans can look forward to a more proactive leader (there is even word that Maillot had wanted to change the name of the piece “Juliet and Romeo”), while Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, also has a larger role as a more supportive parent. Father Lawrence, who marries Juliet to her star-crossed lover Romeo in secret, will be seen as a charismatic, rather than hesitant, man of religion.

The set also breaks away from the usual Veronese opulence and opts for chic minimalism.

“Instead of challenging dancers to showcase the technicality of ballet, Maillot’s choreography gives emphasis on the beauty of acting by presenting an unending flow of dance sequences,” said Choi Tae-ji, director of the Korea National Ballet. “This will enable the audience to feel as if they are watching a movie.”

Chung expressed great enthusiasm about collaborating with the ballet company. “Quite frankly, ballet is less exciting for a conductor since it allows less freedom to experiment as you must pay heed to beats (in tune with the performance),” he said. “But I am thrilled to work with a troupe that has grown tremendously in such a short period of time.”

In the past he has conducted ballets on a handful of occasions such as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and “Petrushka,” and even received ballet lessons as a young boy (in accordance with his mother’s belief that he should learn and experience various forms of art).

“Romeo and Juliet” will be staged at Seoul Arts Center from Oct. 27 to 30. Visit for more information.

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