August 13, 2016
National Theatre of Korea, Seoul
Ballet companies across the world are graced with Korean dancers. A culture of high achievement lies at the core of this renaissance country which rebuilt itself after years of colonisation and the devastation of the Korean War which divided the land. The pressure on students is huge but brings amazing results.
The World Gala, the finale of the 13th Seoul International Dance Competition followed the same ethos with a unique combination of ballet, contemporary and ethnic dance. The National Dance Company of Korea presented Gainjeonmokdan, a ceremonial dance performed by graceful women in their exquisite bell-skirted dresses gliding round a huge, traditional knot: simple, elegant and timeless. Then, as if to prove that they were inspired, rather than constrained by the past, French choreographer, José Montalvo, borrowed traditional fan gestures and combined them with contemporary dance in a witty duet given a spirited performance by Kim Mi-ae and Jung Gil-man.
Asako Terada and Keigo Fukuda from the National Ballet of Japan bridged ballet and contemporary with Frozen Eye. The opening sound score, as brittle as broken glass accompanied cutting edge moves before shifting to a passionate pastiche to the strains of Invitation to the Waltz. They returned with a fresh and romantic Coppélia danced to an effortlessly high technical standard.
Korean trio, Sujin Choi, Changyong Seong and Namgeun Ahn in Passion – Spirit – Joy – Faith were accompanied by fierce drumming before finding contrast in a gentler duet. The men’s choreography was thrilling, with a strong athletic edge and flips parallel to the stage that melted into amazingly fluid rolls. The Korean style of contemporary dance often shows a high degree of virtuosity that was very evident in the competition when it threatened, at times, to overwhelm the expressive quality.
Of course, there had to be the Grand Pas. Saeeun Park and Mickael Lafon from the Paris Opéra closed the programme with Don Quixote, a brave choice for an audience that had seen umpteen Kitris and Basilios perform their tricks through the competition week. Park’s exquisite dovetailed fifths set an example to the competitors as did the quiet elegance of the couple. However, the very slow tempo in her solo dampened the vibrancy we expect from Kitri, and I rather wished she had chosen to dance Raymonda, which would have more ideally suited her exquisite passés. In Benjamin Millepied’s, La nuit s’achève, the couple were more evenly matched. Simply dressed in casual whites and bare-footed it was fresh, young and joyful. Park, a sujet, is one of the few Koreans at the Opéra, and an added bonus to her home visit was having her mother, HyeYoung Choi, to accompany them playing the Beethoven Piano Sonata, No.23 on stage.
Another fine example of classical artistry came from Semyon Chudin partnering Elizaveta Kruteleva. His Sleeping Beauty solo showed double tours of eye-watering perfection. His effortless elevation stood him in good stead as James where he combined a romantic heart with batterie of crystal clarity.
Galas do not always offer best matched couples but this was not the case with Kateryna Kukhar and Oleksandr Stoianov, principals from the National Opera of Ukraine. Beautifully matched in physique, technique and temperament they raised the temperature performing Scheherazade and Carmen. Scheherazade offers more to the male dancer and Stoianov, from the moment of his dramatic entrance embodied the passions and drama of the Golden Slave. His Toreador again displayed movements of feline grace but this time with a neat air of cynicism. Carmen also offered Kukhar the chance to display her fine technique and sensuality in this battle of one-upmanship.
From Dresden SemperOper, Sangeun Lee and Christian Bausch brought ballet into the postmodern age with William Forsythe’s Slingerland. This company are so at home in his style and the couple gave a world class performance. They also brought a premiere from company dancer, Craig Davidson. His duet Reminiscence, is a quality debut, an abstract work with a persuasive concept underlying the dance and shading the interpretation with gentle longing. The choreography is full of fluid, off-balance movements perfectly suited to these tall dancers: the interplay of limbs creating innovative shapes and pattern.
Other treats included an ebullient Mongolian folk dance from Altantsetseg Khosbayar where the arms and upper body were as vibrant as the footwork and a soulful soliloquy from Dickson Mbi. There are few events where it is possible to feel so fully integrated into the dance in so many of its varied forms and the feel-good factor was palpable among artists and audience.