A Korean love story: Universal Ballet in The Love of Chunhyang

Reviewed from film

David Mead

Inspired by a well-known work of Korean literature, albeit one whose origins are known to be roughly 18th-century but otherwise vague, The Love of Chunhyang tells of the romance between the son of a local nobleman and government official Lee Mong-ryong and the title character, beautiful daughter of a courtesan.

They are a couple from very different sides of the tracks. Over two pleasing acts, with choreography by Brian Yoo, the 2007 ballet tells of their meeting and falling in love; Lee’s father’s displeasure at their liaison, their separation when her is posted to another city and Lee has to go with him; and her imprisonment and torture for refusing to be the concubine of the new governor – a rather devilish looking figure in black and red. But fear not because unlike Giselle or Romeo and Juliet or Manon, there is a happy ever after ending.

Universal Ballet in The Love of ChuhyangPhoto Universal Ballet/Kyoungjin Kim
Universal Ballet in The Love of Chuhyang
Photo Universal Ballet/Kyoungjin Kim

The Love of Chunhyang is a work full of the grace of Asian dance but underpinned with the different strength and beauty of ballet. In many ways, it’s as classical as they come with the principal couple supported by a small number of soloists, and some big and vibrant ensemble dances for the corps. There is far too much old-fashioned mime of the sort that is thankfully rarely seen nowadays, however, especially in Act I. At times, the ballet feels very modern, however, and not only because of the minimalist sets. The dancing is superb throughout.

A brief prologue introduces us to the main couple, the stage cleverly split with Chunhyang and her family on the left and Lee busy studying on the right. The city of Namwon is depicted in minimalist fashion although the mountain backdrop and cherry blossom above leave no doubt about country and season. A solo for Hyunjun Lee as Mong-ryong is gracious and lyrical. The picture is colourful but she is still easy to pick out Misun Kang as Chunhyang in her bright pink top and yellow dress. There’s the usual accidental first meeting when the eyes say it all. Love has struck.

Misun Kang and Hyunjun Lee in The Love of ChunhyangPhoto Universal Ballet/Kyoungjin Kim
Misun Kang and Hyunjun Lee in The Love of Chunhyang
Photo Universal Ballet/Kyoungjin Kim

At the heart of the ballet are the pas de deux for the leading couple. The first, a relatively brief affair when they first meet, has echoes of Romeo and Juliet. Initially, Kang is delightfully and so naturally unsure, full of shyness and reserve as she hides her face with her fan. It’s full of emotion yet pleasingly understated with no big climax, no big lifts.

I could have done without the unnecessary parallel dance and over-the-top, cutsy acting of Lee’s valet, Bangja, and Chunhyang’s maid, Hyangdan, however, although the latter clearly plays well with local audiences. I otherwise rather liked the almost Puck-ish and somewhat teenagerly temperamental Bangja, who actually gets a lot of virtuoso steps and makes the most of them.

The examination hall scene from Universal Ballet's The Love of ChuhyangPhoto Universal Ballet/Kyoungjin Kim
The examination hall scene from Universal Ballet’s The Love of Chuhyang
Photo Universal Ballet/Kyoungjin Kim

The second pas de deux comes after Chunhyang and Lee have married in secret in another echo of Romeo and Juliet. In the equivalent of the bedroom pas de deux, the lovers finally cast off their robes and heavy long dress for a superb dance. Now we get the ecstatic lifts their love demands. Kang and Lee make everything look easy. He is an attentive and considerate partner. She often appears to fly as she’s carried by his arms. Their faces tell it all too.

The third, even more emotionally-laden, comes at the end of the ballet as they are finally reunited amid falling blossom.

In between, I found much else to admire. The seasons, from spring to winter in Act I mirror beautifully the couple’s relationship. I especially liked winter, which sees the couple torn apart as Lee’s father is reassigned to another post. The dark, stormy scene and female ensemble in white who dance like the wind catch the mood perfectly. Among the ensemble dances is a quite contemporary-feeling all-male one as the scholars sit their civil service examination.

Minwoo Kang as new governor Hakdo Byunin The Love of ChuhyangPhoto Universal Ballet/Kyoungjin Kim
Minwoo Kang as new governor Hakdo Byun
in The Love of Chuhyang
Photo Universal Ballet/Kyoungjin Kim

Chunhyang in prison is also powerful. Kang now in white against the blackness of her cell and the situation makes for a striking contrast to the colour of the rest of the ballet. It is perhaps a little unfortunate it takes place way upstage behind a grill, however. Prior to that, Minwoo Kang as the Namwon’s new governor, Hakdo Byun, cuts a powerful and menacing figure in his black and red.

Fumiyo Motoyama’s arrangement of music from various works by Tchaikovsky including The Tempest, Symphony No.1 and Manfred Symphony fits the dance like a glove.

Although it is put to one side for the main pas de deux, Lee Jeong-woo’s costumes are heavily influenced by traditional Korean dress. He also reinvented the long, hanbok-style tutu, some of which wouldn’t look out of place in a fashion show.