Seoul-based Universal Ballet Company isn’t exactly mentioned in the same breath as the Paris Opera Ballet, the Kirov Ballet or the American Ballet Theater – even though one LA Times critic did make the comparison – but the young company is definitely proof of Korea’s great potential to become a major ballet country.
UBC has done in 20 years what many of these renowned ballet companies have achieved in ten times that time, starting from the days when Korea lacked a proper ballet education. In fact, Adrienne Dellas, UBC’s first Artistic Director, used the word “criminal” after seeing Korean elementary children working on rigorous ballet steps in toe shoes, which they should not have been wearing until years later.
However, with the blessing of good foreign teachers, such as Dellas from America and Oleg Vinogradov, the Kirov Ballet Artistic Director for 25 years, UBC has become a resource that any international city might envy.
Julia H. Moon, Universal Ballet Company`s general director since 1995
Many people still associate the company with its founder, Rev. Moon Sun Myung of Unification Church. For decades, the Rev. Moon has been the subject of controversy for his doctrine and for the control he exercises over his members, known as the Moonies, as well as for his shady business ventures and emprisonment in the U.S. for tax fraud. But over the years, UBC has substantially shed the image of its ties to the religious group through its quality performances and contribution to Korea’s ballet development.
“Year after year, we put on repertoires that were deemed above our capacity, which speeded up our growth. We also had a lot of influence from our series of foreign teachers, not only with dance but the whole production, including stage arts, lighting and costume design, because ballet is a composite art,” said Julia H. Moon, UBC’s General Director and daughter-in-law of the Rev. Moon, as she recalled the company’s early days when she was a dancer.
Moon referred to Dellas as Korea’s first true ballet teacher and a key figure in Korean ballet history, much like George Ballanchine was for New York City Ballet.
As for Vinogradov, UBC’s current Artistic Director who has worked with UBC since 1992, Moon said he was critical in transforming the UBC into a solid classical ballet company of the Kirov tradition.
“He had in his hands the knowledge and tradition of 250 years of Russian ballet, where all the great classics were born. We could directly inherit all those,” Moon said.
Under the tutelage of Vinogradov, UBC members have perfected the art of the corps de ballet, which some reviewers say is even better at the UBC than in top-tier Western ballet companies.
“Without these teachers, I’m sure our advance onto the world stage was impossible,” Moon said.
UBC’s foreign tours started in earnest from 1998.
In 2001, UBC performed in America’s three best theaters – Lincoln Center, LA Music Center and NY State Theater – and last year, the troupe went on to Paris, said to be the toughest international stage of all.
UBC has some 70 repertoires under its belt, including all the best and difficult classics, including “La Bayadere.”
The West’s reaction to UBC’s performances, by and large, has been one of a big surprise.
“The discipline of the corps, especially in the ‘white,’ or lakeside, scenes of ‘Swan Lake’ can put even internationally ranked companies to shame,” Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times wrote on April 20, 1998.
Clive Barnes of the New York Post said in the paper’s Nov. 12, 1999 edition that the troupe was emerging as a “major player in world dance.”
In the past few years, Korea has proved its potential to become a major ballet power. The nation has produced seven winners of the Prix de Lausanne in three consecutive years since 2002. The competition is considered the door to success for young ballet dancers.
“One of the last year’s three awardees learned all of her ballet here,” Moon said. “Korean ballet hopefuls no longer need to try hard to go abroad for ballet education.”
Once a prima donna of international fame, Washington-born Moon has turned into a passionate entrepreneur and spokesman for the UBC, whose growth is synonymous with that of the Korean ballet scene.
One thing the UBC is going to do this year, for the first time in 20 years, is to undertake active fundraising for the company, Moon said.
Moon said that most of UBC’s funding up to now has come from the Unification Church but said that fundraising would be a way to solidify the company’s financial basis. Although UBC has had sponsorships from companies and government organizations for some of its performances, the company does not have regular sponsors in the way most dance companies do.
“For all the things said about the company’s ties to the religious group, I think people know that he (Rev. Moon) had intended his support for UBC to be based on a pure intention of promoting the arts,” Moon said. “But he’s not immortal and UBC has made a great contribution to the cultural scene here. Now it’s time for society to take care of the company,” she said.
The company’s 20th anniversary dinner, scheduled for October, will be a start. The occasion will double as a fundraising event, and Moon hopes it will raise the importance of corporate and individual contributions to art movements, which Korea lacks.
Moon said she would also like this year to be the year in which UBC begins nurturing choreographers.
As for Moon herself, she said she accepts not being on the stage, or she just hasn’t “enough time to think about it,” because of her busy schedule.
“Dancers can’t dance forever. There comes a time, usually around 40 or 45, when you have to let go. I’m grateful there’s something to do. In fact, I have fallen in love again with dancing now that I am not dancing,” Moon said.
“I am happy to be promoting ballet which people can appreciate. Ballet has the power to move people and is especially necessary in society at this time because of all this aggressive entertainment,” she said.
The troupe’s opening performance for 2004 is scheduled for March 8-10 at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.