writers on dancing


First Tour

"Swan Lake"
Korean National Ballet Company
Center for the Arts, George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia, USA
Friday, August 6, 2004
by George Jackson

copyright © 2004 by George Jackson
published August 9, 2004

Underheralded, the Korean National Ballet introduced itself to America's capital area on one of summer's loveliest evenings. There had been little advance publicity in the general media, yet the performance drew an astonishingly large audience. I noticed that some of the advance tickets were being held in envelopes of The Korea Times of Annandale, Virginia. That helped to explain the largely Korean public for the 42 year-old company's local debut during its first American Tour, which encompassed just one performance in Chicago and two here.

The curtain rose on a familiar picture. Not just "Swan Lake", but the identical production—choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, designs by Simon Virsaladze—was danced at this theater by Grigorovich's own company from Russia not long ago. The Koreans, though, made this version of the classic look a lot better. They danced it as one lyric dramatic stream, a continuous visual tone poem, a single impulse. The Russians, by chopping it up into numbers, had made Grigorovich's changes seem totally arbitrary.

There is in the traditional "Swan Lake" by Petipa and Ivanov a unifying urgency that differs, as far as we know, from the more meandering course of other story ballets made by the two choreographers in the 1880s and '90s. Yet contrasts were also part of the concept. The action was not just divided into four distinct acts, but there were also a subdividing. Even in the partly confluent lakeside passages (Act 2 and 4), there are—almost—separate dances. What greater contrast can there be than that of the deeply melodic adagio for Odette and Siegfried, and the metronomic variation of the four Cygnettes? And isn't that contrast apparent even when, as formerly, another man (Benno, Siegfried's friend —now totally obliterated) assists in the adagio?

Grigorovich, it seems, wanted to modulate from one contrast to another rather than oppose them with pauses inbetween. He adds bridging choreography to link Acts 1 and 2, not just a moody solo for Siegfried as other rechoreographers have done but also a duo in which he is shadowed by the Evil Genius (the character formerly known as Von Rotbart). More than that, Grigorovich makes of Siegfried's Act 1 birthday celebration almost as much a display of male dancing as Act 2 with its enchanted Swan Maidens is of female dancing. Grigorovich gives the male corps challenging steps, includes a bravura Fool, and introduces a parade of knights to present Siegfried his adulthood sword. The Queen, Siegfried's mother, gives him a golden chain with a ruby cross—this becomes significant later.

There is an intermission between Acts 2 and 3 in Grigorovich's version but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had at least speculated about eliminating it too. Act 3, Siegfried's choosing of a bride, was undoubtedly for Grigorovich the most stubborn part of "Swan Lake" to streamline. He replaced the traditional divertissement of national dances with neo-classical choreography and it is one of his best efforts. This suite is danced by the candidate brides—they are princesses from Hungary, Russia, Spain, Naples and Poland. They perform for the Queen, Siegfried enters only after they have, presumably, passed his mother's inspection. Then, as is traditional, he waltzes with them and refuses to choose. The unexpected entry of the Evil Genius and Odile (the false Odette or Black Swan) aborts the "You must choose" / "I can't" confrontation between the Queen and Siegfried. From this point on until almost the end, the incident plot is the conventional one, but Grigorovich adds dancing for Siegfried, Odile, Evil Genius and a small corps of Black Swans prior to the Soviet version of the traditional Black Swan pas de deux for Siegfried and Odile. He bleeds Act 3 into Act 4 and differentiates the latter's swan choreography just enough from that we saw in Act 2.

With "Swan Lake" the ending is always a question. Happy, tragic or spiritual? Grigorovich opts for a happy ending. The flush of dawn appears in Virsaladze's otherwise metallic palette, and the flesh and blood Odette and Siegfried are joined to live happily ever after. But just before that, Grigorovich added a novel touch. How did the pair of lovers vanquish the Evil Genius? By making their bodies into the sign of the cross. It is over in an instant, this slight transformation of a conventional supported attitude, but as in "Giselle" or Dracula movies, it has its effect.

Korea National Ballet was convincing in Grigorovich's concept. The company was very cohesive, giving a sure ensemble feeling. The style is that of the old Soviet Russian schooling (plus an occasional 180 degree extension) on bodies that tend to be slim yet not long. Three of the ballet masters—Sang-chul Park, Won-kook Lee and Eun-joung Kim—are Korean, and two trainers—Mikhail Sharkov and Galina Kozlova—presumably are Russian. The KNB's director, Geung-soo Kim, used to be a principal dancer and then a ballet master for the company.

The evening's Siegfried, Won-chu Lee, is not a demonstrative actor yet had a gravitas that suited the role and was appealing. I didn't think that quality was ideal for the Act 1 pas de trois, which is lighter in feeling but, after all, in this version it is danced by Siegfried. Lee's impetus is strong and slow, his finishes are cushioned.

As the Odette and Odile, Joo-won Kim was much more the latter than the former. She showed Odette's sadness but not her vulnerability. Coming alive in Act 3, Kim had a glint of evil in her eye. This Odile enjoyed herself. Technically, Kim was competent in both parts and deployed a fast, furious, tight arabesque for emphasis.

The Fool, as danced by In-kyung Kim, was an agreeably sharp show-off. All the candidate brides had individual personalities. Scheduled to take the leading roles at the second performance were Hae-jin Yoon (Odette/Odile), Hyun-woong Kim (Siegfried) and Joon-bum Kim (Fool). Recorded, well recorded music was used.

Originally published:
Volume 2, No. 30
August 9, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by George Jackson


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