Everyone loves a love story. Even if it’s tragic. It is the reason why such stories have lasted over centuries, being told and told again. It is the reason why “Romeo & Juliet” is still popular in whatever form it is being told: print, art, theater, film, dance.
Dance is a universal language; you don’t need subtitles. It is amazing how emotions can be conveyed without a single word being uttered, how everything can be expressed through movement only. It can be fully choreographed or completely free-style, a structured ceremonial performance or an impromptu expression of emotions.
Social ballroom dancing was introduced to Korea in the 1900s but didn’t quite catch on – men and women holding one another while dancing, how scandalous – and the first ever ballet performance (by a Russian dancer) took place in the 1930s. There were dancers who started to study ballet during this time, but it was only after independence in 1946 that the first ballet company was established: Seoul Ballet. Unfortunately, the ballet company dispersed as the Korean War erupted but several ballet companies were created after the war ended as interest began to rise. Ballet classes were available and even a ballet concours was held in 1955.
Lack of funding slowed down the progress of Korean ballet and the need of a congregated ballet company was constantly being discussed. The Korean National Ballet was established in 1962 with this objective. Starting as part of the National Dance Company of Korea, it became a separate entity in 1973. The company was known to put on creative productions of traditional stories with the most talented dancers in the country.
The Korean National Ballet Academy was founded in 1993 and more talent was discovered and trained. The company started putting on productions with commentaries to familiarize ballet to the public, which garnered much positive response.
Besides the staple productions of “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker”, the Korean National Ballet have put on productions with modern interpretations and steadily compiled their repertoire. Star dancers are constantly on their roster, and star dancers are born through their productions.
Among their repertoire, “Romeo & Juliet” is one of those truly memorable productions. Of course, I love ballet. I also love Shakespeare. Needless to say, I love it when the two come together, but I don’t think I’m being unnecessarily biased by saying this.
Korean National Ballet celebrated its 50th anniversary last year in 2012 and put on a special production of “Romeo & Juliet” with Maestro Chung Myung-whun conducting. “Romeo & Juliet” takes the stage once again this year, starting off on Valentine’s Day at the Seoul Arts Center in Seoul. Reinterpreted by many choreographers to many musical variations, the version to be shown is from choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot with Prokofiev’s music. First shown in 1996, it has been on Korean National Ballet’s regular repertoire since 2000.
A Post-Classic ballet production, the stage design, choreography, and narrative are quite minimalist. However, nothing is lost from the main plot. On the contrary, the elimination of lavish decorative props and costumes enables the viewer to focus more on the dance itself. This also requires the dancers to be more expressive in their movement and expressions, so you can truly appreciate their skill and artistry.
The characterization is not the usual fare, either. Whether you are familiar with the original Shakespeare play, the theatrical production, the movie version(s), or the classical ballet version; there would be a certain image of the characters defined in your head. Considering this is a dance version, you’d expect Juliet to be a delicate girl blithely dancing in a flowy costume, and Romeo as graceful as she, but determined in his devotion. But it is not that simple. Both Romeo and Juliet are more than lovestruck teenagers who just want to be together, they encompass much deeper emotions which are expressed throughout their interactions with each other, and with other characters. They are much more thoughtful than the usual portrayals.
Lady Capulet features heavily, as does Friar Laurence, whose stage presence is immensely powerful (and makes you fumble through your copy of the original play to see whether you’ve misinterpreted him this whole time). They are as important as Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio and Tybalt are notable in their own right as well. Certain characters were omitted in this version for a clearer narrative; the production doesn’t suffer from this at all.
Thankfully, Korean National Ballet’s “Romeo & Juliet” is one of their regular productions and may be seen almost every year. However, for this February production, you’ll be able to catch the star cast of Kim Ji-young as Juliet, Lee Dong-hoon as Romeo, and Kim Se-yeon as Lady Capulet so it’s definitely worth catching now.
“Romeo et Juliette”
February 14th, 2013 ~ February 17th, 2013 at Seoul Arts Center