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The Korea Times
October 12, 2010


MOSCOW — “Muuyong,” the Korean for dance denoting it as being worthy of discipline and discourse, was coined fairly recently when ballet and other foreign traditions were introduced here about half-a-century ago. Yet “chum,” which Koreans traditionally call the art, was a way a life, and as of late an increasing number of local dancers are making their way into international ballet competitions and troupes.

Korea’s top ballet stars, however, mostly still have foreign pedigrees — while institutes of higher education here offer reputed dance majors there is no ballet academy.

“But first, a school,” Russian legend George Balanchine is famously reported to have said when he was asked to help establish a ballet company in the United States in the early-1930s. Decades later, the School of American Ballet in New York stands among the most prestigious in the world.

The choreographer knew how Russia — so far away from the Western European roots of the art, became a ballet capital —the power of education.

The Bolshoi Theater, the dream stage for ballet and opera, was established in 1776 and its residential Bolshoi Ballet was launched four years later in 1780. But boasting a longer history than either powerhouse is the affiliate ballet academy which opened in 1773 under the auspices of Catherine II.

Originally founded as an orphanage in 1763, the Moscow State Academy of Choreography (commonly known as the Bolshoi Ballet Academy) is reputed for producing dancers of ultimate power and poise.

The school accepts 10-year-olds and turns them into ballerinas and ballerinos over a step-by-step process; eight years later those who pass the annual exams are qualified to join any given Russian dance company.

Each class is comprised of 15 female and 15 male Russian students plus a handful of foreign ones. Russian nationals attend free of charge, and dormitories cater to those from outside Moscow. Scholarships and financial aid for dance uniforms and supplies are also available.

“The ultimate goal of this school is to produce professional dancers that can take the stage. In order to have top-notch ballet companies, it’s crucial to educate each and every member into the best dancer,” said Ludmila Golovchenko, who has taught at the school for 20 years.

In Korea, ballet training is aimed at giving winning performances in international competitions, but in Russia it is for the sake of performance itself. Thus there is emphasis on style more than technique, and the core curriculum includes actual stage experience.

“We do not teach technique; rather we teach how to use technique to deliver convincing emotions and characters in a given piece, how to express feelings in each gesture and movement. And so we try to help each student exhibit and develop his or her unique style and personality,” Golovchenko said.

The students at the academy do not toil in ballet tights all day; while they learn folk and modern dance, acting and gymnastics, they also learn regular academic subjects from mathematics to French, philosophy and art history.

The Korean press were invited to watch four different classes, including male and female classes for 13- to 14-year-olds. Each course, led by ballet stars-turned-instructors, is small and intimate. Students learn from a given teacher for a minimum of two years, and thus receive individual attention.

It was notable how a piano accompanist played for each lesson, adjusting the tempo accordingly. Students thus become well acquainted with live musical rhythm and are themselves required to learn the piano until the third or fourth grade.

Balanchine once said that “Dance is music made visible,” and such systematic training shows why Russian ballet has become the epitome of flashing theatrics, bravura movements and, moreover, unique artistry.

“In Korea I never formally learned pas de deux, which is very important in ballet, during class. I learned how to do it here for the first time when I was in junior high,” said Kim Yeon-jeong, 22, a graduate of the academy who is working toward a master’s degree in ballet education at the school’s affiliate institute. “I think students are able to concentrate better because they teach things very systematically.”

Of the some 300 students that attend the school, about 100 are from abroad, including eight Koreans. The Korea National Ballet Company’s star ballerina Kim Joo-won was trained here, while her fellow soloist Kim Ji-young attended St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.

Young Korean artists may be making a mark in the international competition scene, but with the lack of a state-supported ballet academy, local ballet may have to continue relying on “counter-imported” talent.


Copyright 2010 Korea Times

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