Ballerina Kim Joo-won in Universal Ballet's Giselle
By Do Je-hae
The tragic love story of "Giselle" has been a staple at Seoul's Universal Ballet. Its latest Giselle is underway at the Seoul Arts Center until June 17.
One hurdle for companies with such a popular work is bringing something new to it, to convince the audience that another Giselle production is still worthwhile.
The quality of the lead dancers can make a real difference. What sticks with the audience long after the performance are the details they bring to interpreting their respective roles ― Giselle, a peasant girl hopelessly in love, and the young duke Albrecht, who breaks Giselle's heart by disguising his identity and ultimately triggers her death.
Some of the most famous ballet couples on and off the stage, like Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, are known as an iconic Giselle duo. Their Giselle is considered a benchmark for dancers everywhere.
It seems futile to compare one ballet company to another or one famous couple to another, but that's what fans inevitably do. Many ballet fans will be comparing what the Universal Ballet does with top companies like the Royal Ballet, particularly as their past performances are readily available on YouTube.
A problem with Universal Ballet seems to be that while it has performed the work many times, its principal dancers, who are mostly still in the early stages of their careers, lack the acting ability and the musicality to express the range of emotions that Giselle and Albrecht go through.
The company, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, is undoubtedly the most respected ballet company in Seoul, but it seems to be having difficulty in finding a true star to represent the company.
One of the oldest principals there is Hwang Hye-min, who will dance as Giselle on Sunday and June 17. Judging from a promotional video, she seems lethargic and her acting, particularly in the famous "mad scene" where Giselle loses her mind, seemed unnatural.
The true magic of this work is the music. No ballet score is as lovely and sweet as the one written for Giselle by French composer Adolphe Adam. It takes a ballerina with special musical connection to truly do justice to this great music through dance, a quality that many Korean dancers seem to lack.
The company has a special relationship with Giselle. In 1989, Universal Ballet General Director, Julia Moon danced the lead with the Kirov Ballet at the Mariinski Theater, becoming the first Asian guest principal ever to appear with the Kirov.
The company's 1985 premiere of Giselle has been followed by performances in Japan, China and Taiwan. The company toured Europe with Giselle, including performances in Hungary, Italy and Spain in 1999 and Switzerland, Germany, Austria and England in 2000. Universal Ballet's Giselle version is similar to that of the Mariinski Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia with modifications by Russian ballet master Oleg Vinogradov. Set designs are by Simon Pastukh and costumes by Galina Solovyeva.
One of the first ballet companies in Korea, the Universal Ballet's key achievements have included the development of distinctive repertoire like "The Love of Chunhyang" or "Simchung" that have been inspired by Korean folktales.
The company has been a leader in elite ballet education. Its dance school has produced many star dancers, some of whom have joined the world's foremost companies like American Ballet Theatre (ABT)'s principal Seo Hee and Kang Hyo-jung, a principal at Germany's Stuttgart Ballet.
The role of Giselle is one of the most coveted roles for ballerinas. Giselle premiered in Paris in 1841 and was originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.