The Korea Herald


Korea National Ballet’s ‘Carmen’ gets Chinese premiere

Principal dancer Kim Ji-young shines as the fiery gypsy at China’s first International Ballet Season

By Claire Lee

Published : Nov. 13, 2013 - 19:14

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BEIJING ― Just a year after the National Ballet of China had the Korean premiere of its staple repertoire “Raise the Red Lantern,” its Korean counterpart ― the Korea National Ballet ― premiered its rendition of French choreographer Roland Petit’s (1924-2011) “Carmen” and “The Woman of Arles” in China on Tuesday.

Korea National Ballet’s principal dancers Kim Ji-young (right) and Lee Young-cheol star as Carmen and Don Jose in French choreographer Roland Petit’s “Carmen” at Tianqiao Theatre in Beijing, China, Tuesday. (Korea National Ballet) Korea National Ballet’s principal dancers Kim Ji-young (right) and Lee Young-cheol star as Carmen and Don Jose in French choreographer Roland Petit’s “Carmen” at Tianqiao Theatre in Beijing, China, Tuesday. (Korea National Ballet)
The performance took place as part of China’s on-going, inaugural International Ballet Season, hosted by the National Ballet of China in Beijing. The ballet bash features dances by 12 companies around the world, including the KNB, the Atlanta Ballet from the U.S., the Russian National Ballet Theatre, and Odessa National Opera and Ballet Theater from Ukraine.

The venue of the performance, Beijing’s Tianqiao Theatre, was completely packed on Tuesday night. Built specifically for dance performances, the 1,215-seated venue celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Tuesday’s show marked the KNB’s fifth performance in China; it first came in 2000 to present a gala program, consisting of “La Esmeralda” and “Paquita.” Prior to Tuesday’s show, the troupe last performed in Beijing in 2006, presenting “Le Corsaire.”

“The National Ballet of China also has been performing Petit’s ‘Carmen’ and ‘The Woman of Arles,’” said Choi Tae-ji, the artistic director of KNB.

“So when they invited us, they offered to lend their stage set for our show. All we had to bring was our costumes. For those who have already seen the Chinese version of ‘Carmen’ and ‘The Woman of Arles,’ it would be interesting to see what the Korean version is like, though choreographed by the same artist. We are hoping to see more exchanges with the Chinese troupe in the future.”

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea. A number of significant cultural events took place in Korea, including the National Ballet of China’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” which was performed in Seoul as part of the anniversary celebration.

The National Theatre Company of Korea and the National Theatre of China premiered their joint production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in Seoul last year as well. The play, set during China’s Cultural Revolution, was directed by Chinese director Tian Qinxin and performed by an all-Korean cast in the Korean language. The same production of “Romeo and Juliet” ― again featuring an all-Korean cast ― also had its Beijing premiere on Sunday at the National Theatre of China, two days before the premiere of KNB’s “Carmen” and “The Woman of Arles.”

“I did not know too much about the Korea National Ballet until we performed ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ in Seoul last year,” Wang Quanxing, deputy director of the National Ballet of China, said. “And we discovered that there is a very strong, intelligent fan base for ballet in Korea. That led us to learn more about the KNB and we came to think that it is one of the most representative ballet companies in Asia.”

Based on Bizet’s famous opera “Carmen,” the eponymous ballet is considered one of the most iconic pieces by Petit. His wife, French ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire, rose to international prominence in the 1950s as the seductive gypsy in Petit’s “Carmen.” The KNB first staged the piece in Seoul in 2010, along with two other pieces by Petit ― “The Young Man and Death” and “The Woman of Arles.”

“‘Carmen’ is one of the most challenging pieces to perform, more so than ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Don Quixote,’” said KNB’s long-time principal Kim Ji-young, who performed Carmen for Tuesday’s show. The ballerina, who seemed evidently nervous backstage prior to the show, performed in China in 2000 and 2001, but did not perform for the troupe’s 2005 and 2006 Chinese tour. “Carmen” was her first performance in China in 12 years.

“It highly demands physical strength and endurance and requires character analysis. In Bizet’s opera, Carmen is free-spirited and almost masculine. The Carmen in Petit’s ballet is strong and masculine, but also very sexy. I hope the Chinese audience gets a good glimpse of what Korean ballet is like with this show.”

Kim was captivating as the fiery femme fatale, especially during the intense pas de deux before she is stabbed by Don Jose. Dancer Lee Young-cheol was also convincing as Jose, who falls prey to his own desire for Carmen.

KNB principals Lee Eun-won and Lee Dong-hoon starred as the star-crossed lovers in the 35-minute ballet “The Woman of Arles” which is based on French novelist Alphonse Daudet’s short story of the same title. The tragic ballet famously features Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of the provincial landscape as the stage set.

The set provided by the National Ballet of China was almost identical to the one of the Korean troupe.

“It is my first time to see a performance by a Korean ballet company,” said Jessica Ren, a Chinese audience member who watched the show on Tuesday. “I think it quite exceeded my expectations.”

By Claire Lee, Korea Herald correspondent