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A Night with Roland Petit, the National Ballet of Korea, Seoul Arts Ce

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It was rush hour on a Friday, and raining heavily. The taxi ride took forever. When I arrived at the ticket booth with only half an hour to spare, the lady behind the counter insisted that I give her the reservation number. Since I had bought the tickets nearly two months ago, this number was buried beneath hundreds of other text messages on my cell phone. I gave her my name, my telephone number, my date of birth, even my resident ID number. To no avail. Apparently "foreigners" need to have the reservation number. When I finally found the reservation number and received the tickets, there was no time left even to grab a sandwich at the cafe. Still, terpsichore seemed to be smiling on me this evening. The tickets were front and center, five rows back from the stage, and the seat in front of me remained empty for all three acts.

The performance consisted of three works by Roland Petit:

"L'arlesienne," "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort," "Carmen."

The casting was as follows: L'Arlesienne

Vivette: Kim Li-Hoe (Grand Soloist)

Frederi: Jung Young-Jae (Grand Solois)

Le Jeune Homme et la Mort

Le jeune homme: Lee Dong-Hoon (Principal)

La Mort: Jang Woo-Jung (Soloist)


Carmen: Kim Ji-Young (Principal)

Don Jose: Kim Hyung-Woong (Principal)

Les Chefs des brigands: Jung Hae-Ran (Soloist), Hong Woo-Yeon (Soloist), Lum Sung-Chul (Coryphee)

Escamillo: Lee Soo-Hee (Soloist)

The dancers of the KRB are, in general, very strong, if not stunningly virtuosic. They are also ingratiating, with strong charisma and personality. And the company itself seems to be interested in taking risks by presenting the work of contemporary European choreographers together with more traditional repertoire. Besides “Raymonda,” “Cinderella,” a double bill of “Swan Lake” and “the Nutcracker,” and a charming production of “Coppelia” for children, this year’s season also includes a ballet by Boris Eifmam.

Kim Li-Hoe gave a captivating performance in L’Arlessiene. Her Vivette exuded a sweet, naïve, lively and playful innocence. Sometimes, though, this seemed more plastic than real, lacking that very depth of superficiality that, paradoxical as it might sound, characterizes some of the greatest dancers in roles such as this. Her innocence did not seem like a thin veil concealing the suffering life. It was just innocence. Perhaps for this reason, I also did not find her transition to the more tragic aspects of the role entirely compelling. Jung Young-Jae, who danced Frederi, was technically strong, but he seemed slightly overwhelmed by considerable theatrical demands of the character. His facial expression and gestures conveyed consternation rather than an infinite yearning.

The performance of Le Jeune Homme et la Mort was quite memorable. Lee Dong-Hoon gave a technically powerful and commanding performance as the “Young Man,” and Jang Woo-Jung was a compelling “Death,” with sharp, angular movements and striking lines. Her characterization was stronger than that of Lee Dong-Hoon, who often seemed more afraid of death than truly anguished and haunted by his beloved.

Kim Ji-Young’s Carmen was the strongest performance of the evening. Kim Hyung-Woong did a wonderful job capturing the aggressive, obnoxious bravado of Don Jose, and Lee Soo-Hee stood out as Escamillo. The Chefs des Brigands, and the corps were very good, and Jung Hae-Ran, with her wild hair and wonderfully vulgar aspect, was also very memorable.

The production values were very high throughout, with beautiful, edgy costumes and stage design. In the final scene of “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” the walls of the young man’s studio flew up to reveal a stunning, three-dimensional cityscape, complete with a miniature Eifel Towel with a flashing advertisement for Citroen.

My main objection to the performance was not with the dancing, but with the choreography itself. These are the only works of Roland Petit that I have ever seen, so I am probably not in a position to judge. But it seemed to me that there is something rather heavy-handed and excessively dramatic about these works --- as if he was not so much communicating in the medium of dance, as using the dance as a means of theatrical expression. His choreography switches back and forth from a classical to a modern idiom, but both appear, in turn, either predictable, or strange and arbitrary. I never felt the kind of shudder that pulses through me when I witness a movement or gesture that is charged with a meaning defying comprehension. He also does not seem especially musical in his choreographic sensibility. The music in the first two pieces was bombastic and overwrought, and the dancing seemed to respond expressively to the emotion of the music rather than engaging with it in a more contrapunctal dialogue. Since I am not familiar with his other dances, it is hard for me to tell whether this is typical of his choreography as a whole, or whether the ballet company chose pieces with music that they thought might be more accessible to the audience.

In the lobby, there was a booth set up to promote the opening of a flagship store for Repetto in Seoul. This did not strike me as so strange until I realized that Repetto was founded by Roland Petit’s mother. While I am glad to see that Korean dancers will have convenient access to high quality French pointe shoes, it nevertheless seems slightly crass to use a serious artistic performance to promote a commercial venture!

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