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[Herald Review] 'Korea Emotion': a blend of gugak, hanbok and ballet

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : March 20, 2023 - 20:00

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"Korea Emotion" (Universal Ballet)

It's difficult to express emotions, especially when the emotion itself isn't clearly defined by language. In Korea, there’s a complex, multi-faceted emotion called “jeong,” which is deeply rooted in Korean culture.

"Jeong" is often described as a feeling of affection or attachment that arises from a sense of emotional connection. It is sometimes characterized by feelings of warmth, fondness or longing and yearning for someone or something.

But after watching the Universal Ballet’s latest production, “Korea Emotion,” which wrapped up its three days of performances on Sunday, audience members are sure to have felt a range of emotions in their hearts that, if put into words, would be “jeong.”

"Korea Emotion" (Universal Ballet)

“Korea Emotion” offered a captivating interpretation of this uniquely Korean emotion through the expressive language of ballet. The music, choreography, dancers, hanbok costumes and set design all came to embody this emotion.

Instead of tights, the male dancers wore modernized traditional Korean attire or hanbok. The flowing and fluttering of the hems of the dancers’ costumes added a unique touch to their sautes and pirouettes, creating mesmerizing shapes and silhouettes.

The 75-minute performance was composed of a collection of nine short episodes, with each episode focusing on different aspects of relationships, including romantic love, family bonds and friendships.

Eight pairs of dancers opened the stage dancing to “Rhapsody of the East Sea” by Ensemble Sinawi. The powerful and quick beats of “jajinmori” and "deureongaengi," two types of traditional rhythm, created a perfect opener to the ballet company’s new season.

Choreographer and artistic director Liu Bingxian said in a previous interview with The Korea Herald that choosing the music was the toughest part. His 6-month search for the right music paid off handsomely -- each piece felt like it was made precisely for the performance.

The opening episode was dynamic and powerful at some points, and soft and poignant at others. Yet, the overall feeling was that of an aching quality which was profoundly touching.

"Korea Emotion" (Universal Ballet)
"Korea Emotion" (Universal Ballet)

An all-female and an all-male “pas du quatre,” ballet dances of four people, came next followed by an all-female and an all-male “pas de deux,” dance duets.

The episodes were arranged so that the differences between the male and female dancers, along with the energy and sensibilities they elaborated, contrasted more sharply.

For example, two female dancers danced to Peter Schindler’s “DasomeⅠ” expressing the mother-daughter affection, or sisterly love, while two male dancers danced to “Dasome Ⅱ” to show brotherly love.

"Korea Emotion" (Universal Ballet)

Liu’s attention to detail was evident in the costumes and set design, which balanced traditional elements with a contemporary edge.

He said that he put a lot of effort into making a set design that could capture the ambiance and the mood of the music, leaving more room for the audiences' imagination.

Instead of an elaborate stage set, the backdrop for each episode changed via projected scenes of misty mountains, flowers, a starry night sky and falling golden rain.

The overpowering finale was “Gangwon Jeongseon Arirang” where gugak, pansori, and soprano all came together. Similar to how Julia Moon, the general director of Universal Ballet, explained the meaning of Arirang as “the joy of finding myself,” 24 dancers performed the finale with an air of grandeur.