ARKO Arts Centre, Seoul, South Korea; July 28-August 4, 2014
The Seoul International Dance Competition has reached its eleventh year. As well as sections for ballet and contemporary dance it is, I believe, unique in its inclusion of a division for ethnic dance. Asia has a dance culture reaching back millennia and, especially in regional Chinese dance, there is great variety performed in sumptuous costumes.
The ballet, predictably, was of an exceptionally high standard. Korean dancers in companies throughout the world give evidence of the quality of their early training. Korean men can gain exemption from the obligatory three year military service by winning gold at an international dance competition. This is no small incentive and boosts the number of male entrants.
In the Pre-Junior 1 division, diminutive 12-year-old Lee Eun-Soo won gold. His Acteon solo was surprisingly mature but also full of youthful vigour. His jumps hit the heights creating picture-perfect positions in the air, and on the ground he was spinning like the proverbial top and all presented with a warm open personality: a young star in the making.
Kim Eun-Seo gained silver (there is no gender divide in this category) dancing a sparkling Kitri to an exceptionally high standard. She was one of several beautiful young females with technique to match any professional in addition to blossoming artistry. The fact that there were no fewer than three encouragement prizes indicated the mass of talent in this division. The jury, led by Wayne Eagling, were obviously having a hard time deciding!
In the next age division, Pre-Junior 2, Nam Min-Ji, another Korean, win gold. She danced “La Esmeralda” as did many, many others. Most could do the tricks but she stood out from the crowd with exceptional strength and a hint of sensuality in her presentation. Her second solo, the Tableau du Rêve from “Raymonda” was a good choice showing her artistry in a lyrical contrast. Despite the jury’s advice, many candidates chose two solos very similar in style giving little chance
to assess their full potential.
In the Junior division, Park Won-A gained female gold for a stylish, confident “Grand Pas Classique” while Lee Sun-Woo from China danced the Prince’s solo from “The Sleeping Beauty” with crisp beats on the cabrioles, soundless landings and a whirlwind manège to win gold in the male section.
The seniors were permitted to dance a pas de deux in place of two solos. In the West, many competitors take this option with a non-competing male partner, as schools often do not have sufficient male dancers of the quality needed but strangely, in Seoul, there were many non-competing females. In the duets this meant the male could show little more than his partnering skills and there was the feeling among the judges that this was not a satisfactory arrangement and that dancing two solos was the better male option.
Gold in the Female Senior Ballet went to Larissa Lyushina from Ekaterinburg Ballet in Russia performing with partner Andrey Sorokin who was unplaced. Their performances on the competition night were somewhat laid back and under par, however they pulled out the stops for the Gala Night with a thrilling “Le Corsaire” in a performance that was truly gold standard, their solos particularly bursting with confident pizazz.
Lee Seung-Hyun won male gold dancing the solo from “La Esmeralda”, an interesting and unusual choice and danced to a breathtakingly high standard, in addition to his sensitive interpretation of Albrecht.
Contemporary dance solos always present additional problems for the judges. Without the canon of 19th century classics to choose from the range of styles is seemingly limitless; from neo-classical solos whose only claim to the title ‘contemporary’ is that they have been recently written, to bare-foot minimalism. Those for the Junior Ballet division were designated and choreographed by jury member, Hue Young-Soon. For the women she created “Wave of Emotion” encouraging them to deliver an energetic interpretation, give evidence of working off-centre and show that most revealing of steps: a simple run. The men had “Inner Voice” an intense, reflective solo which provided contrast as the current preference in Korea is for a powerful athletic style. Both solos shifted the competitors out of their comfort zone and were most welcome.
The designated Contemporary Dance division generated high quality performances but was a challenge for the jury who struggled with the great variety of interpretations and discussions went on well into the night. Gold went to Korean, Bae Hyo-Sub, a powerfully built man who moved with an improvised quality, launching into the air, running and turning with natural ease. His “Song of Mountain Roaming”, set to traditional music, was a joy to watch. In the female section, Cai Na from China danced “Stylite” an imaginative work using as a prop, a band of strong elastic to very good effect. The Junior Contemporary award went to Jang Hoi-Weon. A strong performer, her “Out of Timing” was athletic rather than expressive but a popular choice. The male prize went to Kim Sung-Min dressed in an androgynous white tunic. “Tears to Disappear” was also extremely physical but additionally showed a fluid movement quality.
The Ethnic Dance category had two divisions: Traditional and Creative, judged by a team of experts in the field. The traditional incorporated the ancient court dances with gestures and fan movements of infinite precision to delight aficionados. Winner of Senior Male Gold was Bai Xue-Feng performing “Black Hat Dance”, resonant with mysticism in the Cham tradition, and wearing an extraordinarily elaborate costume.
In Creative Ethnic Female Senior, Kim Ha-Na won gold dancing “The Departed Soul”, a graceful and inventive adaptation on a Korean theme. A competitor who caught my attention though sadly not that of the judges, was Neil John Casagan from the Philippines. His jaunty “Sayaw sa Palaton” in the junior creative division, performed on a mosaic of plates was witty, inventive and performed with great glee.
The Closing Ceremony showcased the winners of the gold medals and brought the event to an exciting climax, although the Grand Prix of $10,000, usually given to an exceptional senior, was not awarded this year. It was a treat to see Korean, Hee Seo (as she is known in the West where names are reversed) a principal with American Ballet Theatre dancing the Balcony pas de deux from MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” with James Whiteside also an ABT principal. It was an inspiration to the participants, predominantly Korean, to see the success of one of their own and Soe’s Juliet was full of heartfelt passion. They danced this again, to the delight of the audience, at the World Gala which also included works from regional companies.
“Sinful Thought” by Kim Dong-Kyu reflected the innovation of contemporary Asian choreography. Street meets philosophy, as exploring the nature of objectivity finds physical expression in high energy urban dance. The smoky setting underscored by a repetitive pulse and building on effective dynamics made a potent mix. Integrity drives the practical choices and the result is a quality art work. Similarly, in Zhang Disha’s “Motley”, the Chinese dancers Qui Yunting and Wu Sicong combined abstract emotions at opposite ends of the spectrum to create a duet of thrilling physically.
Julia H. Moon’s Universal Ballet presented an extract from Hans van Manen’s “Black Cake”. Out of context, it looked somewhat too jolly and neglected the indispensable ironic edge. The National Dance Company under the direction of Yun Sung-Joo offered “Dear Nangane”, a fascinating work rife with ambiguity. In the midst of war a Korean woman and a Japanese officer drown in a suicide pact and through spirit figures she imagines a fictional romance. John Cranko’s “Holbein Suite pas de deux” was performed by Kim Jo-Young and Lee Young-Cheol from the Korean National Ballet with joyful intimacy.
At the close of every dance competition the unsuccessful are consoled with the mantra that ‘everyone’s a winner’ which probably doesn’t feel that way for those who ‘also ran’. However just getting into the finals is no small feat and this experience will stand them in good stead in their future careers. They can take heart from the fact that the ranks of principal dancers in professional companies are not only drawn from competition winners.
More photos from the competition: