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‘Hoi Rang’ hopes to redefine Korean ballet: The Korean National Ballet’s latest production tells the tale of an unexpected Joseon warrior

May 22,2019
Korean National Ballet’s “Hoi Rang” premiered on Friday at GS Caltex YeulMaru in Yeosu, South Jeolla. [KOREAN NATIONAL BALLET]
YEOSU, South Jeolla - On Friday, the Korean National Ballet debuted its latest piece, “Hoi Rang,” based on a Korean story that emphasizes the value of hyo - the filial affection and duty to one’s parents that is often stressed in Confucian cultures - in the southern coastal city of Yeosu, South Jeolla.

The show was choreographed by Kang Hyo-hyung, who is also a soloist in the company. The script, written by Han A-reum, is based on a story that appears in “Ilsayusa,” a collection of stories about low- and middle-class citizens of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) written by journalist Jang Ji-yeon during the Korean Empire (1897-1910). The ballet is directed by Han’s husband Seo Jae-hyung.

The story revolves around a young woman called Rang, who disguises herself as a man and joins the army to fight in a war on behalf of her elderly father. Together with Jung, a Joseon warrior, they defeat enemy troops and Rang distinguishes herself by preventing a revolt by General Yi Gwal.

Rang’s comrades eventually find out that she is a woman and she begs them to acknowledge her as a soldier. She returns to her hometown, much to her father’s relief, marries Jung and lives happily ever after.

Top: Kang Sue-jin, the Korean National Ballet’s artistic director, speaks during a press conference on Friday at the GS Caltex YeulMaru in Yeosu, South Jeolla, prior to the premiere of “Hoi Rang.” Center and above are scenes from the ballet. [KOREAN NATIONAL BALLET]
Although every nook and cranny of this piece seems very Korean, audiences will be taken aback by how modern the choreography, the staging and the costume design of “Hoi Rang” are. There’s no sign of hanbok, or traditional Korean dress, or any designs that are reminiscent of the Joseon era on stage. Rather, the performance has many grotesque elements - a style director Seo is known for.

“The mission of a national ballet company is to create great works and be successful not only in Korea, but also get acknowledged globally,” said Kang Su-jin, artistic director of the company. “I don’t believe that ‘Korean ballet’ means a ballet that is performed while wearing traditional Korean dress like hanbok.”

Kang believes that “Korean ballet” is “a ballet based on Korean beauty and a Korean story. This woman named Rang is very delicate but strong. This, I believe is the beauty of Korean women.”

Because Rang disguises herself as a male soldier, the choreography for the role is quite intense. The ballerina has to dance among and blend in with male dancers with strong physiques.

As a member of the company herself, choreographer Kang is well aware of the capabilities and talents of her colleagues and she “knew exactly to what extent [she could] push the dancers to make this production work.”

In many aspects, says artistic director Kang, this ballet has been created to appeal to the general public.

It attracts the ballet aficionados who appreciate the dancers pulling off challenging choreography and also those looking for an interesting story. The “fairy tale-like story is sure to captivate audiences from start to finish,” said Kang.

Those who are fans of ballet for its beautiful music will not be disappointed because the production team also decided to stick to the music of classical composers from Europe including Brahms, Holst and Tchaikovsky, who are familiar to many Koreans. Choreographer Kang selected the pieces.

The full 80-member Korean Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Chung Chi-yong plays the music for “Hoi Rang.” Usually, when a full-length ballet or opera visits a rural art center, it cannot take the whole orchestra along with them because the orchestra pits cannot accommodate such a large group. However, the GS Caltex YeulMaru arts center in Yeosu was able to expand the stage so that the full orchestra was able to attend and perform at the world premiere of “Hoi Rang.”

Artistic director Kang decided to premiere the show at GS Caltex YeulMaru, which was designed by French architect Dominique Perrault because she wanted the show to be enjoyed by not only global audience but also by those living in rural areas who don’t typically have access to diverse performances.

“Ballet in Korea is now being enjoyed by more and more people,” said Kang, adding that the demand is increasing in rural parts of Korea as well. “We are glad that the timing was right and that ‘Hoi Rang’ was able to premiere in Yeosu.”

After ending its run in Yeosu, the production will move to Ulsan from May 31 to June 1. It will be staged at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul in November.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]




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