A passion to dance ‘until I die’Generally, prodigies in the performing arts, be it music or dance, start at an early age. Mozart began composing at the age of five and Anna Pavlova joined the Russian Imperial Ballet when she was 10.
While most ballet dancers begin training in their early teens, Lee Won-kuk, 38, a former member of the Korea National Ballet Company and Korea’s leading male ballet dancer, or ballerino, began at the ripe age of 19.
Still, he has managed to reach the top of his profession, and maintains that position through his love of ballet and grueling practice sessions that range from 10 to 14 hours a day.
As he dances in “Don Quixote” with his partner, Mr. Lee’s expression relays a serenity that contrasts with the heavy perspiration dripping from his face. His movements are as graceful as a bird’s, and one wonders how a man’s body can be so flexible and yet display such power in his jumps.
After the repertoire is over, he gives a confident smile and then gestures to his female partner, Park Eun-hye, to accept an ovation from the audience of 10 or so ballet dancers who are sitting in his studio gazing at his sublime performance.
“I enjoy playing the supporting role to ballerinas,” Mr. Lee says. “It is the male dancer’s part to make the female shine. By doing so, the entire ballet piece radiates. The man’s performance should never dominate the limelight.”
Mr. Lee says his favorite role is Albrecht in “Gisele,” becoming impassioned as he describes the character. “‘Albrecht’ is true to his instincts. His love for Gisele is pure,” Mr. Lee says. “He is willing to sacrifice his life, and that is what saves him. There is something so philosophically profound about the piece.
“The beauty of ballet,” he adds, “Is that it expresses all my emotions in life, such as passion, love, amusement. It also teaches me about human values, like my devotion to my family and gratitude toward my teachers.”
In many ways, he says he felt at ease with ballet because he was athletic, because classical music was as soothing to him as his mother’s voice, and because it was a medium in which he could express himself. “I have the traits you see in artists; I love to do or show something for people, I have a capricious personality and I am stubborn,” he says.
Mr. Lee did not display exceptional dance or musical skills in his youth, nor did he fall in love with the art in early childhood like Rudolf Nureyev, whom he worships.
A native of Busan, Mr. Lee says, “I must admit I was a problem child in school. I didn’t study and I didn’t like going to school. But my mother liked ballet so much she suggested I try it. Starting ballet was a way to perform my filial duty to my mother, nothing more.”
It was his mother’s persuasion after he dropped out of high school that led him to ballet. Mr. Lee started taking lessons secretly, without telling his father, siblings or friends because he was embarrassed. What was supposed to be an “experiment” soon turned into an obsession; he even remembers the exact day he started ballet ― June 1, 1986.
“I tried ballet for six months, but in the early months it was so excruciatingly difficult that I wanted to quit. I don’t even want to recall that time... it was the hardest period of my life,” he says, shaking his head.
Somehow, he persisted, even after suffering a hip fracture during practice. “But at some point, during practice, I developed a devotion to ballet.
“I couldn’t sleep, eat or live without practicing ballet. My thoughts were filled with ballet. It was like being in love,” he says. He practiced 14 hours a day, all through the week.
Because he became so serious about ballet, his sisters did not dare tease him about venturing into what was deemed a female realm of art. During his 20-year career, the longest period he has rested is three months, due to injury.
After his six-month trial period, he returned to high school. After graduating, Mr. Lee enrolled in Chung-Ang University, majoring in ballet, and learned from the “father of Korean ballet,” the late Lim Sung-nam.
In 1989, Mr. Lee won the grand prize in the DongA Ballet Concours Competition, which was his crowning moment of glory, he says. It also enabled him to continue ballet because he was exempted from military service. “Ballerinos try very hard to win Concours, otherwise they have to do their military service and that effectively cuts their career prospects,” he says.
Not satisfied with the lessons offered in Korea, Mr. Lee went to New York City in 1990 to learn from Vladimir Dokoudovsky (1919-1998), founder of the New York Conservatory of Dance.
Language was not a problem, Mr. Lee says. “All [Dokoudovsky] said to me during training was ‘good,’ ‘no good’ and ‘again,’ so there was no difficulty in communicating,” he says, laughing. “Teaching ballet doesn’t require elaborate discussion.”
When even that wasn’t sufficient, Mr. Lee watched video footage of famous ballet pieces over and over again and taught himself additional techniques.
In 1993, he joined Korea’s Universal Ballet Company, where he partnered with the renowned ballerina Julia Moon, 42, who is now the general director. During his career with Universal, he also performed with the Kirov Ballet Company in Russia, touring Romania and Germany.
“He is a man who is crazy about ballet,” says Ms. Moon. “In the West, Nureyev and Baryshnikov became male stars. They were sensational. Before, only ballerinas were stars. Lee Won-kuk is the first ballerino to achieve ‘star status’ in Korea.”
He joined the Korea National Ballet Company in 1997, where he met his wife, Jang Yun-mi, a dancer with the company, whom he married three years ago. They have a two-year-old daughter named Yejin, which means “True art.” When talking to her on the phone, he says, “Yejin, come to the studio, come dance with daddy.” He said proudly, “My daughter shows talent in dancing.”
After retiring from the company in December, Mr. Lee founded his own troupe, the Lee Wonkuk Ballet Company, with 20 dancers. Ms. Moon says, “I knew he would [form his own company]. He can’t live without dancing.”
Explaining his reasons for starting his own company, Mr. Lee says, “I want to dance until I die. I want to keep on performing until my body wears out. And the second reason is, I want to perform ballet for needy people who have never been exposed to the art.”
The Lee Wonkuk Ballet Company has been performing in regional areas for charity. “Ballet has yet to become a mainstream art in our society. Ballet is taught in universities only, not in ballet schools. My dream is to one day found an academy solely to teach ballet,” he says.
His efforts nowadays make him a teacher, choreographer, performer and planner of events. But such a heavy workload does not bother Mr. Lee. “This,” he says, “is the second phase of my life.”
by Choi Jie-ho