Busan-born ballet dancer wins lead role in Paris piece
“Manuel Legris was once a head ballet dancer, or etoile; he’s a living legend who is being talked about as a future director of the Paris Opera Ballet,” Kim said. “It is bewildering that I am sharing the same stage with him.”
Kim’s career is a landmark in the history of Korean ballet. In 2001, after just five months of probation, he overcame fierce competition to become the first Korean to be accepted to the Paris Opera Ballet, where he is also presently the only Asian male dancer. Not only that, but it was the first time a Korean male had joined any of the world’s major ballet theaters.
Kim gradually worked his way up the ladder and, at the end of last year, passed the test to become a soloist ― or sujet in French ― one step below a head dancer. Although soloists are allowed to take lead roles from time to time, it is almost unheard of for a soloist with just three months experience to receive such an honor.
Raised in Busan, Kim was a latecomer to ballet, not starting until he was a middle school senior. Kim's mother wanted at least one of her four sons to pursue an art, and as the slimmest and gentlest of them all, Yong-geol seemed the best suited.
He started ballet lessons under the guidance of his mother, but suffered teasing from his friends for pursuing such a “sissy” pastime. Kim often skipped his ballet lessons, but his mother pushed him hard. She waited, sometimes for hours, for her son to finish school so she could take him to ballet classes herself.
Kim and his mother later reached a compromise. He told her that he was too ashamed to continue with ballet, but that he would learn a musical instrument instead. So he quit ballet and enrolled in the Pusan High School of Art.
But as soon as the pressure from his mother was off, he fell in love with ballet. The mischievous boy became a reserved one.
In 1995, Kim joined the Korea National Ballet and became a head dancer soon after. In 1998, he and a partner came in first in a Paris contest of duo ballet performances. Having achieved this much, Kim grew confident that he could become one of the world’s top ballet dancers.
Though life was easy in Seoul, Kim immediately felt a stranger when he moved to France. In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo in Paris, he said he found it very difficult being alone in a strange land and took to drinking soju to wash away his sorrows. But his desire to succeed never left him.
He kept practicing despite sustaining heel spur syndrome, and three years ago managed to quit smoking and drinking completely.
"I want to perform in ballets with strong drama. When I am immersed in a character, I come to behave like the character," Kim said.
by Choi Min-woo