The Korea Herald


How dance and music together create ballet

KNB director Kang Sue-jin and conductor Judith Yan speak about their first collaboration

By Claire Lee

Published : March 12, 2014 - 20:26

    • Link copied

Canadian conductor Judith Yan first saw ballerina Kang Sue-jin dance four years ago, when she was visiting Stuttgart, Germany. Kang, who was one of the principals of the Stuttgart Ballet at the time, was playing her signature role: Tatiana in John Cranko’s “Onegin.”

“I have to say, you have to see Sue-jin dance,” Yan, who is currently the director of Guelph Symphony Orchestra, said in an interview in Seoul on Monday.

“It was like a revelation. I remember going to see Sue-jin dance for the first time and I sat there with my friend and we cried. When was the last time I cried? I don’t even cry in movies. That was just incredible. She’s an incredible dancer. But she is also a tremendous actress.”

So it was a pleasant surprise when Yan received an e-mail from Kang, who is now the artistic director of the Korean National Ballet, asking her to conduct for the troupe’s season opener, “La Bayadere.”

The conductor who had been scheduled for the show canceled at the last minute, and Kang had to find a replacement. She called her colleague at Stuttgart Ballet for a recommendation, and he suggested she contact Yan. 
Kang Sue-jin (right), artistic director of the Korean National Ballet, poses with Judith Yan (left), artistic director of Guelph Symphony Orchestra at Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, Monday. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald) Kang Sue-jin (right), artistic director of the Korean National Ballet, poses with Judith Yan (left), artistic director of Guelph Symphony Orchestra at Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, Monday. (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

“The e-mail came, it was a Saturday or a Sunday morning and I remember staring at it,” Yan said. “And I remember thinking, oh, wow, ‘La Bayadere.’ And I had to look again. I had to walk away into the kitchen, make a coffee and come back and look and just see, ‘Is this real?’ It was terribly exciting.

“There were two things,” Yan continued. “One is look at who the artistic director is ― someone who is absolutely superb. So that was number one. The second was the Korean National Ballet. They have a superb reputation.”

Yan arrived in Korea on Feb. 25 and performed for the troupe’s Busan run of “La Bayadere” which was staged from Feb. 28 to March 1. For Kang, the way Yan performed ― without much time to prepare ― was a “miracle.”

“She did an amazing job in Busan,” Kang, one of the most respected dancers in Korea, said. “Yan already knew the repertoire. It is very difficult to find somebody who already knows about ballet. And ‘La Bayadere’ is not like ‘Swan Lake.’ It’s not so often performed. Yan loves to play for ballet, and in the end, everything happened for the best,” Kang said.

Yan learned to dance as a child, but stopped dancing after discovering that she “has no talent” in it. Kang also took piano lessons when she was young, but turned to dancing after realizing her “lack of talent” in music. But the two never stopped loving both. Yan has taken the baton for numerous ballet companies in Hong Kong, Canada and the U.S., on top of conducting for operas and symphonies, while Kang is recognized for her musicality and lyrical dance style.

“We always think, we play the music, the music dies, and it’s over,” said Yan. “What I love about the marriage of ballet and music is that when we musicians don’t have any air left at the end of a phrase, the dancers can continue our phrase. In the audience, when they are watching, even though the sound is dead, in their mind and in their imagination, the audience still hears the music because of what they see.”

And for Kang, music is what tells her stories ― the stories that inspire her to dance the way she does.

“When fantastic choreographers create their work, they do it in the music,” Kang said.

“As a dancer, you shouldn’t do more or less (than what has been choreographed on the music). If you try to do more, you are going to mess up. If you do too little, it’s not going to be enough. That is the crucial point. When you dance to masterpieces, such as Beethoven or Brahms, it’s difficult because you have to do exactly what the music says, but you still have to put your own color into it.”

Yan, who also worked as a pianist for the National Ballet of Canada before turning to conducting, said working with dancers has been a humbling experience. She said great dancers make the sound of music better.

“Sometimes musicians are very lazy compared to dancers,” Yan said. “Dancers do everything by memory which is mind-blowing. What I learn from dancers is that you have to repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat until it is in your body. So many times, no matter what happens, your body just remembers what you are supposed to do.

“A symphony is terrific and it’s a wonderful thing to do but you are one person and it is one person’s idea,” she continued. “Opera, it’s still the conductor’s idea. But ballet, you are just one member of a very large group of people. So you have to remove your ego and then you have a wonderful product.”

Kang and Yan’s “La Bayadere” opens Thursday in Seoul. It runs until Sunday at Seoul Arts Center’s Opera Theater in Seocho-dong, Seoul. Tickets range from 5,000 won to 100,000 won. For more information, call (02) 587-6181 or 1566-1369.

By Claire Lee (