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Kang Sue-jin: ‘This will be my last performance in Korea’

Acclaimed ballerina talks retirement after ‘Onegin’

Inarguably one of Korea’s most adorned artistic treasures, ballerina Kang Sue-jin will soon hang up her ballet slippers after her final production of “Onegin” with the Stuttgart Ballet.

“This will be my last performance in Korea,” said Kang, 48, in a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday.

“Following the shows in Korea, I will take the stage again next year to perform ‘Onegin’ once more in Stuttgart and then I will retire,” she added.  

Stuttgart Ballet artistic director Reid Anderson (from left to right), ballerina Kang Sue-jin and ballerino Jason Reilly pose during a press conference for ”Onegin“ at a press conference at the Seoul Arts Center on Wednesday. (Credia)
Stuttgart Ballet artistic director Reid Anderson (from left to right), ballerina Kang Sue-jin and ballerino Jason Reilly pose during a press conference for ”Onegin“ at a press conference at the Seoul Arts Center on Wednesday. (Credia)
The ballerina’s upcoming farewell performances will be staged at the Seoul Arts Center from Friday through Sunday, where Kang will be playing the much-anticipated lead role of Tatiana in the John Cranko original production.

“Onegin” couldn’t be a more poetic ending to Kang’s prestigious ballet career, with her retirement next year marking her three-decade anniversary with Stuttgart. The ballerina first debuted with the dance company at the age of 19 in 1986, and by 1997, Kang’s notorious disciplined attitude and unrelenting dedication to her art landed her the title of principal dancer at the German ballet company.

Kang’s repertoire arsenal has included some of the ballet world’s most classic and coveted roles -- from “Romeo and Juliet” to “Giselle.” However, many would agree that one of her most memorable and “known-for” productions has been “Onegin.” 

The three-act emotionally charged ballet drama is set in 19th-century Russia and is loosely based on Alexander Pushkin’s novel “Eugene Onegin.” The heart-wrenching ballet follows the tale of Tatiana, who declares her love for the charming Eugene Onegin, only to be met with cold rejection. Years later, the two meet again. Realizing the error of his ways, Onegin begs Tatiana for her heart again, but she has already married. 

Ballerina Kang Sue-jin (Credia)
Ballerina Kang Sue-jin (Credia)
“This (Tatiana) is one of Sue-jin’s greatest roles,” said Stuttgart artistic director Reid Anderson, who promoted Kang to the position of principal dancer nearly 20 years ago. “She has become famous in this role and I think it is only fitting that we should be performing this ballet with Sue-jin.”

“When John Cranko was alive ... he used to say, ‘Either you have it, or you don’t have it. But you can’t get it and you can’t learn it,’” Anderson continued.

“Sue-jin has that kind of thing when she comes on the stage, you win before she even does the steps because she grabs your imagination before she’s even done anything,” he said. “And when she walks onto the stage, you notice that somebody special has just walked into your life ... that’s a very special gift.”
As a self-proclaimed workaholic, Kang revealed in the past that, on average, she only sleeps a measly two to three hours a night -- a grueling method of discipline that she credits for her tremendous success. Looking back on all her ambitious pursuits, she says to this day she has “no regrets.”

Despite soon bidding farewell to the stage, Kang explained her decision to retire is not because she finds herself with nothing left in her tank. Rather, her verdict stems from her recognition of responsibility to both her audience and fellow ballerinas.

“I am not retiring because I feel like I have nothing more left in me. On the contrary, if I wanted to continue to perform, I certainly could (physically speaking),” she said. “But I’m almost 50 years old, I think I’ve done enough. I just want to stop myself before I reach the point of being too old to continue.”

“Ballet requires 100 percent of your dedication, and I feel a strong sense of responsibility and respect for the audience members -- who spend so much money on tickets. I would not want them to watch my performance and feel disappointed because I did not meet their expectations,” Kang continued.

“Also, if I stubbornly chose to take on a role in another production, I see that as me taking away a wonderful opportunity for another young and talented up-and-coming ballerina ... that would not be fair to anyone.”  

Ballerina Kang Sue-jin (Credia)
Ballerina Kang Sue-jin (Credia)
Although “Onegin” is being labeled Kang’s retirement production, the dancer revealed she may still consider doing small roles in the future. But in terms of full ballet repertories, her upcoming tour is the end of the road.  

As for her ongoing role as artistic director of the Korean National Ballet, Kang announced that she plans to continue in her position well after retirement.

The Stuttgart Ballet’s staging of “Onegin” will be held at the Seoul Arts Center’s Opera Theatre from Nov. 6 to 8. Ticket prices range from 50,000 won ($44) to 280,000 won. For more information, call 1577-5266.

By Julie Jackson (