By Clive Barnes
SEOUL, South Korea -- The Russians are not just coming, they have already come, and classic ballet here in Southeast Asia is fast losing its traditionally Caucasian face.
Looking back over the final decades of this fading century of dance, these two major trends, often passing generally unobserved, are underlined, almost symbolized, by the presence of Korea's Universal Ballet, now producing a smart and highly effective new production of Marius Petipa's 1877 Russian masterpiece "La Bayadere" at the Sejong Cultural Center in Seoul.
The Universal Ballet is an unusual bird. It was founded 15 years ago, and remains largely funded, by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, of the Unification Church fame, originally as an appropriate living memorial to his son after his death in a car crash, whose widow, Julia A. Moon, was then a more than promising dancer.
Today, Julia Moon is not only the company's prima-ballerina but also its general director, and the troupe itself, which this past summer had a smash success in a European tour through Hungary, Italy and Spain, is emerging as a major player in the world of dance.
Even in the time since it was first seen in New York at City Center of April last year, it has significantly improved and matured. Among all the Asian ballet companies deserving international attention -- including those in Japan, Mainland China and Hong Kong -- Universal Ballet is among the most interesting, ambitious and accomplished.
Yet the company is also odd in some ways. Not only is it an impressive indicator of Asia's growing impact on dance (more than 80 percent of the dancers are Asiatic, mostly Korean) it is unique in having its main school 7,000 miles away from Korea, in Washington, D.C.
A few years ago, Dr. Bo Hi Pak, father of Julia Moon, a high executive of the Unification Church's business interests, and seemingly the energizing force behind the company itself, invited Oleg Vinogradov, then director of St. Petersburg's Kirov Ballet, to open a "Kirov Academy of Dance" in Washington.
This is the official school of Universal Ballet, although there is a smaller, feeder school in Seoul. The 62-year-old Vinogradov himself, now ousted from the Kirov by Valery Gergiev's regime, who was at first Universal Ballet's "artistic advisor," is now its full-time artistic director.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russian dancers and choreographers have -- surprise, surprise -- flocked out of Russia like migrating birds, and a company such as this Korean troupe, which has only a few Russian dancers, but an almost completely Russian ballet staff, and nowadays virtually an all-Russian repertory.
This new and sumptuous "La Bayadere," staged by Natalia Spitsyna and Vinogradov, is a precise reproduction of the Kirov staging, which varies a lot from the Natalia Makarova version, originally created for American Ballet Theater, but now with many Western companies, although it is virtually identical with Rudolf Nureyev's production for the Paris Opera Ballet.
Both the more authentic Kirov version and the more theatrical Makarova have their particular virtues, and I admire both more or less equally. The Korean production is visually a stunner.
The Russian designer, Marianna Zentchenko, has done a glamorous and affectionate period pastiche of 19th-century ballet, sweetly old-fashioned and in its own traditional way handsomely spectacular.
The company -- which will probably bring this "Bayadere" to New York for its planned season at the New York State Theater in 2001 -- supplements its 56-strong roster of dancers with about 50 students, many of whom have serious dancing to do.
The style of the company is basic Russian, even Kirov-Russian, but it is no slavish imitation, and a special charming individuality is already making itself evident.
For this first capacity-audience run (the theater holds 3,400) there were four different casts, of which I saw three. All of them had real and exciting quality -- the youth of the company and its unaffected verve give a special accent to everything it touches.
Among the ballerinas, I was most impressed with the soft, lyric maturity of Julia Moon as the temple-dancer Nikia and the bright promise of 17-year-old American Adrienne Canterna (a graduate of the Washington school) as Nikia's aristocratic rival Gamzatti.
However, Sun-Hee Park made a particularly forceful and stylish Nikia, and Eun-Sun Jeon, while less securely confident had her own impressive virtues. The three Solors (that sadly vacillating hero) I saw all partnered well but danced with more bravery than bravura. Far better were the two character dancers, Min-Young Cho and Ji-Hoon Yeom, sharing the virtuoso role of the Golden Idol.
I hope the company takes the risk to bring this to New York -- despite the size of the undertaking, for it does show this 15-year-old company to maximum advantage.