A new beginning for ballerina Kim Joo-won

It is much easier to settle for the present. But for prima ballerina of Korean National Ballet Kim Joo-won, the title given to her more than a decade ago is something that she has to lay down now ? for a new beginning.

"I was Kim Joo-won of Korean National Ballet for the last 15 years. That was the only name for me. But I just wanted to do something creative, challenging and something that shows more of Kim Joo-won, just as an artist," she said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

Since 1998, Kim has been performing an average of 100 times a year, practicing three or four different programs simultaneously.

"I always thought that 15 years would be enough for me. I didn't want to feel as if I were being hastened. I want to bring unknown but creative foreign productions to Korea and let people know more about ballet," she said.

With "Poise," a contemporary ballet production to be staged this weekend, Kim leaves the state-run ballet troupe where she built her fame. The 35-year-old ballerina will sign a contract with KNB as a guest principal dancer, a freelance position that allows her to pursue a wider range of works.

The nation's top ballet dancer has tried to break out of the conservative arts scene by working with other genres: musical, pop art and fashion.

Semi-nude photos taken of her by photographer Kim Young-ho for Vogue magazine and his own photo exhibition in 2007 raised controversy, with some decrying her "inappropriate activity" and "abandonment" of her responsibility to represent the country's ballet.

Born in 1976 in Busan, Kim started ballet at the age of 12. Her talent led her all the way to the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow and to KNB in 1998. Kim, famous for her dramatic performances, has contributed significantly to the development of Korean ballet.

In 2006, Kim took the honors as the top female dancer at the Benois de la Danse ? held by the International Dance Association in Moscow ? widely regarded as the Academy Awards of dance. Amazed by her energy, beautiful physical proportions and dramatic performance, foreign ballet troupes gave her numerous offers. Kim, however, stayed with KNB. It was her pride that kept her here, pride encouraged by the Korean audience.

"I am a ballet dancer raised by the Korean audience and their love. I've been everywhere, from small villages in Haenam to small schools in mountainous areas in Gangwon Province. It was their love that made ballerina Kim Joo-won complete," she said.

Asked about the most unforgettable programme she has performed, Kim said "Carmen," choreographed by Mats Ek, one of Europe's best-known creative artists. In the ballet version of Bizet's opera, he deliberately eschewed graceful ballet forms in favour of awkward, grotesque movements, with the original story and plot remaining almost untouched.

"I wanted to quit by the time I was performing Mats Ek's 'Carmen.' Every single element in the production looked so ugly ? I was asked to smoke a cigar, cry furiously in a fighting scene with gypsies and even to touch a man's genitals naturally," she said.

But it changed her, she says.

"Ek smiled when I told him that I can't do this anymore. He asked me to shout at the wall. By the time I had finished the performance, I realised that I had started to think and move out of the box and evolve," she said.

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