Graceful Ballerina Hyo-Jung Kang Dances Her Way Across the World and into the Spotlight.
Hyo-Jung Kang was born and raised in Seoul, Korea. She started her ballet training in 1998 at the Sunwha Art Middle School in Seoul. From there, she traveled all over the world to train at the Kirov Academy in Washington D.C. and to perform in various parts of Asia, America, Switzerland, and Germany. Kang even participated in the Prix de Lausanne, and continued her ballet training at the John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart where she graduated in 2004. In April 2011, she was given the prestigious title of “Principal Dancer” after her amazing performance as Juliet in John Cranko’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Seoul Journal’s Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with Hyo-Jung Kang as she gave us insight on her life and career as a successful dancer.
SJ: How did you get started dancing?
KANG :I started dancing because I was really shy when I was a little girl. I was about eight or nine. My mom thought it would be good for me to start dancing for my posture and to get more confidence and so that is how I started. I remember crying in my first ballet class because everyone else was doing something crazy like a split and I couldn't. Somehow I really liked it. I actually started with ballet and Korean traditional dancing. The first few years I didn't take it very seriously, I just did it for fun. Because of my dad’s work, we had to move to another city. Then we realized that they didn't have any ballet schools there, so my parents said, “Time to stop, you've done ballet enough so why don't you focus on studies?” That's when I realized that I really liked dancing and I didn't want to stop. Somehow—I don't know if it is destiny or what—but a ballet school opened and we saw the advertisement on the bus so that is how I started dancing again. I went there and my instructor told my parents to move back to Seoul and send me to a professional ballet school. Because of me, we all had to move back to Seoul and I started to dance professionally.
SJ: Wow. So your whole family moved back to Seoul. Where was your father?
KANG: He stayed in Daejeon, it’s two hours away from Seoul.
SJ: Can you tell us about how you joined Stuttgart Ballet?
KANG:After moving back to Seoul, I was discovered by Julia Moon from Universal Ballet—she is a director there. She saw me in the school and suggested I go to the Kirov Academy, which is in Washington D.C. So I went there on my own when I was 13 years old, and then the director at Kirov Academy suggested I participate in the Prix de Lausanne, which is in Lausanne, Switzerland. Then I went to the John Cranko Schule for one year. That's when Reid Anderson, our director, noticed me at the school performance and asked me to join the company.
SJ: So you had to leave your family behind and move on with your career at a pretty young age. What has been the hardest part of it all?
KANG:The hardest part I would say was when I first joined the company because the way I came into the company was quite special. I did not have to stay at school for two years. I just went straight to the company from school, and of course, I had a huge hope that he would immediately use me for solos and big roles. But the first few years, I was just in the corps de ballet where there were 20 to 30 people on stage. I was very disappointed, and I was losing my self-confidence as well, because I was not able to dance as much as I wanted. I think for me that was the hardest thing. Of course, coming back from an injury was also pretty hard.
SJ: What part of ballet are you best at?
KANG:Before I joined the Stuttgart Ballet, I was only a classical dancer. But the company does a lot of contemporary pieces as well as classical, so I started having fun doing newer works. It’s hard to say what I am good at. I think I can do both classical and contemporary, and I have a lot of fun doing the two different types of ballet. Also, when I was dancing in a lot of John Cranko roles, I started I became the roles—going deeper into the role and being the role, instead of acting. That is what I learnt a lot of here in the company.
SJ: I want to understand a little bit about ballet from your perspective. What makes someone great in your field? Is it physical fitness or elegance? What is the most important?
KANG: Of course, I think the most important thing is to have a basis, but everybody can perform two or three pirouettes since they are not hard. You work and it works. I think what makes a dancer special is when they have their own color that no one else has. Dancers are like sculptures, working over the years, with different choreographers and dancing different ballets is what shapes us and helps us to discover our personal qualities and colors. You think of the dancer as he or she has something that no one else has, and I find that to be a true artist.
SJ: Do you have a favorite performance? What was your toughest performance?
KANG: I am a perfectionist and I have done a lot of shows, but there are only a few that I remember and I think I did alright. Maybe the first show that I remember was three or four years into the beginning years of my career in this company. I remember the first chance I had to be on stage, dancing a solo. I felt completely naked because there was no one else on stage except me, so it was a really strange, amazing feeling. And the second show that I remember is when I got promoted to Principal Dancer. It was quite special because my partner and I got promoted right after the show. We both enjoyed it so much. We really danced with our hearts and then Reid Anderson came onto the stage after the show, with every member there, and spoke into the microphone saying that we both were promoted after the show. I remember that. It was a really special performance, and I think many people in the company still remember the show. I was injured at the beginning of last season, and the first return performance was a full-length performance of Sleeping Beauty. That season was very tough—mentally as well. I wasn’t sure if I still loved dancing.
SJ: Why did you say you were confused after you were injured?
KANG:I wasn't sure anymore if I loved dancing or if this was really for me. I was a little bit lost, I think. But this first performance of Sleeping Beauty really made me feel like I found that dancing is what I should be doing: it’s what I love doing and something that I cannot live without. It was a performance that made me realize again what ballet was for me. So that is why I remember that show.
SJ: Who has been the biggest inspiration for you?
KANG: My teacher in Kirov Academy really inspired us and she made me cry a lot. She was a very tough teacher. Her name is Alla Sizova. She used to be a famous dancer in Russia and danced with Nureyev a lot as well. She is not only an amazing dancer but an amazing teacher as well. She didn't speak a word of English, but she was 65 and she was teaching our class. Since she couldn't speak a word of English, she showed us everything with her body. And that was very special—amazing. She passed away last year. I don't think I would be here without her training and teaching. There are a lot of people in my life that I’m thankful for, but I think she inspired me the most.
SJ: Do you get a chance to visit Korea or are you constantly training?
KANG:Usually once or twice a year. The schedule here is very tight, and it doesn't always happen, but whenever there is a show in Korea they try their best to fit me in the schedule there. I try to go home every summer because all of my family are there and I need to see them. I need to go there and get recharged. Otherwise, I go there whenever I have a performance with the company or whenever I have a gala performance. I try to go there as often as I can.
SJ: Do you travel alone?
KANG:I usually travel with my partner here or alone if I have to dance without my partner there.
SJ: Do you enjoy performing in Korea? Are Korean audiences different from the ones in Germany?
KANG: Of course. When I perform in Korea, my family gets to see me dancing—that is the only place they can see me dancing. I want to show them everything. It is also the only chance a Korean audience can see me. During my first gala performance that I ever did in Korea, I could feel it, because it’s usually dark— but this time with the lighting, I saw their faces. I still remember their faces; they were really fascinated and so into me that I still remember that. It was quite strong. That is why I love going back to Korea and dancing there. Dancing in Stuttgart—the audience here is really amazing. I can feel that they really love dancing and that they know so much about ballet. There are a lot of older people and they have been watching it for so many years. They have seen so many different generations and they know how it is supposed to be. They know every cast and they come to see every cast. Both places feel like home, but in a different way—very warm and comfortable and strong.
SJ: What do you miss the most about Korea?
KANG:Food. And my family, of course.
SJ: What is your favorite Korean food?
KANG: It’s hard to choose; probably the most traditional food with all of the side dishes—like Korean BBQ. I just love Korean food.
SJ: What do you love the most about being Korean? What do you love the most about Korean culture?
KANG: Probably the extra warmth and love. It is called “jung” (the same pronunciation as my name) in Korean; it’s this extra warmth they give you.
SJ:Now that you have decided that dancing is definitely for you after this last spell with your injury, what are your plans for your dancing career from here forward?
KANG: I don't know. Before I got injured, I had a lot of wishes. I wanted to get this done, I wanted to do that, and I think I wanted too much. But after being injured, I just want to enjoy every moment on stage, every moment in the studio. That's all I want. I think that is the most important. It’s a very short career.
SJ: Would you teach dancing?
KANG: Probably; I enjoy teaching what I’ve seen and what I have learned all this time. If I ever get a chance, I would love to teach.
SJ: Do you have a favorite ballet that you performed in?
KANG: I like all of the Cranko ballets. Right now I am working on Onegin. That is one of my favorite ballets. Romeo and Juliet as well. There is a piece I haven’t done called Die Kameliendame. The English name is Lady of the Camellias by John Neumeier. Another is by Uwe Scholz—it’s called Seventh Symphony. It looks very exciting too.
SJ: In your opinion, what is the best thing about being a ballerina?
KANG: I get to be different characters. I can live as a different character on stage and discover how far I can go and how much I can do— how deep I can go into the roles. You need to be very disciplined since it is a very hard job and our bodies are instruments. But what you get back after putting so much into it is ten hundred times more.
SJ: Why do you like becoming different characters?
KANG: In our daily life as a dancer everything is about the work, about the preparation for a performance. When I am on stage I can actually live the character and experience everything that the role experiences: Falling in love for the first time, for example, or the feeling of loss or being rejected.
SJ: How do you prepare for your performance? Do you have a specific routine or ritual?
KANG: I try to not to do any of that, because I think that you start to get mental. What I do is I try to keep it the same as possible. Even if I have a very important performance in the evening, I try to stay the same everyday. I try to relax before the performance. That makes me calm. I try to put 120% into the rehearsals and then try to not think about anything during the performance. My body remembers everything and I don't need to be nervous, so I just enjoy every moment.
SJ: How often do you usually work out?
KANG: We rehearse from 10:30 AM to 6:30 PM, Monday through Saturday—plus the performances that are sometimes on Sunday. It's a lot of work, and having a free day is special for us, but at the same time for all the dancers the worst day is coming back after having one day off. We are happy that we have a free day, but our bodies feel it, if we haven’t moved for one day.
SJ: How long can people perform professionally?
KANG: It depends. We have a dancer who is around 50. She is going to retire next year. You know her—Sue-jin Kang. She is one of the oldest in the company and she does not perform so much anymore, but she is still dancing. So you can dance that long, but usually I would say around 40.
SJ: Your English is amazing. Do you keep up with your Korean?
KANG: Yes, I still love watching Korean TV programs. Whenever I get a chance to speak Korean, I would like to. I don't want to lose it because it’s important. So, I think I’m okay in Korean. Whenever I go back to Korea in the summer, the first week I need to get used to it. But then it’s very comfortable for me.
SJ: Do you have a favorite Korean drama?
KANG:: I used to have a lot, but right now I like watching a lot of entertainment shows. It’s nothing serious. I used to love Korean dramas. Whenever I hear somebody say something is good, I try to watch it. It makes me laugh, and makes me feel like I am at home. So I like it.
SJ: After dancing all day, what do you do in the evenings?
KANG: usually finish around 6:30 PM. So sometimes I get a massage or take a shower and go home. I have dinner, and then I need to sew pointe shoes. Whenever my body feels terrible, I usually take a bath half an hour before I go to sleep—so, that's my life
SJ:What do you enjoy about living in Germany?
KANG: To be honest, I don't feel like I live in Germany. I feel like I live in the theater. Where I live, Stuttgart, is very quiet. There is not much going on. I don't like partying so much. I need to learn what to dance the next day and watch DVDs. So I’m either at the theater or I am at home.
SJ: How is your German-speaking ability?
KANG: I understand German, I can watch German movies and series, but speaking is a little bit hard. Whenever I get a chance to speak German, I try. I tried taking German courses, but it’s difficult. You need to have a lot of time.
SJ: But fortunately, you can speak English to them, so there is no communication problem.
KANG: Yeah, they all speak very good English. In the company, there are about 60 dancers from 24 nations and we have only two or three Germans. All of us are from different countries, so the language we speak is English. I don't really get a chance to speak German—only when I need to buy bread or something.
SJ: Do you think it would have been challenging if you spoke only Korean?
KANG:Probably. I would be shyer and I would have had a hard time getting to know people.
SJ: What advice would you give to young dancers who are just starting their career and are serious about dancing?
KANG: I would say be patient and work hard every day. Something will open up for you. You just need to be very patient and just work at it. No matter how hard it can be, don’t give up on your dream.
SJ: How did you remain patient? I know that your expectations were not met right way when you arrived. How did you keep your patience?
KANG: :Some of my dancer colleagues advised me in the first years that maybe I would be better off in another company, but I didn't leave because I felt as if I hadn’t yet shown what I could do. And there were a lot of ballets that I was dreaming to do one day. So I felt it was too soon to give up. I would still be working on what I needed to work on by myself. I just stayed patient. We say in Korea not to dig many holes but stick to one hole—which is also part of my personality - so that is what I was doing and I am happy that I didn't move to another company. And right now I am dancing all the roles that I have always been dreaming of.
SJ: Now looking back, was that good for you? Or was it a frustrating, difficult time?
KANG: Both. Looking back, I think it was a hard road, but I don’t regret it because I am doing what I love and I learned to appreciate every role that I get to dance. Everything I experienced in that time made me who I am today as a person and as a dancer.