In November 2017, Korean ballerino Kim Ki-min performed as Prince Siegfried, the male lead of the Mariinsky Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake,” at the Seoul Arts Center. He is the first non-Russian dancer to rise to the rank of principal in the long and illustrious history of the Russian ballet company. In 2016, he won the best danseur award at the Benois de la Danse, one of the most prestigious ballet competitions, earning international fame.
I interviewed Kim by phone.
Richly expressive, Kim Ki-min’s graceful and powerful jumps with long airborne time mesmerize audiences. This photograph was taken by dancer-turned-photographer Park Gwi-seop (also known as BAKi) in his studio, for an exhibition marking the 20th anniversary of the School of Dance, Korea National University of Arts, in 2015.
Kim Ki-min started ballet when he was 10, together with his older brother, Ki-wan, who is currently a soloist with the Korean National Ballet. A ballet prodigy, he entered the Korea National University of Arts straight out of junior high, and after graduation, joined the Mariinsky Ballet in 2011 at the age of 19. He is the first Asian male dancer in the nearly 300-year history of the company.
Believing in Dancers’ Potential
Yoon Ji-young Is there a particular reason you chose Russia as your stage?
Kim Ki-min I trained for 10 years under Vladimir Kim and Margarita Kulik, both outstanding dancers with the Mariinsky Ballet. Naturally, I became deeply immersed in Russian ballet. When the Mariinsky performed in Korea in 2010, Mr. Kim introduced me to Yuri Fateyev, the director. Six months later, I was invited to audition and was accepted. In 2015, I was promoted to principal dancer. I couldn’t have made it this far through my efforts alone; it would have been impossible without my teachers who supported and believed in me. I’m enjoying life in St. Petersburg with its romantic summers and long winter nights.
Yoon There are only two non-Russians among the around 200 dancers at the Mariinsky. What do you think is its strength that sets it apart from other ballet companies?
Kim In Korea, dancers with a superior physique tend to play the leads, but in Russia, the main role goes to those deemed the most qualified and best able to fully embody the characters, though they may not be as tall or lack certain physical attributes. They have the ability to discern latent talent and potential of dancers. This is what I’m most proud of as a member of the company.
The Mariinsky masterfully expresses the distinctive character of each piece, and in most cases, the dancers are not restricted in infusing their own interpretation. Take Prince Siegfried’s coming-of-age scene in “Swan Lake,” for example. It can be interpreted and conveyed differently, depending on the dancer performing the role, the circumstances, and even the dancer’s mood that day.
When I play the part, I don’t use a special gesture to show that I’m the prince since the audience already knows that. Instead, I focus on portraying his inner mind in a natural way. People often tell me that they feel a sense of loneliness and desolation from the prince I play even though he is smiling on the outside. Even the smallest, minute details are fully conveyed to the audience.
Yoon What is the greatness of the Mariinsky Ballet and Russian ballet in general?
KimFirst, I think government support during the Soviet era played a big part in the development of Russian ballet. Also, the Mariinsky Theatre, which manages the Mariinsky Ballet, has played a pivotal role, staging numerous ballet productions. Equipped with outstanding stage facilities, the theater is every ballet dancer’s dream.
Kim dances as Aminta in the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Sylvia” at the Mariinsky Theatre in 2015. With music by Léo Delibes and choreography by Frederick Ashton, it is a classical ballet piece from the 19th century Romantic period, telling a love story between the shepherd Aminta and nymph Sylvia.
When I first performed in Russia, I was pleasantly shocked by the high standards of the Russian audience. Once, an audience member called me wanting to give me some advice about my costume and movements. Receiving a call like that was in itself a unique experience, but even more surprising was the person’s level of expertise and knowledge of ballet.
Full policy support by the government has contributed to the Russian people’s love of ballet and raising their standards, as did the fact that the country is home to some of the greatest dancers in the world, including Vaslav Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. I myself would have been willing to wait in line in front of the theater to see their performances. All of these factors have helped broaden the cultural base, which in turn led to a broader audience with higher standards.
Enriching Audience Appreciation
Yoon Ballet is not a particularly popular performing arts genre in Korea. What efforts do you think are needed for Korean ballet to develop further?
Kim There is one difference I noticed between the ballet culture in Korea and Russia. In Korea, if a male dancer falls or drops the female dancer, the audience tends to judge his performance on that mistake alone. But Russian audiences look past the mistake and wait to see what more he has to show, then make a judgment based on the overall performance. A small momentary mistake does not affect the audience’s judgment of the dancer’s prowess or the artistic completeness of the performance.
Yoon In a broad context, how is such a discerning eye for artistic value developed?
Kim There is a big difference between admiring Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” without any background information and while listening to a docent’s explanation. The same goes for ballet. They say you can see only as much as you know. I think it is also the role of the dancer to make the audience want to know more. The dancer needs to put on a performance that sustains the audience’s interest. From an audience’s point of view, if they find the performance entertaining, they will want to know and learn more about it. So, in the end, it is not just about fancy technique.
Korean ballet is world class in terms of technique, but to move to the next level it needs to focus on what we call культўра in Russian, which means the energy of culture and history. The history of Korean ballet is short, and so it is all the more important to learn from what our predecessors and teachers, who paved the way, left behind.
Russia places the utmost value on its history. Mikhail Baryshnikov became what he is today thanks to his teacher, who is largely unknown to the world. Can we say that we truly know Baryshnikov without any knowledge of his teacher and his teacher’s teacher? Whatever the field, I think true power comes from acknowledging the value of its history. This is why it is imperative that Korean dancers, including me, deeply reflect on the achievements of our predecessors who plowed through difficult circumstances and pioneered the way during the early days.
Lingering in Audience’s Memories
Yoon I recall you saying once that you want to build a ballet school one day. What are your plans and dreams for the future and is there something particular you want to achieve?
Kim There is a reason I want to build a ballet school. In Korea, whether it’s middle school, high school or college, each school teaches a different style of ballet. If you enter a new school, you have to forget what you previously learned and start all over. I’ve seen many students experiencing a great deal of stress due to this and some who even quit school.
A young dancer once asked me, “I’ve trained under five teachers, and all taught different styles. Which is right?” The fact that among the Korean dancers active overseas there are very few who have completed their secondary and higher education in Korea attests to the irrationality of the education system. It is sad to say that under the current circumstances, it is difficult for dancers to focus only on ballet. That is the primary reason why I want to build a ballet school that provides a systematic educational program.
Yoon As a dancer, you have already earned recognition on the world stage. What would be the highest achievement for you as an artist?
Kim There’s a dream I’ve been harboring since I was young. In fifth grade, I saw “The Sleeping Beauty” staged by the Korean National Ballet, starring Lee Won-guk. I couldn’t quite explain the wave of emotions I felt but I couldn’t fall asleep that night. That’s when I vowed I would one day become a dancer like him, who can move people’s hearts. If someone asks me what kind of dancer I want to become, I’d say, “I want my dance to leave a deep and lasting impression on members of the audience so that it continues to linger in their minds for about six months, even when they go to sleep.”
I also want my dance to have the power to heal and comfort people. One time, I was leaving the theater after a performance when an elderly lady came up to me and said, “I saw you perform in ‘La Bayadère’ a year ago, and when I go to sleep, I can still hear the music and see images of you dancing before my closed eyes.” If my dance and my works live long in the memory of even just one person, I would be happy. If I can’t realize that dream as a dancer, I want to achieve it as a choreographer or through my students.
Kim performs as the warrior Solor in the Mariinsky Ballet’s “La Bayadère” at the Mariinsky Theatre in 2013. In 2015, he played the same role with the American Ballet Theatre in Natalia Makarova’s version at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, making his American debut. His performance of the role in the Opéra de Paris’ production in 2015 earned him the Benois de la Danse’s best danseur award the following year.
“They say you can see only as much as you know.
I think it is also the role of the dancer to make the audience want to know more.”