The Korea Herald


Universal Ballet's 'Shim Chung': a blend of filial folk tale and classical ballet

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : May 9, 2023 - 19:44

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A scene from the ballet A scene from the ballet "Sim Chung" (Universal Ballet)

The Universal Ballet’s iconic original repertoire “Sim Chung: A Legend from the Far East“ returns this week for the first time in four years.

The piece is based on the classic Korean folktale of Sim Chung, who sacrifices herself to the King of the underwater world in a desperate attempt to have her blind father's sight restored.

The neoclassical choreography is the work of UBC’s first artistic director, Adrienne Dellas. Since its premiere in 1986, “Sim Chung” has been performed in over 40 cities in 15 countries, at venues such as the Lincoln Center in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington.

Over the past 37 years, UBC has improved and refined the production through revisions of the choreography, staging and costumes. This year, artistic director Liu Bingxian has further improved the performance by consolidating the three acts into two, shortening the running time to 120-minutes.

Dancers Hong Hyang-gee and Lee Dong-tak perform Dancers Hong Hyang-gee and Lee Dong-tak perform "Sim Chung." (Universal Ballet)

The highlights of the ballet include the romantic pas de duex in Act 2 where Sim Chung and the King vow their love under the dusky moonlight.

The dancers’ light steps, elegant movements and graceful lifts create a mysterious yet delicate atmosphere, perfectly capturing the moment of their love. In particular, the signature movement involves a difficult lift in which the female dancer is slightly lifted while supporting herself on the male dancer’s waist.

Principal dancers Hong Hyang-gee and Lee Dong-tak, who perform the roles of Sim Chung and the King respectively, said their partnership has deepened over 17 years in an interview with The Korea Herald.

The two joined UBC in 2011 after graduating from Sunhwa Arts High School and Korea National University of Arts.

“We watched our performance videos from four years ago and we performed very well,” said Hong.

“The pressure is on us to do better than the last time,” added Lee. “We are working to enhance our acting and dancing skills in greater detail, and to demonstrate that our chemistry as a couple is unique and different from other couples.”

The pair performed together as Sim Chung and the King in 2016 and 2019 in Korea.

A scene from the ballet A scene from the ballet "Sim Chung" (Universal Ballet)
A scene from the ballet A scene from the ballet "Sim Chung" (Universal Ballet)

They introduced another scene where Sim Chung follows the sailors to the ship from which she will jump into the sea. The male crew’s group dance, which is quite rare, exudes a strong energy through dynamic jumps and turns.

The screen in the background depicting a raging storm and flashing lightning, along with the tense music portray the turbulent sea, further emphasizing Shim Chung's tragic story as she throws herself into the sea.

“Sim Chung is conflicted about going but doesn't want to leave her father. The captain’s change in emotion is also significant as he sees her as a sacrifice and later learns about her background and takes pity on her,” said Lee. “The scene captures the unsaid conflicts among the characters, which is crucial in setting the tone for Act 2.”

Lee explained that it was "Sim Chung" which drew him to UBC. "When I was a student, I saw this ballet and was impressed. Ballet typically doesn’t have many male group dances, so I wanted to perform as the sailor and the captain,” said Lee, who will perform as the Captain on Sunday.

Dancers Hong Hyang-gee and Lee Dong-tak practice Dancers Hong Hyang-gee and Lee Dong-tak practice "Sim Chung." (Universal Ballet)

“Everyone is familiar with Sim Chung’s story but the emotions conveyed by the dancers can vary depending on their acting and performances,” said Hong. “I hope the audience pays closer attention to the facial expressions. While the overall picture is important, the way each dancer’s expression delivers emotions is also crucial in fully appreciating the story.”

Principal dancer Kang Mi-sun, soloist Han Sang-yi and guest dancer Park Sang-won will take on the role of Shim Chung. Principal Rhee Hyon-jun and Kang Min-woo will take on the role of the King.

Hong and Lee Dong-tak are scheduled to perform at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

“Sim Chung” will run from Friday to Sunday at the Seoul Arts Center’s Opera Theater, in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul.