SEOUL – Choi Tae-ji, a Japanese-born South Korean prima ballerina, has dedicated herself to developing ballet in her country, once described by South Korean media as a “ballet desert” because of its failure to produce any great dancers.
The 53-year-old director of the Korea National Ballet was born in 1959 to Korean parents, who ran a construction company in the port of Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture.
She started learning ballet at age 9 under the tutelage of the late Japanese ballerina Yaoko Kaitani, who was known as “the face of postwar Japanese ballet,” and traveled around Japan with her.
“I felt isolated as many of my ballet friends apparently envied me for securing all the great roles, but I loved ballet,” she said.
Choi suffered a setback when she was 20, however, that left her devastated. She made the list of nominees for a Japanese government-sponsored program to study abroad, but subsequently her name was removed from it because she did not have Japanese nationality.
Until then, with the name Yasue Otani, she considered herself Japanese in everything but nationality. She recalled being afraid that this incident would reveal to all her friends that she was Korean. But at the same time, it gave her a feeling of having a strong sense of Korean identity.
Her career as a ballet dancer entered a new phase in South Korea after she moved there at the recommendation of Hiroshi Shimada, who later served as head of the Japan Ballet Association. Choi performed with the Korea National Ballet for the first time in 1983.
She said she had some concerns about performing in South Korea as she had little knowledge of the language, even though she knew that dancing had no need for words.
She was soon being praised by South Korean audiences, and Yonhap News Agency in Seoul reported that Choi “appeared like a shooting star and swept the audience away.”
Choi married a Korean man the following year and moved to the United States, where she gave up dancing to have a baby. However, she later returned to the Korea National Ballet, where she established herself as a prima ballerina.
In 1996, at the age of 36, Choi became the youngest-ever artistic director of the ballet company. She subsequently left for a spell, but returned again to the same post in 2008.
As head of the national ballet company, Choi said that what she is currently focusing on is to help ensure that its members can make a living as professional dancers.
To that end, she has worked to increase the number of performances the company puts on, since the dancers’ salaries depend on how many times they perform.
As part of these efforts, she started to present performances for people who had never seen ballet before. She doesn’t hesitate to have her company perform outdoors or in department stores, for example.
“We are a national company and should be for the people,” she said.
As a result, the company now puts on more than 120 performances a year, up from just 20 or 30 previously.
Choi also said her major goal is to build a national ballet school in South Korea.
“We need an established education system so as to raise the level of our country’s ballet to the world’s top 10,” she said, claiming that South Korean ballet currently ranks somewhere within the top 20.
“With our people’s passion and music ability, it is not a dream to think of bringing it into the world’s top five if a school is built,” said Choi.