EunWon Lee's Risk & Reward: From Stardom in South Korea To A New Life At The Washington Ballet

March 21, 2018

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If you are a dance lover in South Korea, EunWon Lee is a household name. The delicate ballerina and former principal at the Korean National Ballet danced every major classical role to critical acclaim, including Odette/Odile, Giselle, Kitri, Nikiya and Gamzatti. Then, at the peak of her career, Lee left it all behind.

In 2016, she moved to Washington, DC, to join The Washington Ballet. The company of 26 is unranked, making Lee simply a dancer—not a soloist, not a principal and not a star, like she was back home.

“I try to challenge myself, and always I had the urge to widen my experience and continue to improve,” she says one blustery winter day after company class, still glowing from the exertion of honing, stretching and strengthening. “When I had a chance to work with Julie Kent, I didn’t hesitate.”

Lee with Brooklyn Mack in the “Le Corsaire” pas de deux. Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy TWB.

Lee, 26, had admired the longtime American Ballet Theatre star, who became artistic director of TWB in 2016 following Septime Webre’s 17-year tenure. Kent aims to broaden the company’s repertoire while adding depth to its stable of dancers; hiring Lee is a step in that direction.

Leaving South Korea wasn’t easy, but Kent says Lee is giving 100 percent. “She was ready to push herself outside of her comfort zone, learn a new language, be immersed in a different culture and not live at home. Those things won’t happen unless you push yourself purposefully.”

A Prodigious Start

Lee discovered ballet the way so many little girls do: Her mother took her to a Nutcracker. “I wanted to wear one of those frilly party dresses,” she admits. Ballet lessons led her to the Korea National Institute for the Gifted in Arts, a competitive middle school for talented dancers, musicians and artists. She then skipped high school altogether and entered university at 16, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree while studying ballet.

Lee joined the Korean National Ballet as an apprentice in 2010, rising to principal in 2012 at just 21. There, audiences loved her in the 19th-century classical ballets that are a staple for the 80-member company.

Despite Lee’s success, when she learned that Kent was seeking a new female dancer at TWB, she leapt at the opportunity. As a child, Lee had seen Kent in the movie Center Stage and other dance videos. “Then,” Lee adds, “Julie came to perform in Korea when I was 8 or 9 years old as a guest artist. Wow! I always looked up to her. Her dance moves my heart.”

Shortly after Kent became director, Lee was recommended by “somebody whose opinion I respect,” Kent says. She invited Lee to send a video and hired her without seeing her dance in person. “What impressed me about her on paper was that she was a principal dancer in her own national ballet company, and very successful and much beloved by her own audience, but she was seeking a learning experience overseas.”

Kent also saw areas where her coaching might enhance Lee’s already lovely qualities. “The difference between good and great is in the details,” Kent noted. “That’s where I felt it was going to be exciting to work with EunWon.”

Leaving home was tough, but Lee was ready. For her last performance in Seoul, she danced the hot-blooded Katherina in John Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew, showing a different side of her temperament. Her artistic director, Kang Sue-Jin, gave her the thumbs up: “She was saddened by the news that I was going to leave South Korea,” says Lee, “but she told me that widening my experience as a dancer and as a person was very important.”

A New Beginning

For Lee, meeting her childhood idol on her first day of company class was both momentous and comforting. “Julie said to me that, as a dancer, she had a lot of mentors who helped her. Now as artistic director, she said she wants to pass down that help and mentorship.”

Yet Lee also had to learn English, set up an apartment and understand how to navigate life in the United States. “Every aspect of it was hard,” Lee says softly. “I was missing home, friends, family.”

Back in Seoul, Lee had lived with her parents, even as a principal ballerina. And she admits that her mother cooked and did laundry for her because she spent eight hours or more at the ballet and, after a long commute, didn’t get home until 8 or 9 pm.

With a self-conscious giggle, Lee says that in her apartment in northwest DC she had to be taught how to use the laundry machines and figure out how separating recycling and garbage worked. Her sister came to get her settled that first week, but for more than a year, Lee has been on her own, going to English classes in the evenings when her schedule allows and studying independently. (She memorizes a new sentence every day and practices the previous 40 she’s learned.) She is also discovering the capital’s art and culture, and slowly making friends. But, foremost, Lee’s singular focus is on her ballet career.

“The Washington Ballet, like most companies, is multicultural, with dancers from all over the world,” says longtime TWB dancer Sona Kharatian, who strives to help new dancers settle in and has become close with Lee in recent months. “Of course, we all help each other, but everybody is different and goes through their individual challenges.”

Photo by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

Finding Her Footing

On a winter Friday, clad in a simple blue long-sleeve leotard and baggy warm-up pants, Lee took a spot at the barre near the piano, her seriousness evident in her eyes. Though there are no stars in the small company, there is a competitive streak amid the camaraderie.

In class Lee is a worker, unassuming and diligent, her face masklike. “But,” Kent says, “her dynamic and her performance quality on the stage is very strong, impressive and energetic.”

Indeed, it’s onstage, especially with a partner, that her passion and exuberance come alive. Then Lee’s face opens up, her eyes widen, her smile relaxes and her serious demeanor melts away. An elegant radiance and grace take hold.

Gian Carlo Perez, one of Lee’s frequent partners at TWB, is thrilled to be paired with one of Korea’s most well-known ballerinas. “She’s very delicate, and her port de bras is one of the finest I’ve ever seen,” Perez says. “When we dance and I see into her eyes, it’s so much deeper. I get from her a unique feeling that you don’t get from everybody.”

He recalls a recent photo shoot for Romeo & Juliet at the nearby National Cathedral in Washington. “The lights were down and we got into a pose. I looked at her and, whoa, I felt love for her already. She’s an actress all the way, even when we’re just standing still.”

Lee and Gian Carlo Perez in Justin Peck’s “In Creases.” Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy TWB.

Aside from the classics (she danced the title role in Cranko’s Romeo & Juliet in February), learning unfamiliar repertoire has been exciting for Lee. Kent is anxious to see how her new ballerina will interpret works by Balanchine, Tudor and Ashton, as well as new commissions by Gemma Bond and Clifton Brown. For Lee, these opportunities are a chief reason she chose to leave home—and center stage.

“When I danced in Korea, I usually danced full acts and I had to lead the story,” she says. “But here, while we do dance classic repertoire, we have modern ballets where I just have to follow the music. At first it was hard. Then I realized I should not think too much; instead I have to give my body to the music.”

As Lee finds her footing in Washington, she’s opened herself up to making new friends, mostly through connections from back home. She met a neighbor in the elevator of her apartment building when Lee noticed the older woman carrying a ballet brochure. Now the two visit galleries and attend performances together occasionally. In her off hours, Lee loves massages, reading Korean short stories and connecting with Korean friends on social media. While she visited home last year between seasons, her parents have yet to see her onstage in Washington.

Where does Lee see herself in five years? She’s not sure. “I don’t see myself in the immediate future returning to South Korea,” she says, “although I very much wish that The Washington Ballet will someday tour there.” In the meantime, only dance is certain for her; it is what brings her joy and life. “I’ll always be a person who pursues my happiness.”