Ballet's star is rising in the east

Universal Ballet | Sadler's Wells, London
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Who will be watching Universal Ballet on Monday night? Mostly ballet traditionalists, preferring to savour their dance in the 19th-century manner of Giselle. But outsiders may come too: some may be followers of Reverend Moon's Unification Church; others will be just plain curious.

Who will be watching Universal Ballet on Monday night? Mostly ballet traditionalists, preferring to savour their dance in the 19th-century manner of Giselle. But outsiders may come too: some may be followers of Reverend Moon's Unification Church; others will be just plain curious.

The curious have plenty to be curious about. The Universal Ballet was started in 1984 in Seoul by the Rev Sun Myung Moon and his wife, and is funded by him through an organisation called the Korean Cultural Foundation. We have all heard disturbing "Moonie" stories and seen photos of mass weddings where couples are blessed by the Rev and Mrs Moon, whose own wedding, according to the Church's website, was foretold in the Book of Revelation.

The Church's educational and cultural activities speak of immense wealth - though the Catholic Church is pretty rich too. It has founded universities in Korea and Connecticut, and owns the New York City Symphony Orchestra and The Washington Times. It has, in Seoul, not only the Universal Ballet but a children's folk troupe, the Little Angels, and a 1280-seat theatre. And it has opened two ballet academies: one in Seoul and one in Washington, which dominates and is a source of dancers for the ballet company.

It takes serious money to tour a company of 73 dancers round Europe and bring its 60-piece orchestra to London, although the Korean Ministry of Culture has contributed. Presumably, therefore, the Rev Moon is not entirely deplored by the Korean government, and meeting company members during their Geneva dates I was surprised at how open they were about Moon matters. About a quarter of backstage staff are Church members, but none of the dancers, except for Julia H Moon, who is leading ballerina and general director.

Julia Moon was born in Washington in 1963. She trained mostly in Seoul with the American Adrienne Dellas, but also had a spell at the Royal Ballet School. As a child she toured with the Little Angels. Tallish and willowy, she has a captivating personality - modest and direct. She also has the distinction of being both the daughter of Dr Bo Hi Pak, who heads the Korean Cultural Foundation, and the daughter-in-law of Rev Moon. This last designation arises from her posthumous marriage (yes!) to Reverend Moon's second son, killed in a car accident. Engaged to him, she chose to marry after his death, thus becoming his faithful widow for life.

Was the Universal Ballet created as a blatant vehicle for her? She is too polite to bridle at the brutish allegation, although it is actually unjustified. The Universal Ballet, she explains, sprang from a convergence of different chemistries. "First, there was my teacher Adrienne Dellas's vision for a company. It was always her dream, and she poured all of that into her students." Then there was her own desire to dance and her father's encouragement. And in this mixture, Rev Moon saw an opportunity to build an active memorial to his son.

In its inaugural season, the company consisted of Julia Moon and 14 of her fellow students. Now almost five times as big, it has a repertoire that includes a handful of Balanchine works and the Korean-themed Shim Chung, as well as the big classics. The company's growth and ambition has stimulated the older - and previously unchallenged - Korean National Ballet to pull its classical socks up.

Enter another player in the equation: Oleg Vinogradov, trailing his damaged history behind him. Director of the Kirov Ballet for over two decades, he was ousted amid scandal-mongering and power-struggles. But a few years earlier, on a 1989 Kirov tour to Washington, he had agreed - reluctantly - to take a look at the new school the Korean Cultural Foundation had just built. "And I saw an absolutely miracle building, with jacuzzi, fantastic studios, elegant furniture. And Dr Pak said, 'We have created this building for you.' I asked, why for me? 'Because,' he said, 'we would like you to take charge of this school.'"

What Dr Pak wanted was to acquire Vinogradov's vast Kirov baggage of style and technique for the school, and ultimately for the company. So Vinogradov said yes, installing his ex-wife Yelena Vinogradova as deputy director there along with other Kirov colleagues including the exquisite former ballerina Alla Sizova. In the beginning the school was called the Universal Ballet Academy. But when, under President Yeltsin, the Kirov reverted to its former name of Maryinsky, then presto! Dr Pak just bought the Kirov name.

The Kirov Academy of Ballet USA is beginning to produce the goods, winning gold medals at international competitions and contributing 16 graduates to the Universal Ballet. Vinogradov saw the company for the first time last year and was impressed enough to become its artistic director. He speculates that the Far East is the next major centre for ballet. But not, he sniffs, Japan, a nation of short bodies and attenuated legs turned in by centuries of kimono-wearing, even though they are "crazy for ballet". Koreans are taller, "more loose and more good proportion".

About a third of the dancers are non-Korean, including Americans, Rumanians, Russians and others. The Church leans on them only to obey certain ground rules: no overt smoking, no drugs, extra-marital or homosexual sex. Vinogradov, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, has never experienced any religious pressure: "I don't even know who is member or not member of the Church - it is absolutely not discussed. The problems described in newspapers, I've never seen them."

Julia Moon has received many newspaper accolades. She describes herself as a lyrical dancer. "I love to tell a story, and people say that the role of Giselle suits me."(Besides which, Giselle's theme of unattainable, ghostly love must resonate with her own marital status.) She is finding combining dancing with her duties as general director difficult, and at 37 says: "I think I've fulfilled enough as a dancer. I'll carry on this year and maybe next at the most."

How does performing fit with her religion? "In classical ballet, all these stories are portraying human ideals, the struggle of good against evil. So when you leave the theatre you might be as inspired as after a sermon. Of course, all dancers go through the rigours of training, and the pain sometimes, because they love to dance. But you don't just dance for yourself, you have to reach out to an audience. Although the theatre is not a church, it's a different way of giving to people."

Sadler's Wells, London (020-7863 8000), performing 'Giselle' Monday and 4 Nov (mat and eve) and 'Don Quixote' Wed to Fri