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Faith in an art's power

Julia Moon says her company, supported by a church leader, seeks to testify to the beauty of ballet rather than about religion.

August 01, 2004|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

Julia MOON shivers. She's sitting in a mid-Wilshire office that's as cold as a meat locker, one stop on her rounds to promote the Seoul-based Universal Ballet's visit next weekend. Once, through a confluence of circumstances that can only be called highly unusual, she was its prima ballerina. Now, at 41, she's the critically acclaimed company's general director, with Oleg Vinogradov, formerly of the Kirov Ballet, as her artistic director.

The current tour, which brings the Universal Ballet to the Kodak Theatre in Vinogradov's production of "Romeo and Juliet," celebrates the company's 20th anniversary. The lavishly funded UB has 60 dancers, 40 of them Korean, 20 foreign, all keenly exhibiting the unity of style and perfection of academic detail that few can claim -- the touring repertory is mostly the full-length 19th century works, "Swan Lake," "Giselle," "La Bayadere," etc.

"But at home," Moon says, "we commission contemporary choreographers" -- like the well-known Nacho Duato and Heinz Sporeli with the occasional acquisition of a Balanchine work. One notable part of the repertory, "Shim Chung" (1986), is based on a Korean folk tale.

"We were the ballet pioneers in Korea," she says with pride. "Now, with theaters springing up all over there, we tour throughout the country to extremely turned-on audiences who are so sophisticated they also rush to see Pina Bausch, La La La Human Steps and Jiri Kylian." Korea, she says, is now a regular stop on the international tour circuit.

Moon looks every bit the business-suited executive -- pretty in pink, her hair swept neatly off her face. Still, it is an hour or so into her one-day Los Angeles marathon, and the frigid air in the room demands a remedy: She grabs a gray fleece jacket, sinks low into her seat, and wraps the garment tightly about her shoulders.

Two decades in, her company has transcended the association that initially defined it: its connection with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Julia Moon's father-in-law, who funds the company along with a ballet academy in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps for that reason, she's willing to speak for the first time about the moment that thrust her into the international spotlight: her appearance with the Kirov in 1989. That year, when the Berlin Wall came down and the economically challenged Soviet Union crumbled, she became the first outsider to perform on the fabled Kirov stage.

Young and in the news

Critics at the time were puzzled: "Julia who?" "Julia why?" For an unknown, unproven dancer to gain that unprecedented opportunity was banner news. There were no press interviews back then, though the story was well publicized.

Moon, a Washington, D.C., native, is the daughter of Bo Hi Pak, top aide to the Rev. Moon, and grew up in the Unification Church -- familiar to many for its mass weddings and most recently for its founder's coronation of himself as "humanity's Savior, Messiah, Returning Lord and True Parent" in a March ceremony at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington.

In 1984, the Rev. Moon's 18-year-old son died in a car crash, and Julia Hoon Sook Pak, as she was known then, was tapped to become the dead youth's bride in a wedding ceremony that would, according to the tenets of the Unification Church, confer upon him "entry to heaven." Unmarried, he would languish in oblivion.

At the time of the posthumous marriage, Moon, who'd studied ballet in London and Monte Carlo, was living with her family in McLean, Va., and dancing with the Washington Ballet, where she appeared as a soloist. But soon she was being groomed for stardom.

Her new father-in-law founded the Universal Ballet, and in quick succession things began to fall into place for her: the hiring of high-fee, eminent coaches who trained her over a five-year period for starring roles; the hiring of name-brand dancing partners, choreographers and designers for the company; and finally her Kirov debut in "Giselle" opposite none less than danseur Andris Liepa, son of Maris, the famous Bolshoi dancer.

She was the Universal Ballet's leading dancer for 18 years.

"I know some people think, 'Oh, she made a deal, agreeing to marry Rev. Moon's son in return for the dancing career,' " she says. "They think he said, 'Do this for me and I'll make you a ballet company.' Not true."

Indeed, she says that, technically, if she ever chose to remarry, nothing would bar the way, that "he never locked me in a room, as people have suggested. Instead of criticizing the man," she says, "we should be grateful for what he set in motion. The beauty of ballet is its own truth, its own religion. And if it makes people hopeful, how can that be bad? We don't need to preach God. Beauty has that power all by itself."

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