Her feet, covered with scars and thick calluses, the toes twisted, nails chipped and broken, are so painful to look at. At a glance, they appear to be gnarled tree roots. These misshapen feet, which bring to mind images of Picasso’s cubistic art, belong to the world-class ballerina Kang Sue Jin. They are the product of her passionate dedication to a rigorous training routine of more than 10 hours a day, which can wear out more than 250 pairs of toe shoes over the course of a year. But they also belong to a graceful swan with gravity-defying maneuvers during which her feet seem to hardly touch the ground. They have even been described as the most beautiful feet in the world. The renowned Korean poet Ko Un once exclaimed: “When I saw a picture of her feet, my heart beat so hard that I had to calm myself down by placing a hand to my chest. I was truly moved.”
On July 7, 2007, the Stuttgart Ballet staged a special performance of Romeo and Juliet, an especially beloved work of German audiences. At the conclusion of the performance, when the prima ballerina who played the role of Juliet appeared on stage for her curtain call, the capacity audience of about 1,500 people all rose to give her a standing ovation. A banner with the name “Sue Jin Kang” was unfurled, while each of the 70 members of the Stuttgart Ballet presented her with roses. The theater again reverberated with acclamation and enthusiastic applause.
The event was a special tribute performance in honor of Kang Sue Jin’s 20th anniversary with the ballet company. Today, she is a permanent member and principal dancer of the Stuttgart Ballet, after being admitted to the distinguished dance company in 1986 at the age of 19, making her the youngest-ever newcomer. It is indeed a rarity for a world-class ballet group, with some 400 years of tradition, to present a special tribute for an active member. In March 2007, Kang Sue Jin was selected as “Royal Court Dancer” (Kammertänzerin in German), only one of four performers to be so honored by the Stuttgart Ballet over the past 50 years.
Then, in September, she was also bestowed the John Cranko Award, which is named for the legendary choreographer John Cranko (1927-1973), who brought global fame to the Stuttgart Ballet through the extraordinary artistry of his creative works. This award is presented to an individual whose excellence in dance best represents the lofty standards of John Cranko. Related to this, the Stuttgart Ballet announced: “We respectfully honor Sue Jin Kang for her unique interpretation and excellent artistry in performing John Cranko’s representative works.” This statement undoubtedly confirms her standing as the most outstanding performer of John Cranko’s choreographed works.
The glittering success of her storybook career, however, has not been without its own twists and turns. In fact, you would find a ballerina who has walked a lonely path, while embracing daily pain as a normal condition and being dedicated to such rigorous training, as evidenced by her “beautiful feet.” In 1979, when she was a seventh grader at Sunhwa Arts Middle School, Kang Sue Jin had her first, fateful encounter with the world of ballet.
One day during class, her teacher asked if any of the students wanted to learn ballet. Kang raised her hand. At that time, she had been learning traditional Korean dance. For traditional dance, you have to learn to turn your foot inward. But for ballet, a dancer needs to turn the foot outward. She thus had to realign her feet through endless practice. Then, after a year and a half of training in ballet, she captured first place in a competition organized by Ewha Womans University. In 1982, she went abroad to study at the Académie de Danse Classique, in Monte Carlo, after principal dancer Marika Besobrasova had visited Sunhwa Arts High School, where she took notice of Kang’s potential talent and invited her to attend the academy for specialized training. At that time, Kang was only 15 years old.
The Académie de Danse Classique’s dormitory strictly enforced a lights-out regulation at 9:00 each night. But Kang would wait until 11, after the security personnel completed their rounds, then sneak into an upstairs studio to practice late into the night by the moonlight that filtered in through the window or light from the adjacent palace. She felt a need to keep up with the other students, who were far more accomplished than she. In 1985, just ahead of her graduation, she became the first Asian performer to win the Prix de Lausanne. The following year, she knocked on the door of the Stuttgart Ballet in the hope of learning classical and neoclassical ballet, as well as modern ballet. That was the start of the “Steel Butterfly” legend.
On the way to joining the ranks of the world’s elite ballerinas, Kang had to become accustomed to chronic pain. “When I wake up in the morning, I always feel certain pain. If I don’t feel any pain, I would think: ‘Gee, I guess I didn’t practice enough.’ If you perform ballet, you feel pain all the time, so I have tried to make friends with pain. Suffering is normal for me.”
In 2000, she experienced a serious setback when she fractured an ankle bone and ended up being sidelined for a year. She had attempted to return to practice despite excruciating pain, forcing her doctor to prescribe a “temporary stay of dancing.” While worrying about whether she could ever dance again, she fell into a state of crisis, but Reid Anderson, artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet, called her one day and promised her: “Sue Jin, don’t worry. We’ll wait for your recovery however much time it takes.” Encouraged as well by her colleague Tunchi Shockman, who told her, “You can make it back,” she gritted her teeth and doubled her resolve. Indeed, Kang “loved dancing far too much to give up,” and by 2002, she had overcome her injury and made a return to the stage. She also became a permanent member of the Stuttgart Ballet and married Tunchi Shockman.
What does ballet mean to Kang? “In a word, it’s my life. I cannot imagine my life without ballet. That has not changed since I first joined the Stuttgart Ballet 24 years ago. Most of all, it is so important to practice everyday and perform whenever possible. I think talent makes up only one percent and the rest is from perspiration.” This statement is quite natural for someone who practices as passionately as she continues to do. She repeatedly emphasizes: “To become a great ballerina, you need to have talent and the body for it, but without constant training and great patience, you cannot achieve your goal.”
Even today, she is up about by six every morning and will practice for six to eight hours daily when not preparing for a scheduled performance. During her early years, she would practice for up to 19 hours a day for an upcoming performance. Back then, she would often run through three or four pairs of toe shoes in a single day, whereas other performers might use one pair for two weeks or longer. This even caused the equipment manager to mention to Kang that she was greatly exceeding her “shoes allowance.”
Along with wearing out countless pairs of shoes, this rigorous training regime took a serious physical toll on Kang, deforming her feet and constantly causing blisters, which would always become infected and never fully heal. Once, she had to stuff uncooked meat into her shoes for padding because her toes were so raw. “During the course of the performance, some blood seeped through, but there was nothing else I could do,” she recalls. With gnarled toes and knotty calluses on every joint of her toes, these are all part of Kang’s “beautiful feet” that have served as an immutable foundation upon which her stellar career has been built.
The dance critic Jang Kwang Ryul privately confided that “sometimes male dancers are reluctant to perform with Kang, because once, after a practice session with Kang, a male performer ended up being completely exhausted and dehydrated.” Jang went on to remark: “But that’s Kang Sue Jin. After pushing herself to such extremes in practice, she can be flawless on stage, gliding about so effortlessly, as if defying gravity.”
Kang Sue Jin is known as a ballerina who wins over audiences with her captivating artistry and creative expression. Jang Kwang Ryul, who has followed Kang throughout her career, believes that her star power is a result of her “exquisite technique based on ceaseless training and an ability to bring characters to life with her own interpretation and style.”
Over the past 20 years, Kang has performed the lead role in over 20 ballets, including The Sleeping Beauty, The Magic Flute, and Romeo and Juliet, in addition to being cast in various roles in more than 80 other productions. Many of these works featured demanding scenes of world-renowned choreographers, such as John Cranko, Maurice Béjart, Jirí Kylián, John Neumeier, William Forsythe, Hans van Manen, Christopher Wheeldon, Nacho Duato, and Renato Zanella. All this while, she has consistently earned high praise from critics and audiences.
In The Lady of the Camellias, Kang played the high-class prostitute Margaret, who yearns for an impossible love, which she presented with her own interpretation. Then, in Onegin, she gracefully portrayed an entirely different kind of character in Tatiana, an earnest and compassionate woman. In Romeo and Juliet, she performed the youthful Juliet to perfection, in the appraisal of critics, even though she was over 40. As for this role, she noted: “Whatever your age, you can appear to be seventeen or seventy if you wholly immerse yourself into the role.”
At the Seongnam Dance Festival 2009, she again revealed her passion for ballet, saying: “As long as my body allows me to do what I want, I will continue to dance.” In June, she was part of a Romeo and Juliet performance tour of Spain, and also performed in Onegin in Stuttgart, Germany. Though now over the age of 40, when most ballerinas have long bade farewell to their days of stage performances, Kang remains at the peak of her ballet artistry. “The past and the future are not important. It is important to practice and to live for today. I intend to focus all my energy on how I can improve and perform even better than yesterday.”