Universal Ballet is the largest private ballet company in Korea and commemorates its 30th anniversary this year. Former Kirov star Evgeny Neff is its assistant director, Universal Ballet was previously directed by Oleg Vinogradov. Their dancers have all undergone Vaganova training – it is interesting to see that the Russian legacy is preserved in Korea. This yea, their annual tour to Japan was a Special Gala celebrating their anniversary.

The works performed in the first half were classical pas de deuxs, and the second half focused on contemporary works by Jiří  Kylián, Hans Van Manen and Nacho Duato. I could say the latter was more enjoyable compared to the too Petipa-focused first half, as we could see how large influence was Van Manen to his protégés Kylián and Duato. The dancers showcased their Russian-based training by dancing the classical pieces, the most outstandingly impressive being the corps de ballet in Swan Lake Act 1 Scene 2. Although there were only twelve of them, they were unified, serene and created an atmosphere that made us imagine the stage full. Beautifully proportioned swans with melty port de bras were a treat to the eye, and Jaeyong Ohm's princely mannered partnering made good chemistry with the lyrical Swan Queen Ikue Shiga, guesting from Tokyo City Ballet.

For the classical part, there were goods and not-so-goods. Some dancers were diamonds in the rough, showing much potential but with the need for more refinement. The star of the company Hyemin Hwang showed solid balances with her beautifully arched feet in Grand Pas Classique. Her partner Vaganova graduate Konstantin Novoselev's landings were clean, and his entrechat leaps had good ballon. In Le Corsaire, Yongjung Rhee stood out with her crisp high-speed fouettes adding glamour, and Minwoo Kang's leaps as the slave Ali were virtuosic and thrilling, with a touch of sweetness coming from his youthful appearance.

The true cream of the crop came in the latter part. Kylián's Sechs Tanze is a revival from their Japan tour 2 years ago, and seemed much mature compared to that previous performance. The witty moves and bursting humor, coated with powdered wigs and prop-like dresses hung on a framework with rollers, were alive on stage, showing not only humor but a touch of humanity. Moreover the amazing musicality of the dancers was well carried out to Mozart’s K.571 German Dances.

More humor were shown in Van Manen's Black Cake, created to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Nederlands Dans Theater by the request of Kylián. In a high-society party, the guests get tipsy having too much champagne, and the 3 main couples flirt, quarrel, play games and melodrama. In other words, Robbin's In the Night fueled with too much champagne. Although it is more like competitive ballroom dancing and tangos in high heels, it is a cleverly created piece that lets the gem-like dancers shine like the mirror balls. Jaeyong Ohm was romantic and funny, very different from the Swan Lake prince, and Hyeseung Oh as the outraged woman was gorgeous and irresistible.

Duato's Duende, inspired by Debussy's music (Dance Sacree and Dance Profane) is an enchanting piece taking place in a deep forest. "Duende" has two meanings, "elf that plays little tricks" and "mysterious, irresistible charm". Dancers clad in blue costumes move like human sculptures with bended wrists, balancing upside down or splitting their legs in the air, and move seamlessly before they strike a fish-like bended pose. An earthy atmosphere is created, although there are complicated lifts and leaps, as the placements are mostly low with lively motion. Solos, duos and trios speedily assemble and disband, but the most joyous part was when the whole ensemble gathering on stage to create a euphoric image. The dancers looked far more relaxed here – although the movements are as tough as in the classics – and fit very well to Duato's choreographic vocabulary and Debussy's music.

Universal Ballet's Special Gala made for a delightful evening, but would have been greater if the classical part featured more diverse choreography. Nonetheless, Universal Ballet was successful in showing their two sides to the Japanese audience.