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Lewis Gardner
August 11, 2023

Chapter 20, Lewis Gardner: A Ballet Voyage From West to East

Artist with Universal Ballet

My journey into dance began in Elmhurst, which is a bit of a crazy story, considering I am from Birmingham. I stumbled upon Elmhurst the year they were moving to a new building, after driving past and admiring the architecture. Gradually, I discovered that the new building was actually a dance school. I was drawn to the school because of its beautiful building and started taking my ballet classes more seriously. 

I eventually auditioned for the school, but I was quite late to the game since they had already completed all the auditions. At the time, I had no idea what this world was all about. My dad or mum then wrote an email to the school to express my interest in auditioning. The school agreed to bring me along and give us a tour and gave me a private audition at the same time. So we thought, why not? We went there randomly, and I found myself in a small studio. Someone gave me a bit of a class; it was really informal, like whatever I could do. The following week, someone dropped out or couldn't join the school, so I skipped the queue and was offered a place. 

At that time, I had only just started doing the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), and within about six months, I auditioned for Elmhurst. So, yes, it was basically architecture that got me into ballet. I think I was super naive. I knew nothing. I had no expectations. I didn't have many friends who did ballet either. My parents were not pushy at all. They told me to have a level head, and that I could do ballet, but I had to study and put effort into it.

When I was in year 11, everyone was transitioning and auditioning everywhere. So I auditioned for the Royal Ballet School. I didn't think I was going to get in, but then I did! I couldn't say no, so of course, I decided to go. At the Royal Ballet School, we studied one academic subject and a Trinity diploma in the performing arts.

Regarding auditions, I had never thought of Asia. I had never been there or considered it. I didn't know that ballet was a big thing in Asia, to be honest. I have many amazing Asian friends, but they all seemed to come to Europe. I thought ballet wasn't a big thing in Asia. Everyone seemed to come here to dance. So that's where my mind was. I auditioned everywhere, but I didn't get anything, and I was really injured in my third year. I had a lot of knee problems, tendonitis, and pain, etc., which I am still dealing with.

I auditioned in many places, but in some, I was too short to audition, so I lied about my height. However, as soon as they saw me in class, it was quite obvious that I had lied on my audition form. So that’s probably not the best advice! I wouldn't recommend anyone to do that because it was a waste of money. But for me, I've always known that in ballet, if you're not tall and not super amazing, it's hard, especially in Europe. European companies prefer tall dancers and masculine-looking strong men, especially because many of the girls are quite tall as well. If you are short, you have to be good at tricks like pirouettes and everything. 

To be honest, I don't really fall into either of those categories. I'm definitely in the middle. So the auditioning process was difficult. I remember everyone in my class had gotten a job, and I think I was one of the last couple of students, and I was very depressed. It was not a very nice time. I cried a lot. My director at the time, the late Gailene Stock, took me into the office and asked me if I had ever thought about going to Asia, like Singapore. The director of the company had come to watch our school class at the beginning of our year and liked my dancing.

Photo by Yoon Sik Kim

I don't exactly remember when it was, but it was probably around Christmas time when he pointed me out and told her that he thought I was a good dancer. My director said I should consider going there, but only if I was serious about moving because it's a big decision and requires some time commitment. The school had previously had other students who had gone for a very short amount of time, and it caused some tension between the school and the company. So she suggested that if I wanted to go, I should commit to it and give it a couple of years to see how it develops.

After some thinking, I decided that since I didn't have any other options, I looked into the company and it seemed like a good fit. I had also just been offered a chance to tour with the Royal Ballet to Tokyo, so I was going to see Asia for the first time. That's how I got my first job in Singapore! It felt like the right thing to do. Sometimes the world just works like that, right?

Singapore is different; it's super clean, and the people are quite nice. I always say that Singapore was a stepping stone in terms of culture shock to Korea because Singapore is very much Asian, but it also has Western influence. There are also a lot of extras. There's a significant English influence because of its history, and I've always felt like it was a kind of middle ground between the East and the West. But, I did experience a lot of culture shock, particularly with the weather. It was a massive culture shock, and if I'm being serious, I think it was the tipping point for why I left Singapore. I couldn't handle it; it was just not for me. I do not deal well with the heat. I mean, I do, but just not for 365 days of the year! I will say that the humidity and heat are good for the body. I did feel good standing there in the studio for warm-ups. I would need five minutes, and then I was ready to go. Whereas in the winters here (in Korea), when it's minus 20 degrees Celsius, you need a little bit longer to get things working.

So what made me decide to move to Korea? I have many talented Asian friends, and I wasn't really happy with my situation in Singapore. I didn't feel like my style of dancing and the repertoire matched. I was kind of boxed into being a classical dancer. I have always been.

The company only does two big classical works a year, at the beginning and end of the year, and the rest is contemporary and neo-classical. I wasn't used that much for them, and I didn't feel like I was ever given the opportunity to dance them. The company told me that as well. They said I didn't really suit contemporary, so I wouldn't be doing it. So I wanted to find somewhere else. I actually wanted to audition in Europe again. My dad was quite sick at the time, and I wanted to move closer to home to be around them. But again, the same kind of problem happened. I didn't get any auditions; I didn't get any callbacks. I just wasn't right for what they were looking for at the time. Then I saw Universal Ballet pop up on Facebook, and they were performing La Bayadère at the time. I remember looking at the Corps de Ballet and thinking, wow, they look so together; they look so beautiful.

I asked my friends about the company, and they all said it was a good company and that it would suit me. They do a lot of classical work. So I sent my video audition, and about a week later, I heard back from them. They offered me a job pretty much in that email. And I was like, 'Oh wow.' Here I was again, about to move to another country that I had never been to. However, moving to Korea gave me a lot more culture shock compared to my previous experiences. Especially when I first arrived, although there were a few foreigners in the company at the time, there were not many in my neighborhood and very few people outside the company spoke English. Now it's fine because I speak Korean, but when I first arrived, I didn't speak any Korean.

Photo by Yoon Sik Kim

Initially, my plan was to stay here for two years, improve my skills, and then audition again in Europe. But after my first year, I felt like I truly belonged here. The repertoire suited my style perfectly. We performed all the major classics. In my first year, we did Kenneth McMillan's Romeo and Juliet, which I always wanted to dance, as well as Onegin and Swan Lake. Additionally, we frequently perform Korean-inspired classical ballets. There are two particular ballets that we regularly perform, which are three-act adaptations of Korean folk stories. They are incredibly enjoyable, interesting, and unique; you can't experience them anywhere else. I absolutely love this aspect of Universal Ballet. I feel like I truly fit in, and everyone is so kind. It's like being part of a family, and I couldn't be happier.

The biggest misconception about dancing in Asia is that it's not for everyone. Well, obviously, it's not for everyone, just like anywhere else. Initially, I didn't expect ballet to be as popular here as it is in Europe, for example. The ballet industry operates differently here. In Europe, ballet companies are typically associated with theaters or opera houses, but that's not the case in Asia. It's quite distinct.

All the theaters here are privately owned, and you rent them for performances. The studio is separate from the performance venue. It's very different because we don't have a designated home theater. We do have a theater on our campus, but it's not suitable for ballet performances. So, we do occasionally perform there, but it's not a regular occurrence. As a result, we do a lot of traveling. Even when we perform in Seoul, we use different theaters each time. We tour extensively, visiting various cities throughout Korea, such as Jeju and Busan. It's great because we get to see a lot of the country. Sometimes, my Korean friends who are not in the company joke that I have visited more places in Korea than they have.

Through touring, I have been to some really unique and unexpected locations. It's a wonderful experience. Initially, I had the impression that ballet wasn't very popular here, but in reality, it's highly popular. Many people love watching ballet, especially the classics. People are eager to see them, like Swan Lake, which is always sold out, and Nutcracker, which sells out immediately. I have been performing Nutcracker for eight years, and we have 30-40 shows a year. Every single show is completely sold out. It's impossible to get tickets. It truly amazes me. I think the audience enjoys classical music, and Tchaikovsky's score, accompanied by an orchestra, resonates with the Asian audience. There is also a perception that ballet tickets might be expensive because of assumptions based on events like the recent visit of the Paris Opera Ballet to Korea, where tickets were very costly. Perhaps the public assumes that it will be similar to a Korean company.

In summary, my journey into the world of dance has been filled with unexpected twists and turns. From Elmhurst to Singapore and eventually, to Korea, I have encountered challenges, cultural shock, and moments of growth. Contrary to misconceptions, ballet thrives in Asia, with passionate audiences and unique performance opportunities. Through it all, I have discovered a sense of belonging, forged lifelong connections, and embraced the beauty of classical ballet. As I continue my journey, I am grateful for the experiences that have shaped me as a dancer and excited for what the future holds.

Photo by Anna Astrakhantseva

Lately, I've had the incredible opportunity to be a member of a dynamic and visionary independent dance team called Movement Momm. Founded in late 2022 by my esteemed colleague, SaeHyun Kwon, Movement Momm aims to merge Western and Eastern ideologies, bringing the world of performing arts closer to audiences by bridging the gap between the East and West. At Movement Momm, we believe in the power of artistic fusion. Our diverse team is dedicated to exploring classical, neoclassical, and contemporary dance forms, while also incorporating various multidisciplinary art mediums. Through our innovative approach, we strive to create captivating and immersive performances that can be enjoyed both online and in person.

As a dancer and social media manager within Movement Momm, I have the privilege of witnessing firsthand the magic that happens when diverse cultures and artistic expressions converge. Our team is fueled by a shared passion for breaking boundaries and pushing the limits of creativity. We want to make the performing arts inclusive and approachable for all, transcending geographical and cultural boundaries. By infusing our performances with elements inspired by both Eastern and Western traditions, we create a universal language that resonates with audiences worldwide.

You can find Movement Momm on Instagram and YouTube at @movement_momm.

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