Partners for Life

The Kwak Ballet Academy is the product of a love that spans half the globe

There are no marble pillars or vaulted ceilings in the waiting room of the Kwak Ballet Academy. Instead, two mismatched loveseats and some folding chairs crowd the room. On the way to water cooler, a dancer—about 12 years old and 90 pounds—wipes the sweat from her forehead, hopping lightly over the strewn-about street shoes and dance bags of her classmates.

It’s an unassuming place—a suite in a building on Jones Boulevard just south of Charleston—with the exception of one grand gesture: an oil painting depicting an elaborately costumed Kyudong Kwak and his wife, Yoomi Lee, dancing principal roles in the classic ballet La Bayadère. The painting gestures at once to the dancers’ illustrious past and to the future of their academy and the fledgling Las Vegas Ballet Company, which Kwak founded.

In one studio, Lee directs Paquita, her French ballet terms wear a soft Korean lilt. In another studio, the rhythms of Bach stop and start as Kwak teaches new choreography for a piece he’s created, Glory. LVBC will feature both dances to the violins of Nevada School of the Arts on May 28 at the Summerlin Library Performing Arts Center.

Kwak and Lee met in 1988. He was 17 and she was 18; they were the youngest members of the Universal Ballet Company in Seoul, South Korea. By age 22, Kwak was dancing principal roles.

New opportunities were opening up for the young couple, who married in 1995. In 1998, the Nevada Ballet Theatre invited Kwak to Las Vegas to dance as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Soon after, he was offered a principal role with the company, although it meant a year away from Lee. The following year, it offered Lee a contract, too, but only with the corps de ballet. Accepting it meant Lee would have to forfeit the principal roles she took almost 10 years to earn in South Korea.

After three years of hard work, Lee was elevated to principal in 2001, when the couple danced together, for the first time, in Giselle. They remained principals until 2008, when Kwak left the company, citing different visions with new artistic director James Canfield.

“I was not enjoying my dancing,” Kwak says.

For the first time in 20 years, Kwak, at 38, was without a company. To compound things, the economy was treacherous. What’s more, Kwak and Lee had a young son to provide for. Kwak felt he had no choice but to open his own studio and company. He did so in January 2009. “It was very, very difficult,” Lee says of the first six months. Lee had also quit NBT to join her husband, and with a meager 15 pupils, they were running out of money.

Today, 60 students are registered (some professional dancers from the Strip train there, too), and the academy continues to grow. The best students earn pre-professional status and the opportunity to perform with the company, which also continues to develop support. “We’re thinking, right now, right this very moment, we’re very good together,” Lee says.

LVBC has begun to make its mark on the Las Vegas cultural scene. Last spring, the company performed Swan Lake, and its 2010 Nutcracker performances were sold out.

Kwak references the city’s decision to build The Smith Center when he says that there is a strong artistic culture in Las Vegas, and expresses his desire to help nurture it. “So, someday, people will appreciate art as the center of Las Vegas.”

“I believe, and my husband believes, that Las Vegas people love the classical ballet,” Lee says. “That’s why we’re trying to do this.”

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