Hoon Sook (Julia) (Pak) Moon (wife of Heung Jin Moon)

Faith In An Art's Power - Julia (Hoon Sook) Moon

Donna Perlmutter
August 1, 2004
Special to The Los Angeles 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 publicize 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."

Some have suggested that the Rev. Moon may be tapping that power to recast his church's frequently controversial image and extend the reach of its unorthodox messianic message. Asked if she sees any similarity between the Rev. Moon's arts philanthropy and that of, say, Phillip Morris, Moon answers: "Isn't it possible to support the arts just out of love? I don't think they do it in order to build a better reputation. No, it's because they value the arts."

A contrary father

She uses her father as an example: Pak was the force behind both her dedication to ballet and her striving for excellence as a dancer. "He loved artistic expression," she says, "which was very unusual, because Koreans, especially those of his generation, don't see much value in the arts. It's all about the economy and survival, practical things. These people were dealing with a broken country in the aftermath of war."

Both Pak and his daughter have certainly achieved their ends. The Universal Ballet has garnered rave reviews through its worldwide touring, especially in the past seven years.

With Vinogradov in charge of artistic matters (and his wife directing the Universal Ballet Academy, the $5.9-million residential school in Washington, D.C., that the Rev. Moon launched in 1990) the company's profile is distinctly in the Russian classical tradition, with traces of Eastern reserve.

"But I see a need for greater expressiveness," says Moon. "Our dancers have to fight against their natural reticence."

She's reveling in her new duties with the company. "Before I stopped dancing," she says, "it was all about me -- keeping in shape, worrying about this injury and that costume. After I left the stage it was like falling in love with ballet all over again. Because I had stepped away from performing, I was no longer inside the woods but outside. I could see the whole forest."

The new role, she says, came to her naturally. "The picture I saw was bigger than how to improve my turnout and my rondes de jambes. Now I own a sense of responsibility for the greater good. And the injury that finished me, well, that was God saying, 'OK, girl, you've had enough. Do something else. At 39, you're entitled.' " 

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