Ballet From the Heart of Seoul

Los Angeles Times/July 23, 2001
By Diane Haithman

Adrienne Dellas-Thornton welcomes the Universal Ballet, which she founded in South Korea, to her new hometown, where she is director of Debbie Allen's academy.

It was during a 1969 stint as a Las Vegas showgirl that Adrienne Dellas-Thornton joined the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. "I found God in Sin City," she jokes now.

Meeting a persuasive Unification Church family while dancing at the Stardust Lounge led to more than a religious conversion for Dellas-Thornton. It also eventually led her to Seoul, South Korea-and to founding a classical ballet company, funded in part by the church.

Universal Ballet, now in its 17th year, performs through Wednesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The company presented "La Bayadere" over the weekend; on the program Tuesday and Wednesday is "Shim Chung," choreographed by Dellas-Thornton, 55, who recently took up residence as director of the new Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City (Allen is the school's artistic director).

Universal Ballet, which has had a series of directors, is now led by general director Julia Moon and artistic director Oleg Vinogradov, former artistic director of the Kirov Ballet. Dellas-Thornton, who stepped down as head of the company in 1987, maintains an informal relationship with the organization. And "Shim Chung" remains one of its signature ballets.

Based on a well-known 1,500-year-old folk tale, the three-act "Shim Chung" tells a traditional Korean story in the lavish style of Western classical ballet. In it, a young woman sacrifices herself to the Sea Dragon King to save her blind father's life. Her devotion endears her to the Sea Dragon King as well as the king of Korea and his court.

The dance received its first major performance in 1986 at the Arts Festival of the Asian Games in Tokyo. It was revised for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Arts Festival.

"In 1978, I had gone into a hotel bookstore in Seoul and picked up a children's book that was written in English. It was 'Shim Chung.' The story is actually volumes long, but this was a little encapsulation of it," Dellas-Thornton reminisces during a conversation at Allen's dance school, housed in a former aerospace factory that until January was home to Conjunctive Points Dance Center.

"And I thought: This is one of the most beautiful stories I'd ever read," Dellas-Thornton continues. "But I thought, oh boy, if you're going to do this, you'd better do it right-because you are doing a Korean ballet in Korea.

"How do you dance in front of a king, what is the protocol of the court ladies and gentlemen? I had older Korean men sit and watch rehearsal; they would say: 'A Buddhist monk wouldn't carry a pen and paper in his pocket, he'd carry it in his sleeve.' I learned many parts of ancient Korean culture that are still maintained today."

Times dance critic Lewis Segal was charmed by "Shim Chung" when the ballet made its American debut at Luckman Theatre at Cal State L.A. in 1998, calling the work "a pileup of miraculous narrative improbabilities punctuated with breathless bravura."

For Dellas-Thornton, the decision to take on this cross-cultural challenge was no more unusual than the series of life choices that led her to Korea in the first place.

Born in Detroit to a Greek father and an Australian mother, Dellas-Thornton began studying ballet at age 3. After high school, she continued her dance studies in Chicago and New York while occasionally performing as a guest artist with various American companies. In 1967, she was invited to join the Royal Danish Ballet. That decision effectively ended her ballet performing career.

Shortly after arriving in Denmark, Dellas-Thornton took the obligatory placement audition class. "I was doing double fouettes-they wanted 32 fouettes ," she says, describing the flashy sequence of turns that is a signature requirement for the Swan Queen in "Swan Lake."

"And on the 30th fouette , my ankle collapsed-I was new in the country, adjusting to the time change. I should never have taken that class, but we're all troupers in dance, aren't we? A bone went through my Achilles tendon, I had to be operated on, and it never healed properly."

That meant no more pointe shoes. Dellas-Thornton did bit parts with the Royal Danish Ballet for about a year, then returned to the United States, specifically, Vegas, one of few places a dancer could expect to earn a living wage.

After finding her new religion, Dellas-Thornton gave up dancing, spending the next several years as a church missionary in the United States. But it was through the church that she was to discover dance again. At a 1975 holiday celebration, Dellas-Thornton performed her own version of a Korean dance before the Rev. Moon and Dr. Bo Hi Pak, a top Moon associate and director of the Korean Cultural Foundation (company director and principal dancer Julia Moon is Pak's daughter, as well as the Rev. Moon's daughter-in-law).

The pair promptly invited her to become head of the ballet department at Little Angels School, a children's arts academy in Seoul, supported by the church. Dellas-Thornton moved to Seoul in 1976, not speaking a word of Korean, and met an eager assemblage of 300 students.

She was determined to school them in the Russian Vaganova style. Russian training, she thought, was a good fit for the students. "Many Korean children have a long back," she says, "and one of the strengths of the Russian system is the placement of the back. When a Russian dancer turns around, the back is singing-just singing."

She also believed that the strict goal-oriented practices of the Russian style would parallel Korea's ancient cultural traditions. And strict it was-especially for her. "My first class started at 5 a.m., and [I] finished at 10 at night," she recalls. "It was on a three-month trial basis; it lasted for 12 years.

"When students came to me, sometimes they came from the countryside, or cities far away-parents would move to Seoul for their children to be able to study," Dellas-Thornton continued.

During her early years with Little Angels, artistic leaders of London's Royal Ballet visited the school, and invited six of Dellas-Thornton's students to study at the Royal Ballet School.

"I was stuck with the problem of how to get them out of Korea," Dellas-Thornton says. "It was still a semi-war situation, we still had blackout times, and curfews. They were terrified that if children were taken out of the country, they would be abducted and taken to North Korea. I had to go to the Ministry of Culture and literally beg, they got so tired of seeing me! Finally they got their passports, and I got them to England."

In 1978, Dellas-Thornton took a second group of Korean students to London, and also got married there-to Unification Church member Michael Thornton. The couple have three children: Charlotte, now 21, Tessa, 19, and Joseph, 18. In the early '80s, Dellas-Thornton took the church's interest in ballet to the next level-gathering a handful of top students, including Julia Moon, to form the Universal Ballet. The company made its debut in Korea in 1984 with Moon opposite American Ballet Theater guest artist Patrick Bissell in "Cinderella," and began establishing its reputation.

In 1987, however, the Thorntons moved back to the United States, settling in Washington, D.C., to seek medical treatment for Tessa, then 4, who had leukemia. That move coincided with a decision to establish a U.S. headquarters for Universal Ballet. Dellas-Thornton, concentrating on family matters, took a background role, but in 1990, a company academy opened in Washington.

Vinogradov-who had been looking for a toehold in the dance world outside of the then-fractious Soviet Union-was tapped to help build it; he would become artistic director of Universal Ballet in 1998. Dellas-Thornton taught at the Washington, D.C., school for almost 10 years.

Among her students was Allen's daughter, Vivian. Last year, Allen was visiting from Los Angeles, watching Dellas-Thornton working out some choreography with her daughter, when the two began brainstorming about Allen opening a dance academy in L.A.

"She said, 'If I do, will you come there?' I said, 'In a New York minute, honey!"' Dellas-Thornton recalls with a chuckle. The Thornton family moved to L.A. last October. "I stole her," Allen says. "I'm thrilled that she's with us; she is such a master teacher, and a great complement to me as a person. Her whole spirit is so positive."

Dellas-Thornton insists that, despite her membership in the Unification Church, her association with Universal Ballet has always been professional, not religious. Company officials are equally adamant that it's a dance organization, not a representative of the church.

"I was a classical ballet instructor, the director of the ballet department, and that was my work-it was just like if I was Catholic or Protestant and held that position," says Dellas-Thornton. "I set up very strict moral guidelines for the students, but it came from me. I deeply accepted and tried to live by a sort of peaceful morality.

"I've never been told, not one time, what to do with anything. I've never received 'the phone call.' "I think it's a matter of trust. It really comes from the heart of Rev. Moon himself; he has never withdrawn that trust or his support or his love. "My relationship with God is my relationship with God. If I cross over the line, it's between him and me. He'll let me know."

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