ENB's Sangeun Lee and Gareth Haw: profound artistry and magic
In their first interview since joining English National Ballet, lead principal Sangeun Lee and first soloist Gareth Haw talk to Culture Whisper about this new chapter in their special partnership
He invited Semperoper ballet’s lead pair, Sangeun Lee and Gareth Haw, to join him in London.
Sangeun Lee and Gareth Haw rehearsing for Four Last Songs by David Dawson. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo
As he told Culture Whisper,
‘I brought them both as they are special artists that add unique qualities to our company to inspire both our dancers and audience. They fully embody the type of artist I am interested in for ENB for their professionalism, work ethic and their generous collaborative spirit.’
The online arts magazine Bachtrack was certainly inspired by their recent gala performance, which its critic described as ‘breathtaking'. She went on: ‘so unique is their movement style and their partnership, they transported us to another world.’
For both Sangeun Lee and Gareth Haw Dresden had been home – for Welshman Gareth Haw the only professional home he'd ever known, having joined Semperoper Ballett immediately after graduating from the Royal Ballet School in 2015. He was promoted to first soloist in 2022.
Born and trained in South Korea, Sangeun Lee had a stint in her home company, Universal Ballet, after graduation in 2005, but for the past 13 years home had been Semperoper Ballet, where she reached to top rank of principal in 2016.
So, naturally, the first thing I wanted to know when I met them at ENB’s swanky east London base was what made them decide to leave ‘calm, comfortable, easy-going’ Dresden (in Gareth Haw’s own words) for ‘crazy, exciting’ London (as Sangeun Lee put it).
‘We had a tight working relationship with our director,’ Gareth Haw explained, ‘and the opportunity presented itself that we could come with him, and once the opportunity was on the table it was a bit of a no-brainer for both of us: same director, same partner, it was an opportunity we weren’t prepared to turn down.’
Still, after so many successful years in Dresden, did Sangeun Lee have any misgivings?
‘There was a little bit of mixed feelings, for sure: more pressure, but at this time of my life, it’s a great opportunity to keep…' And she stabbed the air in a gesture of determination, before dissolving into giggles.
It’s immediately apparent that there is an almost preternatural understanding between Lee and Haw. Not only are they perfectly matched physically – both tall and as elegant as two long-limbed gazelles – but there is also between them an easy camaraderie and tremendous complicity.
In life, as on stage, it seems. In the words of Aaron S Watkin: ‘they really move and breathe as one and can deliver performances of technical brilliance married with profound artistry and magic.’
Ballet Nights, In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated, Sangeun Lee, Gareth Haw. Photo: Deborah Jaffe
Given the gaps in age and seniority, I asked how their very special partnership had come about.
Sangeun Lee recalled, ‘I think we started together in [Semperoper Ballett resident choreographer] David Dawson’s Four Seasons.
'I am 10 years older than him, and was used to partnering with other dancers in the company, but somehow it developed.’
Gareth joins in: ‘When I joined Semper I was 18, I was very young, not very much experience, but Sangeun was a prima ballerina, she was the star of the company and I absolutely wouldn’t have been ready at 18 to try and live up to that. My debut in principal roles was with other ballerinas and they kind of guided me along, and, as Sangeun has just said, David Dawson was the first person to say “Okay, off you go." And from then, as soon as I was accepted as being capable…'
Sangeun interrupts with ‘more than capable!’ and they both laugh.
So, Sangeun, what makes Gareth more than capable?
‘The first week when we are learning the ballet we discuss a lot in the process: can you do this, can you do that? We both enjoy that process very much, not just the technical parts but also the roles, what we are going to deliver in the performance.’
She pauses. And then, mischievously: ‘And in the performance he doesn’t drop me!’
More laughs. As for Gareth, when asked what makes Sangeun his ideal partner, he first deadpans: ‘how long have you got?’ But then adds, seriously, ‘San has been an inspiration of mine right from the beginning.
‘We match each other very well as people, the way we deal with things, the way that we communicate; and when you have a partnership like this you spend literally every day all day together, especially when we travel for galas or guesting, and I think you need a really good balance with each other.
‘That has built such a strong foundation for our partnership to the point that we’ll be on stage and (this will probably sound crazy!) I can literally read her mind.’
Sangeun bursts out laughing, but he is quite serious.
‘It’s one of San’s specialities, that she can play with musicality, and I’ll be standing behind her, and I know exactly what she is going to do. And once you have that level of trust, that’s where you find freedom as a dancer.’
At ENB they’ll spend even more time together: as they point out, the current run of Nutcracker and Giselle will concentrate more performances in six weeks than a whole season of Semperoper Ballett, where ballet shares the schedules with opera and concerts by the prestigious Staatskapelle Dresden.
The Nutcracker, often the first ballet children will watch, is a seasonal rite of passage for dancers all over the world. For Sangeun Lee, it brings back some bittersweet childhood memories: ‘We had a Nutcracker in Korea and I was supposed to be in the child soldiers scene, but I was cut out because I was too tall! I was fuming, crying all night! I was reminded of that watching the children in the run-through today.’
Something arguably more demanding will come after, with Lee and Haw’s joint debut in the lead roles in the Romantic ballet par excellence, Giselle, in the Mary Skeaping reconstruction which is as close as possible to the 19th-century original.
‘I think what’s really exciting for us is that it’s the first time that I can think of that we both debut in a full-length classical or Romantic ballet’, says Gareth. ‘It’s often been the case that San had all the experience and was always pulling me through.
‘Also, Giselle has a lot of raw emotion for us to explore.’
Sangeun concurs: ‘There is a style, of course, but it is about telling the story, the emotion comes genuinely.
‘I had put myself mentally in a box where I’m too tall to dance Giselle; but actually during the past three weeks [of initial preparation] I’ve learnt a lot about the role. It’s much more complex than I imagined, but with the experience that I have I can bring something to it.’
Gareth nods and, not for the first time during this interview, I marvel at their connection. I'd never before met two people so attuned to each other. I can't wait to see them dance.
Sangeun Lee and Gareth Haw dance the lead roles of Clara and The Nephew in Nutcracker at the Coliseum on Thursday 14, Thursday 21 and Wednesday 27 December at 7:30pm, and the lead roles of Giselle and Albrecht in Mary Skeaping's Giselle at the Coliseum on Saturday 13 January at 2:30pm and Friday 19 January at 7:30pm