Her first moves of the day are the hardest. EunWon Lee, one of the Washington Ballet’s leading ballerinas, awakens as many dancers do, with stiff, sore muscles. Before heading to rehearsals, the 26-year-old tapes up her ankles, on the mend from sprains, and the shoulder she dislocated a month ago.
Then, setting her iPad beside a pot of tea, Lee begins her morning ritual: scanning Facebook for the friends and family in South Korea she won’t see again for many months.
Lee smiles when she comes across a photo of her little chubby-cheeked nephew. He was born just before she quit the Korean National Ballet last year and moved halfway around the world to chase a dream.
Back home, Lee was the National Ballet’s youngest principal ballerina and a dance celebrity. Her performances sold out the Seoul opera house in minutes. She starred in “Giselle,” “La Bayadere” and other classics, and was coached by visiting ballet royalty from around the world.
With her lithe form and delicate, childlike features, she modeled for Swarovski jewelry and tossed out ceremonial pitches at ballgames.
But it wasn’t enough.
“I always wanted to leave Korea to dance,” Lee says, “because ballet is not Korean.”
Pictures of Audrey Hepburn dot the walls of her studio apartment in Cathedral Heights, where Lee is living on her own for the first time in her life. Last week, she went to her first pop concert (Bruno Mars), and tried pumpkin spice beer for the first (and last) time.
Hiring Lee is one of the changes Washington Ballet Artistic Director Julie Kent has made since arriving last year and setting her sights on national status. This season, Lee is the face of the Washington Ballet: A glamorous photo of her in a jeweled tutu tops the company’s website and adorns posters at the Kennedy Center. In the Washington Ballet’s fall series, titled “Russian Masters,” at the center through Sunday, Lee is scheduled to dance two roles that display her lightness, lyricism and effortless precision: the bravura duet from “Le Corsaire” and a solo sprite in “Les Sylphides,” a ballet tone-poem accompanied by Chopin études.
The adrenaline rush of performances will be a relief from Lee’s seesawing emotions, as she feels her way around a baffling foreign culture in a country where a year ago she knew no one and barely spoke a word of English. In her second year here, she wavers between loneliness and peace, anxiety and hope.
But when she’s onstage, “I’m just enjoying, just following the music,” Lee says. “No thinking. No worries.”
When Kent, a distinguished former star of American Ballet Theatre, took over the Washington Ballet last season, she wasted no time changing its course. For the previous 17 years, under former director Septime Webre, it was a small contemporary troupe specializing in Webre’s idiosyncratic creations. Before Webre, company founder Mary Day had also leaned toward small-scale and modern. She had no aims of grandeur, preferring to keep the group modest in size and reach.
Kent and her husband, Victor Barbee, also a former ABT principal and the Washington Ballet’s associate artistic director, have bigger ambitions. The company’s 2013-23 strategic plan calls for a roster of 40 dancers by 2023. So far, they’ve increased it to 25. They’ve brought in works by such top-tier choreographers as Frederick Ashton and Alexei Ratmansky, introducing the kind of sophisticated repertoire danced around the world by classical companies such as ABT and England’s Royal Ballet.
At stake is the Washington Ballet’s ability to do what few performing arts organizations in the nation’s capital have done: to achieve national prominence, and transcend the local confines.
“The very long-term goal is for the Washington Ballet to do all the great ballets — full-lengths and contemporary works — that exist as well as any company in the world does them,” Barbee declared at a meeting with reporters in March 2016.
Lee, one of Kent’s first hires, is a major component of this plan. The enterprising new director and a young swan of a dancer from Korea are linked in an effort to redevelop the Washington Ballet.
About the time Barbee announced his and Kent’s aspirations, Lee, in Seoul, was springing into action. She’d learned that Kent was looking for dancers, and she was determined to be chosen. When she was 15, the English National Ballet had offered her a spot in its school, but she was too scared to leave home. Not now.
She had idolized Kent since her childhood, poring over clips of her poetically nuanced dancing on YouTube. She sent her videos, and a mutual friend, a Korean physical therapist who worked with dancers in Seoul and New York, raved to Kent about Lee’s gifts. Finally, Kent asked Lee to audition.
“Several things leapt out at me,” Kent recalls in a recent interview at the Washington Ballet headquarters on Wisconsin Avenue NW. “Her dancing was lovely, and there were areas where I felt I could help her. Just little details, like how she used her feet and her hands.
“And then there was her desire to learn, and that she was willing to give up a secure, stable position to travel across the world to be mentored and pushed, and to force herself to grow.”
When Lee moved to Washington, her older sister, Ji Won, came with her. Ji Won, who’d lived in San Francisco, helped Lee shop for food and cleaning supplies — things Lee had never done in Seoul, where she had lived with her parents. Ji Won also taught her how to do her laundry. A week later, she flew back to Korea, and Lee went off to ballet class.
“The first day was very good,” Lee says with a smile. “I liked staying on my own. But after a week, I missed my family and friends.”
She speaks hesitantly but expressively; she learned English quickly, and no longer attends evening classes.
What was scariest for her? Sipping an iced tea on her lunch break, Lee has an immediate answer. “Thinking about my future,” she says, her smile widening. Then it drops and she grows somber.
“After five years or 10 years, where am I? What am I going to do? I’m not sure at this moment. I want more growth, as an artist and as a person. But always only ballet, ballet, ballet — I don’t want to be that person.”
That’s who she has been for most of her life. Early on, Lee was identified as gifted — a rare designation in Korea — which meant extra hours of school. She entered university at 16, skipping high school. (It’s common for Korean ballet dancers to attend an arts university, and begin their careers after graduation.) She graduated at 19, also rare, and joined the national ballet, where she rose rapidly to the highest rank. By 25, Lee had little else in her life but practice, performance and competitions.
“Every step of her life has not been easy,” says Seomyeong Kim, Lee’s childhood ballet teacher, speaking by phone from Seoul. “All her life, she’s been working.”
Now that she’s here, Lee still asks Kim for advice about life, or when she’s worried about a new part. She has dived into an unfamiliar repertoire here, including her first works by Balanchine, Ratmansky and Ashton. “Maybe you’re working too hard,” Kim will say. “Just take it easy and go for a walk or something.”
In her first year on her own, with a lighter schedule than in Korea, “I got stressed a lot about my free time,” Lee says. “I don’t know what I should do.” She went home over the summer — the annual layoff for dancers being one of many surprises about American culture — and spoke to Kim. “She told me, ‘EunWon, for 25 years you missed a lot of life because of ballet. So now you have to do something else.’ ” On weekends, Lee has been visiting museums.
What she misses most about home: the food, especially seafood. Pizza and steak almost make up for it, though.
What’s weird about the United States: vegans. And tipping. Also the fact that Americans don’t always take off their shoes at home.
Lee marvels at how relaxed folks are here, even at the ballet company. While rehearsing “Le Corsaire,” she accidentally conked her partner, Brooklyn Mack, in the face with her elbow, breaking his nose. Mack laughed it off and headed to a doctor. Lee was mortified.
Kent, overseeing the rehearsal, simply shrugged.
“It’s no big deal,” she assured Lee. “It happens.”
At a dress rehearsal of “Les Sylphides” a week before show time, Lee hands her phone to a colleague to shoot a video so she can study it later.
“She never misses a second to try to make discoveries,” Barbee says. “You know, ‘How can I make that better?’ Not everyone wants to know that. But she’s hungry for it.”
After whirling through her duet, Lee stands off to the side with her partner, Cuban dancer Gian Carlo Perez. He fluffs up the little wings on her costume. They exchange a fist bump before his solo.
When rehearsals are over, Lee heads to the Giant for chili sauce, standing amazed before the array of choices. Once home, she cooks stir-fried octopus, following a recipe on her phone. The octopus arms lie curled and pink on her kitchen counter, near a collection of painkillers and muscle rubs.
After dinner: another workout. She holds squats, planks and splits while balanced on a rumbling “whole-body vibration” device called a Power Plate, used for muscle stimulation and strength training.
Finally, the ballerina who stands at a crucial juncture in the history of a Washington institution soaks her feet in a mop bucket. Then she sinks into bed, enjoying some relief from her aches, and trying not to think too much about tomorrow.
The Washington Ballet performs “Russian Masters” through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. Tickets: $25-$140. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.