When the Rev Moon's son died in a car crash, the controversial religious leader formed a dance company for the young man's fiancée. With money no object, it has impressed critics around the world. As it prepares to visit London, Ismene Brown talks to its guiding forces.
The Sadler's Wells publicity department, which is usually trying vainly to whip up interest in foreign dancing groups, suddenly finds itself overwhelmed with eager journalists. "I'm expecting TV news crews as well," says the press officer, sounding bewildered.
No wonder. The theatre is the venue for the first visit to Britain of the Universal Ballet of Korea (proprietor Rev Sun Myung Moon, prima ballerina Julia H Moon). The "Moonies", as the Unification Church is popularly known, got more publicity than they could handle when their recruiting tactics began to be denounced in America in the Seventies by irate parents of students who now claimed they had new "True Parents" in the Rev and Mrs Moon.
The mass weddings of thousands of couples, allotted impersonally to each other by Rev Moon, made for spooky news photos: all those white bridal outfits, all those faces suffused with love, honour and obedience - directed at Moon rather than the relative strangers whose rings they were about to wear.
The Universal Ballet was created after Moon's 17-year-old son was killed in a car crash in 1984. The youth had been engaged to a gifted young ballet dancer called Julia Pak, the daughter of Moon's right-hand man. In a bizarre ceremony, she was married to her dead fiance's ghost, thus becoming Rev Moon's daughter-in-law, and the Universal Ballet was set up as a memorial to the dead man.
But what a memorial. With Oleg Vinogradov, the Kirov's director for 23 years, as its artistic director since 1998 and its fabulously impressive Kirov Academy in Washington, established in 1990, the aim is to push the Kirov classical ideal in diaspora, money no object. Universal's international tours have been highly praised, most recently and significantly by leading New York critics.
The company has 73 dancers, two-thirds Korean, many Russian, all dancing with that long-legged clarity of the Kirov but with a pearly, Asian softness of attack. Julia Moon herself is a lovely ballerina, a modest and gracious woman of 37, who seems overawed by her dual responsibilities as ballerina-in-chief and general director.
"I lack certain qualities, as a dancer and as a director," she tells me earnestly when I visit the company in Geneva, on a trip paid for by Universal Ballet. "Sometimes I do wish I was a nobody, but because this company was formed on me, I feel that if I faltered or wavered the company would falter as well."
Is it, though, something more than simply a ballet company? When Julia Moon made her debut as a guest at the Kirov in 1990, Rev Moon interestingly described it as a significant step in the advancement of his hopes for Russia. Can we buy tickets for Universal Ballet next week at Sadler's Wells without qualms? Will the Moonies try to recruit us as we arrive, or get our details from the mailing database? Ian Albery, the chief executive of Sadler's Wells, says that no such thing is possible (though the street outside is apparently fair game for leafleting).
But still, Moon is a very powerful figure on the far Right, and the role that his ballet company plays in smoothing the way for him is germane to our enjoyment of it. Like L Ron Hubbard, the inventor of Scientology, Rev Moon believes that he has corrected the flaws of the world's major religions, Christianity in particular. Adam and Jesus Christ, it seems, were given a mission by God, but both failed to complete it.
Moon has completed it, by getting married and positioning marriage as central to morality, and therefore can claim to have wiped out Jesus's and Adam's inadequacies. Rev and Mrs Moon (his third wife) are Father and Mother to us all, our "True Parents". In this unifying spirit, he claims to have helped set in motion, through his formidable political contacts, the fall of communism and the reunion of the Koreas, among other things.
The Moons are also media moguls. They own the Washington Times, the UPI press agency and plentiful television interests. They are friends with past president George Bush and aspirant president George W Bush; they are involved in school programmes. There are thought to be more than 1,200 Unification-controlled enterprises, in the Far East, the Americas, Russia, Europe - a handful in England too. Moon, who is now 80, was jailed for tax evasion in 1985. The ballet company is an invaluable international corrective to any bad publicity.
The key figure in all this is Dr Bo Hi Pak. Julia Moon's father is as round and gung-ho as she is slender and reticent. On my trip to Geneva he was a courteous host, describing himself as the "daddy" of all 73 dancers, and displaying an attentive care for them. We met him in his role as the ballet-mad chairman of the Korean Cultural Foundation and president of the Universal Ballet.
Had we been introduced to Colonel Pak, chief aide to Rev Moon, president of the group that owns the Washington Times, former liaison officer of the Korean CIA, political lobbyist and mastermind of the Unification Church's multi-billion-dollar enterprises, we might have felt differently. Yet they are the same man.
It was Pak who decided that Universal Ballet in Korea should be a new Kirov and that his daughter must dance in certain key cities; Pak who decided that, after four obscure American directors, Universal needed the top man. He laid his plans, and when the Kirov Ballet toured to Washington DC in 1989, he pounced.
The then director, Oleg Vinogradov, was asked to go and look at a new ballet school, if he had time. "It was a miracle of a building," he tells me, "beautiful studios, fantastic conditions, I never saw anything like it in my life. I asked them, 'For whom did you create this miracle?' And they said, 'For you.' Dr Pak told me, 'I would like to have the best school in the world.' "
It required a personal request from President Bush to President Gorbachev to fix it, but it was done. For Vinogradov this was opportune. At the Maryinsky Theatre, as perestroika kicked in, he was getting into hot water. His arrest in 1995 for corruption, like Moon's for tax evasion, was highly publicised. Valery Gergiev, new head of the Maryinsky, told The Telegraph recently, "Some people thought that the artists should work hard in order to make them rich. Mr Vinogradov was one of these people." Vinogradov's release without charge was also much discussed, and in 1998 he duly slipped away to Washington.
Since then, hey presto, the Universal Ballet, part Korean, part American, part Russian, has finally won backing from the Korean government and become a prominent addition to the world ballet scene. The graduates of the Kirov Academy (Moon bought the Kirov name with Vinogradov's blessing) now dominate world ballet competitions.
Meanwhile, says Vinogradov sadly, Russia has lost the plot, ballet-wise. Whatever its faults, the Soviet Union did ensure a matchless infrastructure. "There used to be 55 ballet theatres. Now, in our pseudo-democracy, there are only five, and the republics no longer send their children to train in St Petersburg."
The West lets its ballet companies fight for money, he says disdainfully. But Universal is different: "Here I never think about money. Dr Pak gives me whatever I need."
At what price? Vinogradov says that none is paid to the Unification Church; there is no recruitment in the company or school, only Julia is a member, and he is still Christian Orthodox. Art, he says, is the only priority. And maybe it is.