By Patricia Boccadoro
PARIS, 16 JUNE 2016 "As far back as I remember" said Hannah
ONeill, "my dream was to be part of the Paris Opera Ballet which I think
is the most beautiful company in the world. Its the definition for ballet
for me; I have all the DVDs of the troupe I could find." In 2013,
20-year-old ONeill, born in Japan, resident of New Zealand, and trained
at the Australian Ballet school, not only realized that dream, entering
the company as quadrille, the lowest rank, but two years later
found herself dancing the role of the Swan Princess in Rudolf Nureyevs
production of Swan Lake, programmed at the Opéra Bastille. More
recently, she has triumphed as Gamzatti in Nureyevs sumptuous
Bayadère, attracting the attention of two of the worlds most
famous choreographers along her way. How did that happen at the Paris
Opera, one of the most hierarchical troupes in the world?
I met her at the Palais Garnier in Paris on her return from Saint
Petersburg, where she had been invited to dance Gamzatti in Petipas
original staging of the Bayadère, to talk about her meteoric rise
in the international dance circuit.
To begin with, Hannah ONeill is beautiful. She possesses the slender
figure and delicate traits of her Japanese mother coupled with the
athleticism and steely strength of her rugby-man father, born and bred a
New Zealander. If one adds to that her passion for dance aided by an
innate musicality and a rare, indefinable quality which distinguishes the
true artiste, it seems that the gods had smiled upon her from birth.
Paris Opera Ballet
"There was nothing special about my early childhood in Tokyo", she told
me. "My two brothers and I grew up as normal Japanese kids, doing all the
usual activities with lots of sports, ballet included, for me. The Paris
Opera dancers are adulated in Japan and dance for me became synonymous
with Paris. Then when I was 8, my father got injured and wanted to go back
home to Auckland where he became a rugby coach. "
"I attended a normal school in Auckland, continuing my dance studies
and then when I was 13, I sent a video to audition for the Paris Opera
School which unfortunately didnt impress Elisabeth Platel! It
wasnt very nice to be rejected, but then I went on to win the Youth
American Grand Prix and was offered a full scholarship for the Australian
Her first teacher was Irina Konstantinova, a former principal of the
Mariinsky Ballet, who taught the Vaganova method in favour there.
Subsequent teachers were Lynette Wills, former principal of the Australian
Ballet, and then Marilyn Rowe* who coached her for the Prix de Lausanne
which she won in 2009. Being happy where she was, she completed her
training in Melbourne, but then came to Europe to see performances at both
the Royal Ballet in London and the Paris Opera.
"I still hoped to have a chance to enter the French company but came
fourth in their external auditions and was rejected again", she said
ruefully, "but then a miracle happened when I was halfway home, changing
planes in Singapore and feeling a little depressed. I got a phone call
from Laurent Hilaire**, offering me a seasonal contract!"
Very excited, ONeill moved to Paris as stagiaire, a dancer on a
temporary contract, but not speaking French and not fully understanding
her position which she soon realized when standing in the wings most
nights instead of dancing. It wasnt exactly what she had been
dreaming of. Dispirited, but encouraged by her parents who knew that her
heart was set on the Paris Opera company, she nevertheless took the
external audition for the company a second time, but when passed over yet
again was on the point of giving up when Hilaire programmed her in the
third act of The Bayadère.
"My disappointment and homesickness disappeared overnight and I almost
began to think my troubles were over", she admitted, "but I fell on
stage! Yes, my leg just gave way under me in the biggest crisis of
nerves Ive ever had
and I trust, will never have again. I was
heart-broken. I thought my career was over before it had begun! But then I
finally got a place in the company in 2013."
Hannah O'Neill in La Bayadère
Paris Opera Ballet
That was an exceptional achievement in itself as she was in competition
with girls selected and trained at the operas own school, but then,
allowed to compete in the annual concours***, she was promoted to
coryphée in 2014, the same year she won the silver medal at
Varna, passing as sujet in 2015, and première danseuse
"I am just so relieved that my time of competitions is over", she said.
"Coming from New Zealand, I had to show that I was there, but it was
getting harder and harder. I did enjoy being in the corps de
ballet, but now as a soloist I will have the opportunity to develop
roles and hopefully to dance everything. There are so many choreographers
Id like to work with."
"Aready Pierre Lacotte has been extremely supportive and I believe he
was also behind my gaining the Carpeaux prize as he was on the jury.
I loved dancing both his Paquita and Celebration, while
working with William Forsythe was quite an experience, he has such
incredible energy. I also love all of Rudolf Nureyevs choreography
for the grand classics even if the steps are harder, being a little more
tricky than any other version. Its such an incredible feeling when youve
grasped that certain coordination. If you can dance them, you feel you can
dance everything, as for instance, when I danced at the Mariinsky in Saint
Petersburg last week. The director, Yuri Fateyev, invited me to dance the
Petipa version and I found it so easy I felt I was cheating! But being at
the Mariinsky was such a joy; I spent 4 magical days there which was a
real morale booster."
As she was trained in the Vaganova/Australian method, I asked Hannah
ONeill whether or not she found it hard to adjust to the French style, if
indeed there was still a French style.
She replied that the general use of the upper body, the "épaulement",
was different in Paris. The French dancers were more sophisticated, more
feminine and elegant and gave a lot of attention to detail, while greater
emphasis was given to the footwork. But as far as adjusting to that, she
was and had been greatly helped by the teachers, particularly by Agnès
Letestu who coaches her.
In addition to dancing in Saint
Petersburg, the young ballerina will shortly be leaving for Moscow where
she will dance Millepieds La Nuit sAchève with Hugo Marchand,
the recently promoted premier dancer, followed by the pas de deux
from Esmeralda in New York.
"I want to dance works by Roland Petit, Mats Ek, Béjart, Neumeier,
Robbins, everything! Especially Giselle! At this point in my
life, its important to be dancing the most challenging things possible,
but," she repeated, "never in competitions which I was obliged to do to
get where I am! "
Meanwhile, having arrived in France knowing no one and without speaking
any French, she is now fluent, and being adaptable with an attractive
easy-going personality, she also has a firm circle of people she can count
on here as well as at home in Australia.
"I have also got to know a cousin of my aunts who lives in
Paris", she told me, "Not only was I happy to meet her as being someone I
can talk to, but she is in the contemporary art world and often invites me
to previews at art exhibitions which I really enjoy. Apart from that, I
adore going to see the All Blacks and simply being out and about with
*Marilyn Rowe, Australian dancer,
former director of the Australian ballet school.
**Laurent Hilaire, ballet master
associated to the director, at the Paris Opera, currently freelance.
***After working two years as
a stagiare, she was entitled to take part in the annual internal
competition for promotion.
Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has
contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance
consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in
Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for