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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 16 JUNE 2016 — "As far back as I remember" said Hannah O’Neill, "my dream was to be part of the Paris Opera Ballet which I think is the most beautiful company in the world. It’s the definition for ballet for me; I have all the DVDs of the troupe I could find." In 2013, 20-year-old O’Neill, 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 Nureyev’s production of Swan Lake, programmed at the Opéra Bastille. More recently, she has triumphed as Gamzatti in Nureyev’s sumptuous Bayadère, attracting the attention of two of the world’s 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 Petipa’s original staging of the Bayadère, to talk about her meteoric rise in the international dance circuit.

To begin with, Hannah O’Neill 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.

Hannah O'Neill
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

"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 didn’t impress Elisabeth Platel!   It wasn’t 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 Ballet School".

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, O’Neill 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 wasn’t 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 I’ve 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 opera’s 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 in 2016.

"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 I’d 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 Nureyev’s choreography for the grand classics even if the steps are harder, being a little more tricky than any other version. It’s such an incredible feeling when you’ve 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 O’Neill 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 Millepied’s La Nuit s’Achève 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, it’s 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 aunt’s 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 friends.

*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 Culturekiosque.

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