Hannah O’Neill is a rare gem indeed. A dancer of supreme elegance and grace, she possesses not only the talent, but the mettle to become one of the few foreigners to be accepted into the world-renowned Paris Opera Ballet. She has not just survived, but succeeded as a POB dancer, rising to become a soloist after weathering a rough few early years and the exacting cauldron of POB’s concours, their annual competition on which careers and promotions hinge – it’s the closest equivalent to the Hunger Games you would ever find in the ballet world. Following the short-lived tenure of former artistic director Benjamin Millepied, Paris Opera Ballet finds itself once again in a state of transition, but if you were a betting man (and a ballet lover), you would put good money on Hannah to succeed. Puisse la sort vous être favorable.
C&V SESSIONS WITH HANNAH O’NEILL
What did you have for breakfast?
When I lived in Australia, I went to the full time ballet school there, and because breakfast is in the culture, everybody eats very well in the morning, so I used to have very good breakfast. I would always have yogurt and muesli and toast and things like that. Vegemite, marmite toast, and honey. I’m a very big honey fan.
But since I’ve moved to Paris, so there are two factors: one because I wake up too late and two because it’s less in the culture, in the French culture to have a big breakfast. It just kind of happened naturally that now I don’t always have a very big breakfast. I will always have my cup of coffee in the morning, that is essential.
But I’ll either just have a piece of toast or something small, usually something sweet.
But the coffee’s not as good as in Melbourne is it?
No it’s not as good, that’s something definitely miss. But because I drink my coffee black so it’s okay. Sometimes the coffee’s a bit burnt so that’s not very good, but I have my little cafes that I go to and my usuals.
But there’s cake in Paris.
There is cake in Paris, yes. There are a few good brunch addresses like you know gotta search for them and test them out but we eat pretty well, we eat pretty good in Paris, in France anyway.
Hannah O’Neill, Premier danseur at POB, in Joseph Maziller‘s Paquita.
Credit: Laurent Philippe
Do you go back to visit your family New Zealand often?
Well, unfortunately I haven’t been back for three years.
The first time I didn’t go back it was because I did I entered the Varna ballet competition and I only had a little bit of time left afterwards, so I decided to stay in France. I went to the south of France with my friends, went on holiday with them.
And then last year I had a gala in China. And I didn’t want to go back to winter, so I just rang the last year with my friends. This year I was dancing quite a lot in Japan and then I went to Russia. I had ten days holiday, so I decided to go to Mexico.
I’ve been lucky though because my parents come over quite a lot.
So how did a girl, born in Tokyo, living in New Zealand – how did you find your way all the way to the Paris Opera?
I don’t know. I did work very hard, but at the same time I guess I met the right people. It was all about timing as well. I was very driven and I knew what I wanted and I did everything for it to work. I tried everything I could in my control, which meant to work hard. I really worked hard on being French, almost. I’m not saying imitating is the right word, but almost imitating, as if I was trained in the French way.
When I was accepted into the company, I had to go back to square one. I had to redo everything. But the French style is something that comes I think the most easy and most natural to me out of all the styles that I have done. I just feel right here, I guess.
Were you always very aware trying to craft yourself into like the type of dancer that the POB would want?
No, not at all! Obviously it was a dream of mine since I was a very little girl. But when I went to compete in the Prix de Lausanne, I went to Europe and I got to see other dancers in Europe. And on my way back, I was able to stop over in Paris and London, so I saw the Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera.
And it made me think really that I really do want to go over to Europe and dance. At the end of my second to last year in at the Australian Ballet School, I really started to think okay, what do I really want to do? I had worked towards getting into the Australian Ballet, but at the same time it felt a bit too easy for me and too reachable. I needed something that was way out of my league. I decided that I had to try now. I didn’t want to regret not trying, and I got lucky.
The Australian Ballet is a very good company and many of your peers who trained Australia are dancing in top companies all around the world. But people don’t really know much about the pedagogy in Australia, how they teach people. What was your experience like in the Australian Ballet School like?
I had a great time at school. I really loved my four years that I was there.
We had a new teacher every year. I started off in level five, which was the first year of full time training with a teacher, Irina Konstantinov. We called her Miss Irina. She is very, very Russian; we were like perfect soldiers in class. We all looked exactly the same. I had a really really good year with her. She pushed me a lot, and I continued a really close relationship with her throughout the school. She came to Paris a couple of years ago to see me.
Second year we had Lisa Pavane, who is now the director of the Australian Ballet School. She was really great as well. Obviously she was an Australian Ballet principal and was a principal with English National Ballet, you know with a lot of experience. She treated us more like adults, whereas with Miss Irina, we were like her babies, she told us everything from A to Z. So at first it was a bit of a shock because we had to think more on our own.
Exactly, but that’s part of growing up through the levels. In my third year, we had a Chinese teacher. We had two teachers actually, we were very lucky. We had a Chinese teacher, Madame [Xiuyun] Tang, and Lynette Wills, who was a principal with the Australian Ballet as well. She had just started teaching, so we were her first class. Madame Tang was a bit crazy; she made us do things that were so hard and almost impossible. We were all sometimes almost depressed because it was so difficult! But at the same time, she was already, I don’t know, 60 years old and she could do it. Anyway, so we had her and to balance out we had Miss Wills, who would explain things to us a little bit more, because Madame Tang she had limited English. That was a really, really great year.
In our last year we had Miss Michel, Joanne Michel, who was a principal with the Australian Ballet. She was like a mother to us. She was so lovely and her classes were very hard.
I think overall the Australian Ballet School prepared me very well mentally and physically for ballet and just life in general. We were very well educated about our health issues and how to prevent injury, how to handle injury. I had a really great time at Australian Ballet School.
It sounds like because they had so many teachers from so many different styles , you learnt a lot.
We have an Australian Ballet School curriculum, which is made by teachers of the Australian Ballet School so they’re all on the same page. But at the same time they’re all teachers who have had a lot of experience and who can also bring in information from their careers. It was really great, but at the same time it’s not, you know, defined like the pure Russian style or the pure French style.
In that sort of way I guess it was a little bit more varied in what we could do and what we couldn’t do.
Hannah O’Neill, Premier danseur at POB
One thing that no one really talks about is what was it like when you had to do your first ballet kiss – it’s not something they prepare you for in school!
I’ve never done a ballet kiss. Have I?
Oh no, I did the balcony pas de deux in Romeo and Juliet in a gala. I didn’t do it in the ballet, but I did it in the gala.
I was doing it with one of my really good friends so it was kind of easy.
Honestly we were so puffed that it doesn’t even really feel like a kiss in that pas de deux, you’re just breathing into each other’s mouths. Hopefully it looks as romantic as it is, but the reality is that it’s not really
When did ballet become a serious career choice for you? The possibility of you being a professional dancer.
I actually never really thought about it. I just always assumed I would be. I didn’t really have a turning point in my life where I said, ‘okay I’m going to take it more seriously.’ I kind of just took it seriously from the very beginning.
Sounds like you were a very focused kid.
I wasn’t! I did a lot of sports as well and obviously I went to normal school as well, so I was occupied with a lot of things. But ballet was always something I wanted to continue always and always take it further.
I read that during when you were first accepted on a temporary contract with POB, you were sort of not dancing very much for a couple of years. I think that can be something that dancers struggle with – you go into your dream company, but it doesn’t seem to be working out at the moment. So what made you decide to stick with it and how did you cope with it?
Obviously it was very difficult. But at the same time I understood very well and I knew that I was normal and everybody had to go through it.
And I was going from square one, even minus square one, because I wasn’t from the school so no one knew who I was, no one had seen me dance. So I accepted the fact that it was going to be difficult. Although at times obviously I moaned and groaned and cried, and said this is the worst thing ever.
Yes, we’re not robots. You gotta get it out.
Yeah, exactly. But I just stuck to it, after my first year of being at the Paris Opera I really knew that’s where I wanted to be, it’s what I wanted to do here.
So you never really thought about maybe going somewhere else?
I did say to myself that if I didn’t get accepted into as a full time member a year after I joined the company, I would consider other choices. But seeing as I did get in I didn’t think of the other options.
I know you had to audition again.
Well, every year if you’re on a seasonal contract and you want another contract afterwards you have to pass what we call a Concours, which is like an audition. So we have to go through this procedure every year until we get ourselves a real contract.
Do you still have to participate in it? You have to have nerves of steel to do well in that competition – the future of your career hinges on it, promotions depend on it. How has the experience been like for you?
There’s two different Concours, there’s the audition I had to do when I was still in the temporary contract and then once you have the contract it’s called the Concours interne, which is a competition within the company for each grade to be promoted. And honestly it gets worse and worse every year, harder and harder every year. I’m so glad and thankful that I only had to pass it three times.
Only three times?! That’s seems like a lot already.
There are a lot of girls who’ve been past it ten times, twelve times, fifteen times, so it’s a very stressful period of time. It’s actually right now; it started for them this week. The coaching started this week, so they’re all into preparation. I am so glad I don’t have to ever go through it again.
Do they have to do it ten or twelve times because they didn’t pass the first few times and so they have to keep doing it again?
Hannah O’Neill, Premier danseur at POB, in Jules Perrot/Nikolay Berezov’s Esmeralda.
Credit: Jack Devant
I know you’re a premier danseur now. So for the next promotion, is it just an appointment?
Exactly. It’s the choice of the director of dance and director of the company.
You’ve done so many competitions, but the Concours must have been one of the hardest.
By miles, it was the hardest and most unsatisfying and un…what’s the word?
I guess that it’s not that it’s unsatisfying, but it’s just not a nice time you spend onstage because with a performance, what happens happens. That’s how it is. But in the Concours, if something goes wrong, you know that everything is going to be on the line. It’s quite hard mentally. It’s very hard to keep straight.
Was there anything that helped you prepare? Something personally that helped you get through it?
Not really, I guess staying ‘me’. Keep grounded, just stay out of the drama. Sometimes things happen, there’s stories there’s talk that goes around, but just stay focused on yourself.
I really did enjoy the working process of it – it’s always very interesting working with different teachers and different variations, things like that. But it is a very stressful, stressful month.
How is it like among you and your colleagues? It’s almost like you’re competing almost like against each other, is that very stressful for everybody?
Yeah, it creates tension. That’s why I say it’s a month of strangeness really. There’s a sort of, what’s the word, an atmosphere that’s a little bit negative, a bit touchy. Everyone’s a bit tense.
What was it like coming into POB being like one of the few foreigners there not speaking French? I’m assuming you’re probably very fluent in French right now!
It’s okay; it’s not perfect!
But what was it like coming in? Were people very welcoming?
Everyone was very nice, but obviously you know it’s all in French. It was very hard in the beginning. It wasn’t even the fact that I didn’t understand French, because after a while I did start to understand, but not being able to speak was very frustrating.
Communicating with people and things like that.
Yeah. It was a little bit hard, yes. But luckily in the same promotion as me were very very nice people. I got along with them very well from the very beginning. That made it a lot easier.
So is it a very communal company?
Yeah, it’s like a huge family, but without really being a family because everybody thinks they know each other, but really we don’t really know each other. But it is a very family kind of atmosphere.
Until the Concours come and everybody’s stressed!
What was it like dancing under Benjamin Millepied and working under his artistic direction?
I was very lucky because he liked me quite a lot. He pushed me a lot. It was thanks to him that I got the grades as fast as I did, I think. He was the one that gave me all the roles that I’ve done so far.
Obviously it wasn’t perfect while he was there and he made mistakes. But he’s only human and obviously he wasn’t very happy. There’re always pros and cons to everything. For me it was very unfortunate because it was, not the turning point, but I was on a good streak.
But he’s gone so I have to kind of start again, because, Aurélie [Dupont], the new director, she doesn’t really know me yet and she hasn’t really seen me dance. So I guess it’s kind of going back one step a little bit.
With Aurélie Dupont, does everybody feel a little bit uncertain because it’s a new artistic director or is it a more welcoming atmosphere because she’s been dancing there for so long; she’s grown up with the company?
Well obviously she has a lot of respect from a lot of people, from a lot of us, because she was such a great dancer. But personally I don’t know her at all.
We’re still getting to know her. She’s still getting to know us. It’s still too early in the days to say whether it’s working or not working. It’s a to-be-continued process.
Hannah O’Neill and Mathias Heymann in Rudolf Nureyev‘s La Bayadère.
Credit: Little Shao/Opéra national de Paris
What’s the secret to the amazing POB arabesque?
Ooh, good question cause I’m still wondering about it too. So I don’t quite have the answers!
There’s no real secret really you just gotta do it the hard way, the correct way. And then one day it’ll just feel right and once it feels right I think you can sort of adjust yourself and try other things. But until you’ve got the pure square arabesque line it’s hard to make it look as good in a different form.
What do you think are your strengths as a dancer and what are the things that you would like to improve on?
I think I’m quite coordinated, so new movements aren’t very difficult for me to do. Obviously afterwards the work comes in to make it perfect and higher or lower or more turns or jumping higher or more feet work – more quality in everything.
What I have to work on? I still have to work on everything. There’s not really anything I can’t not work on, so the journey continues.
I tend to ask this of dancers: how do you find your satisfaction in your work? There are always so many things to fix, so how do you achieve the satisfaction?
I think for us even the slightest movement that’s a bit better feels like this huge enormous relief on our shoulders. And so that small detail can change your feelings of satisfaction in your dance.
But I think it’s very hard to be satisfied with every single step you do in a piece. Obviously there are some things that are just not going to work as well, but you know that’s what we strive for – perfection. I guess that’s what keeps me personally motivated.
It’s different dancing professionally versus being a student or a recreational dancer. You have to think about salary and promotions and opportunities so and working every day, the daily grind, so what keeps you in love with ballet?
In the day-to-day basis I really do enjoy discovering and working with my own body, always trying to work things out and making things better.
But at the end of the day I do it because I love dancing on stage so much. For me, that’s the reason why I dance.
I know it doesn’t sound very original at all, but it’s pretty simple actually. I’m not saying the message can’t be deeper, but…
If it works for you and it makes you happy…
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