Bal­let star Han­nah O’Neill is liv­ing a life in mo­tion


NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS MIKAE LA WILKES

1996–2008 Kishibe Bal­let Stu­dio (Tokyo), Mount Eden Bal­let Academy, Auck­land Japan-born Han­nah O’Neill be­gan bal­let classes at age three. “My mum Su­mie signed me up like all the other kids, just as play,” she says. Although her fa­ther Chris was in Japan to play pro­fes­sional rugby, Han­nah grew up more ad­mir­ing of ath­letes in pointe shoes than rugby boots. “Bal­leri­nas are real celebri­ties in Japan.” When she was eight, the fam­ily moved to Auck­land where she at­tended Parnell Pri­mary, Ep­som Girls Gram­mar and danced at the Mount Eden Bal­let Academy. An en­er­getic child, Han­nah was also in­volved in swim­ming, ten­nis, golf and ath­let­ics but “danc­ing was the one ac­tiv­ity I could never give up”. 2009–2011 Aus­tralian Bal­let School, Lau­sanne prize “Bal­let isn’t very much a part of the New Zealand cul­ture not like rugby, sail­ing or cricket,” says Han­nah. Bal­let schools have just one show per year, so she en­tered in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions to “en­joy the per­for­mance fac­tor of what I did. For me, com­pe­ti­tions were never about win­ning.” She did win, though. Firstly, a full schol­ar­ship to the Aus­tralian Bal­let School (aged 14) af­ter com­pet­ing in the 2007 Youth Amer­ica Grand Prix ( YAGP). Han­nah had au­di­tioned for the Paris Opera Bal­let School, but re­ceived a re­jec­tion from them at the same time as she was of­fered the Aus­tralian schol­ar­ship. “That was a dis­ap­point­ment, but I was also very happy with the path­way I then chose to take.” At 15, Han­nah moved to Mel­bourne and then won first place in the Prix de Lau­sanne in 2009 (“the Olympics of bal­let”), and a gold medal at her sec­ond YAGP in 2010. She pre­sumed that she would con­tinue to dance with the Aus­tralian Bal­let af­ter grad­u­a­tion. But af­ter win­ning the Lau­sanne prize, Han­nah “went via Lon­don and Paris to have a hol­i­day with Mum. I’d never been be­fore.” She saw her two favourite com­pa­nies, the Royal Bal­let and the Paris Opera Bal­let, per­form. “At that mo­ment in Paris, I knew who I wanted to dance with.” Through­out her school­ing she stayed deter­mined to join the French com­pany. 2011–2014 Joins the Paris Opera corps de bal­let, coryphée (lead­ing dancer in the corps) Han­nah took time out of a re­gional Aus­tralian tour to fly back to Paris for an au­di­tion and placed fourth against more than 100 dancers. “I was very ner­vous but I floated through the whole thing.” Although any top-ranked dancer can ap­ply, just two per cent of Paris Opera dancers are not French. She was of­fered one of just three sea­sonal con­tracts for that year as a “sta­giaire”. “The first two months I was com­pletely in awe of life in Paris and for the next six, it was hell.”

She was frus­trated by her in­abil­ity to speak French, home­sick and not danc­ing as much as she’d hoped. In Jan­uary 2012, she phoned her mum and said, “I’m not stay­ing.” Paris Opera Bal­let dancers can­not progress within the com­pany’s five-tier hi­er­ar­chy un­til they are “en­gaged” on a life­time con­tract, which per­ma­nently em­ploys them un­til re­tire­ment at 42. Han­nah re­mained on a tem­po­rary con­tract as an un­der­study but slowly she set­tled in. She passed her first Con­cours (an in-house com­pe­ti­tion for pro­mo­tion) and placed sec­ond. She was granted an­other sea­sonal con­tract. “I thought, ‘ If I don’t get in af­ter this sea­son, I’ll have to go some­where else.” In her third Con­cours, she was placed first and re­ceived her life­time con­tract. “From then on, I moved up in the com­pany every year.” 2015–2016 Pro­moted to su­jet, dance’s first ti­tle role, première danseuse Ben­jamin Millepied joined the com­pany as di­rec­tor and Han­nah was among the dancers he pushed for­ward. When she was 21, Millepied cast Han­nah in the dual role of Odette/Odile in the clas­sic Swan Lake. Han­nah had never danced the bal­let be­fore, not even its mi­nor roles. “It was a mas­sive jump. I gave it all I had.” Dur­ing that per­for­mance, a sub­se­quent di­rec­tor, Pierre La­cotte, scouted Han­nah and cast her in the ti­tle role of Paquita, for which she won the Benois de la Danse – bal­let’s equiv­a­lent of an Os­car. She was then pro­moted to the cov­eted role of première danseuse (soloist).

2018 Première danseuse Five years into her life­time con­tract, Han­nah is still ex­cited about her time in Paris. This sea­son she’s danc­ing a trib­ute to Jerome Rob­bins, which is a mod­ern bal­let. Although Han­nah feels most com­fort­able in clas­si­cal bal­lets, she ap­pre­ci­ates a bal­ance of styles. As a première danseuse, she no longer com­petes in the Con­cours and dances only ti­tle and sec­ondary roles, but that doesn’t mean the pres­sure’s off. “I have to prove my­self every day and in every show.” A typ­i­cal day starts with a train­ing class, fol­lowed by re­hearsals from 12pm to 7pm. While her aim is still to be­come an étoile (the Paris Opera Bal­let’s high­est rank), Han­nah’s mo­ti­va­tion is shar­ing dance with the au­di­ence. “It gives me a free feel­ing.” Is the danc­ing ever easy? “Our goal is to make it look easy.”

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