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By Kina Poon
Seo as Tatiana in Cranko’s Onegin at ABT. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
At the American Ballet Theatre studios in downtown Manhattan, Hee Seo explodes through the air in a jeté, eyes flashing, energy shooting through her luxuriously arched feet. Rippling her arms from her lithe back, her Odile gleefully seduces soloist Alexandre Hammoudi’s Prince Siegfried, hinting at the elegance that her Odette will possess. In a sequence of renversés en dehors, her leg sails higher and higher à la seconde, soaring still to wrap around Hammoudi’s body in an exquisitely shaped attitude. “Very good!” exclaims Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, followed by a slightly incredulous, “You really haven’t been working on this?”
It’s the end of January, and Seo and Hammoudi are fighting the clock, having lost a week of rehearsal time when Seo was bedridden with the flu. It’s lost time that they can ill afford. They’ll be performing this pas de deux on tour in Asia in just a few weeks; come the Met season this spring, they will make their debuts in the full-length Swan Lake. For Seo (pronounced SUH) it will be the latest in a series of high-profile premieres, many with winning results. Last summer, on the heels of a gut-wrenching turn as Tatiana in Cranko’s Onegin, she was promoted to principal dancer.
Seo, 27, has long been in the spotlight thanks to her lyrical ability. “Number one, her physical proportions are pretty much textbook,” says McKenzie in an interview. “And there’s a unique feminine strength about her—it’s that woman/child quality that leaves her open to a variety of roles.”
Seo began dancing recreationally at age 11 in her native Seoul. She participated in a competition at the prestigious Sun-hwa Arts Middle School and was then invited to attend on scholarship. “I don’t think I pictured myself as a ballerina,” says Seo, her accent only slightly detectable. “I didn’t even know what that meant.” At 13, another award brought her to the Universal Ballet Academy (now the Kirov Academy of Ballet) in Washington, DC, where she trained under Mariinsky ballerina Alla Sizova. After she won a Prix de Lausanne Award in 2003, Stuttgart Ballet director Reid Anderson invited her to attend the affiliated John Cranko Ballet Academy, where she performed occasionally with the company. That same year, she won the Grand Prix at Youth America Grand Prix in New York, and John Meehan, then the director of the ABT Studio Company, invited her to come to New York following her year in Germany.
The pace of the Studio Company, which demands that dancers master multiple roles quickly, came as a shock. “To her credit, she realized she needed to get her learning abilities up to speed,” says Clinton Luckett, an ABT ballet master who was then an artistic associate of the studio company. Proving that she could handle what McKenzie calls the “chronic state of rehearsal” took some time.
Seo spent a year as an apprentice, and, in the spring of 2006, became a member of the corps, where she performed soloist roles in Ballo della Regina and Tudor’s Dark Elegies. In March 2009, on her 23rd birthday, she made her debut as Juliet. Her youthful and passionate rendition of the part, with Cory Stearns as her Romeo, made a powerful impact. A slew of leads—in Bournonville’s La Sylphide, Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper, and Kudelka’s Désir—followed. She also gave spot-on portrayals of two spoiled rich girls: Gamzatti in La Bayadère and Olympia in Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias. But, much to her disappointment, a promotion still eluded her. “One thing I learned being in ABT is the word ‘patient,’ ” remarks Seo. “In the corps, you have to wait. You have to work on yourself. Artistic,” she says with a smile, referring to the artistic staff, “they are very patient with me.”
Seo with Marcelo Gomes in Kudelka’s Désir, one of the ballets where she danced a lead while still in the corps. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.
She continues, “When you hear, ‘So when are you going to get promoted?’ too many times, you have expectations for yourself.” The promotion did come, in August 2010. “That was the happiest time of my life. I think I was a good soloist, meeting the level in how I present myself, in my performance, my rehearsals. If I do it well, ‘She’s a soloist who has principal qualities.’ And if I do bad, ‘She’s only a soloist, she’s young.’ So there are excuses.”
A better “excuse” was that she was plagued by recurring injuries, due to instability in her ankle, preventing her from making scheduled debuts in The Nutcracker and The Bright Stream. To stay healthy and strong, Seo does Gyrotonic and light weightlifting. “But if I think, This is for the ballet, it gets boring. So what I think is, I should make a nice bikini body,” she says, laughing.
The 2012 Met season saw more breakthroughs: Seo’s debut as Nikiya with Vadim Muntagirov, a guest artist from English National Ballet, and her sensational Tatiana in Onegin, a portrayal which she and partner David Hallberg built together. “She has a way of reaching into what feels natural to her, which I think for a ballet dancer, unfortunately, is seen as secondary to technique,” says Hallberg. “Along with Osipova and Vishneva, she’s the type of artist that you have no choice but to respond to [as a partner]. That, in essence, makes you a better artist.” Onstage, the pair blasted through the ballet’s final pas de deux, in which Tatiana rejects a repentant Onegin. When the curtain rose for bows, both dancers looked positively spent.
Four weeks later, Seo was promoted again. “I didn’t really ever have a doubt that she was principal material,” says McKenzie. “It was a question of whether she could survive what it would take. I witnessed her able to finally get through a period of time and not get injured, keep her weight steady, keep her energy constant, and keep her concentration.”
As Nikiya in La Bayadère. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.
It was an unexpected thrill for Seo. Her first thought? She needed to call her parents, even though it was in the middle of the night in Seoul. “Me and my mom are best friends,” she says. “We have rough patches—I can’t say I’m always a nice daughter. But she’s always on my side, even when what I say is so stupid. Every time I’m upset about things, I’m perfectly normal outside, but when I go home, I call and let it out on her.” During the Met season, Seo’s mother travels to New York, “to watch my performances and take care of me.” Seo’s parents were able to celebrate her big promotion in person, as just days later, the company toured to Seoul, where Seo gave three performances as Giselle.
She’s “beyond excited” to perform Swan Lake this season. She relishes the opportunity to embody the dual characters, and build on her budding partnership with Hammoudi, with whom, lately, she’s often been paired. She’s also looking forward to Ashton’s A Month in the Country, with Hallberg, in large part because of the Chopin music, her favorite composer. She is cast in one of Ratmansky’s new creations and will also debut as Aurora, with Muntagirov. She feels lucky to be able to develop these roles with a range of partners. “It gives me a different energy, a different thought process of how I want to get there. And if I work with somebody who is new to the role, just like me, then we grow together.”
But just as in her Studio Company days, Seo faces the high-stakes pressure of preparing multiple ballets at once. “Even if I rehearsed for two years I wouldn’t feel like it was enough time. It’s scary. And I ask to other dancers, ‘Does it get any better?’ And they say no,” she says, with a resigned laugh. She tries to view her anxiety as excitement rather than fear, but it can be overwhelming. “I never just feel one feeling: It’s happy, it’s sad, it’s all mixed together. That’s why dancers cry so much.”
She does receive emotional support from the artistic staff, and considers working with Natalia Makarova (who staged ABT’s Bayadère) on Nikiya, and the late Georgina Parkinson on Juliet (she was Parkinson’s last Juliet) to be highlights of her career. Her coaches, who include, for Odette/Odile, McKenzie and Irina Kolpakova, allow her to find her own way. “They never tell me it’s right or wrong, but always lead me to the right direction. I leave with a lot of homework—I finish rehearsal and then I’m always questioning why it didn’t work, what can I do to fix it.”
Says McKenzie, referring to how she develops her roles, “She will take and observe, but she won’t copy.”
Seo tries her best to strike a balance between work and life, but isn’t having much success these days. “At 7:00, once I’m done here, I don’t want to think about it at home,” she says. “But after I got promoted, I think about ballet all the time, at 2:00 in the morning—what I want to do, how I want to do it.”
In her precious little downtime, “I don’t do anything,” she says dryly. “When I’m not working, I’m not moving.” She does enjoy going out for a drink with close friends. “After a show or a hard week, I like to go to the spa to get my nails done or a massage, because that makes me feel like a very important person,” she says, laughing. She’s also thinking about buying her first apartment, in Manhattan, and that newfound patience is coming in handy.
Seo readily acknowledges that she still has much growing to do as an artist. “I can’t say I enjoy myself as much as when I was a soloist. I don’t feel the pride I had before. But I know I need to be patient and work on what I need to work on.”
“Your life changes after you get promoted,” she continues, thoughtfully. “Everyone sees you differently, you have your own dressing room, your paycheck is bigger, you’re doing more interviews. In a way, everybody serves you. But that’s not who I am. That’s just my position. I have to make myself a principal.”
For Seo, self-improvement starts with morning class here at 890 Broadway. “I learned how to be a professional at ABT, which makes this place special to me. I like our studio. I like to warm up with my friends and our pianist. Rough day, I come here, I feel calm. I feel at home.”
In costume for Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Kina Poon is an associate editor with Dance Magazine.