10 Minutes with Hannah O'Neill

The Paris Opéra Ballet’s newest starlet

Mathias Heymann and O’Neill in La Bayadère. Photo by Little Shao, Courtesy POB.

At 23, Hannah O’Neill is thriving at the Paris Opéra Ballet. Born to a Japanese mother and a New Zealander father, she is among a handful of foreigners in the company, joining in 2011 on a temporary contract. Under Benjamin Millepied, she was promoted last fall to the position of première danseuse (first soloist) after successful debuts in Swan Lake and Paquita. Americans can catch this rising star when she performs at the Youth America Grand Prix Gala, April 28–29, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City.

You’re one of the few dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet not trained in France.

Ever since I was a little girl, to me, ballet was the Paris Opéra. I knew the company from videos in Japan, where I was born. I went to The Australian Ballet School and, mentally, I was preparing myself to be in The Australian Ballet, but I didn’t want to let go of my dream. And it didn’t hurt to try. I auditioned in Paris, thinking I wasn’t going to get anything from it. Luckily, I placed fourth and was awarded a seasonal contract.

Was company life a shock at first?

It took me a while to settle in. At first I wanted to hide: My French was minimal. It took me maybe two months to know what was going on in the studio. There were a handful of foreigners, like Ludmila Pagliero and Sae Eun Park, but that was it.

How did you take to the French style?

I started to appreciate the style a lot more once I arrived. There is the aura of all the dancers here, the classical look and the elegance of this com-pany. I learned the technical things in everyday class: I was really intrigued by all of the different accents, the footwork, the picturesque épaulement.

Your career has skyrocketed during Benjamin Millepied’s short tenure.

He is very open to all solutions, all ideas, all dancers, and I’m so grateful for the many opportunities he has given me. Last year, Swan Lake was the first ballet I ever had a soloist role in, the pas de trois, and I couldn’t believe it when I found out I was also going to do Odette/Odile. Paquita was also very special—I don’t think I could have done it without [ballet restorer] Pierre Lacotte’s help.

You won first prize at the Youth America Grand Prix in 2010, and also won the Prix de Lausanne. What did competitions do for you?

Since New Zealand is so isolated, it was my

opportunity to have a little bit of recognition, to see what I was capable of doing. It was a mind-opener. If you want to be seen, you have to seize the moment, to learn not to be scared.

What is it like to return to YAGP?

I am very much looking forward to performing in New York, this time as a professional! I will be dancing Esmeralda with [fellow POB first soloist] Hugo Marchand. I dance with Hugo a lot in galas, and it’s a pas de deux we have a lot of fun doing together.

What are your goals for the future?

For the time being, I’m happy to be doing classical roles. But I’m interested in contemporary works, too. Giselle is also a dream role—I have the chance of a 20-year career ahead of me, so hopefully one of these days! n

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July 2021