It was an understudy’s worst nightmare: subbing on short notice in the front row of the corps in La Bayadère’s Shades scene. Last spring on the Paris Opéra stage, Hannah O’Neill struggled to hold one of the devilish arabesques, and had to put her leg down. “I had an attack of nerves,” O’Neill says. “I still have nightmares about it.”
Though concerned, the company proved supportive. For the young dancer who had arrived from Australia just six months earlier, it was all part of a trying but rewarding first season as a stagiaire, one of the dancers on a temporary contract with the Paris Opéra Ballet. At 20, with prizes earned at Youth America Grand Prix and Prix de Lausanne, O’Neill already had an impressive international resumé. Instead of joining a company where success might have been all but guaranteed, however, she decided to pursue her childhood dream of dancing at POB, where foreigners make up barely 5 percent of the dancers.
Born in Japan to a New Zealander father and a Japanese mother, O’Neill attended her first ballet class at age 3. For a while, ballet was just one of many activities. Inspired by her father, a professional rugby player, O’Neill juggled tennis and swimming in addition to her time at the barre.
But gradually ballet became her focus. When she turned 8, her family moved back to her father’s home. O’Neill had to adapt to the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus taught by local studios, but caught up on her Vaganova-style Japanese training during the holidays. She also became a regular on the competition circuit. She used the scholarships she won to finish her training at The Australian Ballet School and seemed a natural for the Australian national company. “In my mind I was always on that path,” O’Neill says. “But I started to think that if I wanted to go overseas I had to do it while I was young.”
The POB was a long-held fantasy from her childhood in Japan, where the company is very popular: “Ever since I was a little girl, ballet was the Paris Opéra for me,” she says. O’Neill flew to Paris for the company’s annual open audition. It was a daunting experience. When she ranked fourth, O’Neill thought it was over. Then she was offered an eight-month contract.
The move was a shock in many ways. Her first season proved to be a roller coaster of emotions. “At first I wanted to hide. I felt like I was invading the dancers’ space,” she says. Stagiaires mostly act as understudies for the corps-heavy full-length ballets, and knowing every spot is part of the job. She danced only once every two or three months her first season. “I am the underdog of the underdogs. I wasn’t expecting to be dancing straight away, but of course not performing was frustrating,” she admits.
O’Neill also had to adjust to the French style. “I worked a lot on my turnout and my footwork, the sharpness and preciseness—there’s an academic feel to it; it has to be clean and simple.” The elegant quality of her dancing is attracting attention. In Serenade last September, her deceptively serene upper body, a legacy from her Vaganova training, instantly set her apart.
O’Neill jokes that her French is still a work in progress, but with a second seasonal contract under her belt, she has her sights set on a full-time position at the Paris Opéra. Stress control is another area she is working on. “I’m still settling in,” she says, “but I’ve moved so much in my life that I’m good at adapting.”
At a Glance
Training: Mt. Eden Ballet Academy (New Zealand), The Australian Ballet School
Dream roles: Odette/Odile, Giselle
Favorite performance: Balanchine’s Serenade