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22 February 2017Last updated
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Hannah O’Neill: the ballerina

Paris Opera Ballet first soloist Hannah O’Neill, a New Zealander, has a lifetime contract with the Paris Opera — but how did this 23-year-old reach that point, and what’s next?

Natalie Long
2 Jan 2017 | 12:00 pm
  • Source:Supplied

How and when did you decide to follow ballet as a career?

I always knew I would be a dancer as long as I can remember. There wasn’t really a time where I started to take ballet more seriously or really questioned my choice as to whether I was capable or not. I just always loved it and my love grew for it more and more as I became to understand the art form.

What was the path you followed?

I was a normal kid who went to school and played many sports and took ballet classes as an after-school activity. I gradually increased the number of classes I took per week. Then I took part in national and international competitions, partly for fun and also for the experience, which gave me a taste of what it is like to really be a ballerina and dance on big stages. My first step towards becoming a professional dancer was when I took the offer of a full scholarship at The Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, Australia. Moving away from home and my family made it feel very real that my dream of becoming a dancer was taking flight.

Were there any setbacks on that path?

I had a wonderful time at the Ballet School under the directorship of Marilyn Rowe. Of course, I had, and still have, those days when I just want to hang my shoes up and leave – but never very seriously. Ballet can become frustrating sometimes. Always striving for perfection and never being satisfied is a hard lesson but it is also what keeps me motivated and drives me forward and makes me a stronger dancer and person. I believe I should be hard on myself but not punish myself. All the hard work is so worth it when I compare it with the joy and emotions I live through when I am finally on stage to share with the audience.

What does first soloist mean in the context of a ballet company? And what’s the next position you would move to?

Depending on each company, the ranks can be very different. At the Paris Opera we have five ranks, Quadrille, Coryphee, Sujet, Premier Danseur, Etoile. There is a ‘concours de promotion’ every year, which is an in-house competition where we get the opportunity to be promoted. I’m currently a Premiere Danseuse, which means I no longer have to pass the ‘concours’ and I no longer dance in the corps de ballet. As a Premiere Danseuse we get more opportunities to dance main roles and second roles. The next step is to become Etoile.

What’s a typical day for you? How many hours do you train or rehearse?

My day begins at 10am with pilates and then straight to class, either an hour or an hour and a half, depending on my schedule for the day. Rehearsals start from midday and go until 4pm if we have a show in the evening. Around 5.30pm I start my preparations for the show, like make-up and hair. I will always do a barre to warm up my body again, about 30 minutes before going on stage. On average a show would finish around 10.30pm. I walk home, which helps my recuperation and pretty soon after I get home, I go to bed - but it takes a while sometimes to calm the adrenaline down. On days when we don’t have a performance we finish at 7pm at the latest. Apart from the official rehearsals we have during the day, sometimes we have to find time or use our breaks to work on outside projects and gala performances, which can be difficult sometimes. A good balanced meal and a good night’s sleep is essential.

You’re from New Zealand but dance with the Paris Opera. Why is this?

Simply because I followed my dream. I paid the price with a lot of work and many sacrifices but that’s how much I wanted it, and I am still pinching myself sometimes.

What are your favourite roles to perform? And your favourite location?

I haven’t danced an awful lot of roles yet but two highlights for me have been dancing Odette/Odile from Swan Lake and Giselle from Giselle. As for my favourite location it is Palais Garnier. It’s one of the most beautiful theatres and am proud to say it is my ‘home’ stage.

Do you have fans getting in touch with you?

There are some people I see after a show who wait for me at the stage door. Some I know well and others are new faces. It is a pleasure to see fans and audience members and hear about the enjoyment they had.

What’s your plan for your career?

My plan for now is work, work and more work. I am too young and in my mind always too young to come up with easier ways and settle with what I have going for me. I am always aiming higher and I think it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves and just take each opportunity as it comes.

Hannah O’Neill returns to the UAE on January 5 for the Ballet Grand Gala, an annual celebration of the dance that in addition to Dubai, goes to the capital. Expect to see excerpts from classics Romeo et Juliette, La Sylphide and Le Corsair, among others. The Ballet Grand Gala is at Emirates Palace Auditorium, Abu Dhabi, on January 5 at 8pm; tickets from Dh300. The gala moves to Madinat Theatre, Dubai, on January 6 (2pm and 8pm) and January 7 (6pm); tickets from Dh280 at tickets.virginmegastore.me and madinatjumeirah.etixdubai.com.

Natalie Long

Natalie Long

Editor