Ballet Stars

Poise and Polish: Paris Opéra Ballet's Hannah O'Neill

Hannah O'Neill photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

What a difference four years have made for Hannah O'Neill. In 2012, as a foreign dancer on a temporary corps contract with the Paris Opéra Ballet, a botched arabesque in La Bayadère's “Kingdom of the Shades" scene led her to believe her French career was over. Last December, however, she was back on the Opéra Bastille stage in the same ballet, as Gamzatti. Newly promoted to first soloist, she led the company opposite étoile Dorothée Gilbert, showcasing the pencil lines and robust technique that have made her a local favorite.

At just 23, the young New Zealander has quickly established herself as one of the faces of the “Millepied generation." Her technical strength and fresh stage presence, backed up by a solid dose of sangfroid, made her a perfect fit for outgoing director Benjamin Millepied's focus on new blood and repertoire in Paris. In the two short seasons he spent there, she climbed the ranks and impressed with her precocious fearlessness in classical full-lengths, from Swan Lake to Paquita.

O'Neill as Gamzatti in "La Bayadère." Photo by Little Shao, Courtesy POB.

The easygoing O'Neill still can't believe her luck. “If it wasn't for Millepied, I don't think I would have moved up as quickly or had so many opportunities," she says. “Everything I've done in my career so far was thanks to him, really." While Millepied's brief tenure was key, however, her success has also come as a result of resilience and stubborn hard work to fit into the notoriously idiosyncratic French national company.

O'Neill's life was a peripatetic one from a young age. She was born in Japan, where her New Zealander father played professional rugby. Her Japanese mother encouraged her to try ballet, and by the time the family moved back to New Zealand, when she was 8, she had caught the dance bug.

Competitions became her way to be seen outside the island and her school there, Mt Eden Ballet Academy. “I was so far away from the ballet world that if I didn't step outside a little bit, there was no way anybody would see me," she says. “It was never about winning." She did win, though: a scholarship to The Australian Ballet School at age 14, the Prix de Lausanne in 2009, and the gold medal at her second Youth America Grand Prix in 2010.

O'Neill spent four years at The Australian Ballet School, where she toured with the youth company. While The Australian Ballet was keen to hire her upon graduation, she had long entertained dreams of France. As a child, she had seen the Paris Opéra Ballet School perform in Japan, and had submitted an audition video when she was 13, to no avail. “To me, ballet was always the Paris Opéra," she says. The French company is infamously closed to foreign dancers, however, as around 95 percent of dancers come from the POB School. Still, there was no harm in trying the yearly external audition, O'Neill thought; she placed fourth, and earned a seasonal contract as a surnuméraire, a role that consists of understudying corps spots.

The move to Paris was a shock. She was at the barre next to étoiles, but didn't speak French and was at the very bottom of the ladder. “It was horrible," she recalls. “I wasn't dancing, and I got quite lonely. I remember telling my mom: 'I'm definitely not staying.' "

O'Neill in Justin Peck's "In Creases." Photo by Sébastian Mathé, Courtesy POB.

Her initial brush with La Bayadère's 32 Shades was a low point, and the source of tension with head ballet master Laurent Hilaire until his departure in 2014. Still, O'Neill doubled down, working harder in class and seeking the advice of one of her teachers, Laurent Novis, who started coaching her for the next POB audition. “We saw her beauty and potential straight away," he remembers. “She had beautiful legs, an assertive technique and was already self-assured."

They started working together on the minute details that are the hallmarks of the French style, from the crisp footwork to the épaulement. “It is always a shock for people who didn't go through the school, and she showed a great willingness to adapt," Novis says. “We really insisted on the presentation of the foot, the arms, the positioning of the neck." The immersion paid off: At the end of her second year, O'Neill was offered a full-time contract.

Her subsequent ascent was as fast as any seen at POB, where hierarchy is sacrosanct. Dancers often have to take the infamous concours de promotion, an annual internal competition, for years before being promoted. When Millepied arrived in 2014, however, he was keen to shake things up, and looked to O'Neill and other dancers of her generation to bring youthful energy to his repertoire.

Where others might have faltered under the pressure, O'Neill thrived. An alternate for Odette/Odile, she ended up dancing the role with little preparation while still in the corps. “Nureyev's versions are very difficult in a way that is twisted," she says. “It was important for me to do everything the hardest way, with no shortcuts." The result was still green, but Novis praises her ability to incorporate criticism into an individual interpretation: “She has the personality to take it, the mental toughness, but you don't feel like she is a shy student. It's rare to see young dancers who say: 'I want to do it this way.' "

Her breakthrough came shortly afterwards in Pierre Lacotte's full-length Paquita, where she conquered both the finicky small steps of Act I and the academic style of the Grand Pas. Then, last autumn, she was promoted to the coveted position of première danseuse (first soloist) on her first try as a sujet.

Despite her accomplishment, however, last season turned out to be a roller coaster. It took O'Neill time to adjust mentally to being out of the corps and dancing less. Millepied's resignation announcement last February also took her by surprise: “I was very sad. I thought he would have fought a little bit more for it, but if it's not for him, it's not for him."

O'Neill as Gamzatti in "La Bayadère." Photo by Little Shao, Courtesy POB.

Former étoile Aurélie Dupont takes over as director this season, and for the young dancers who were on a roll under Millepied, there is some uncertainty ahead. “It's exciting because she was such an amazing dancer," O'Neill says. “But she's talking a lot about the hierarchy. Even as a première danseuse, I hope I will still get the chance to dance."

Still, Millepied has set O'Neill up for a bright future in Paris. Her artistic personality has yet to blossom, but O'Neill is grateful to have a 20-year career as a soloist ahead of her, since the dancers are guaranteed employment until they retire at 42. She is eager to test herself in a wide range of repertoire. “I think I've created a relationship with the French audience that is very warming, very positive. I just want to not cheat and do everything the hardest way possible, so that one day it will become easy."

O'Neill's international profile is rising, too. She won the 2016 Benois de la Danse for Paquita, and guested at the last Mariinsky Ballet Festival as Gamzatti. Director Yuri Fateyev subsequently invited her to make her debut in Giselle, her dream role, this summer on the Mariinsky's new stage in Vladivostok.

Offstage, a passion for fashion has led O'Neill to do some modeling for Dior in Japanese magazines. In her spare time, true to her roots, she keeps up with rugby and New Zealand's famous All Blacks. O'Neill is laying down new roots in Paris, however: She bought her first apartment in the city last year, close enough to walk to work every day. There, O'Neill remains in her old corps dressing room for now, and prefers it this way: “I love seeing everybody. When you're onstage, the drive that you bounce off from others is so energizing." In ballet, she plays for the French team.

Show Comments ()
Photo by Jim Lafferty for Pointe.

Have you ever attended an audition and wished that you knew what the director was looking for? We've rounded up some of our favorite quotes from our Director's Notes column over the past few years to give you a deeper glimpse into the minds of 10 artistic directors.

Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet

"I want to develop and nurture artists," says Wheater, seeking "people who are not afraid to be expressive, and understand all the layers that go into making a work above and beyond the steps."

Ingrid Lorentzen, Norwegian National Ballet

"I like athletic classical dancers, with very strong footwork and articulation," Lorentzen says. "But it's also about the feeling I get from them, who I think can adapt to the Norwegian way."

Keep reading... Show less
Photo via Instagram.

When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.

"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."

Today, McRae shares videos of his workouts on social media (where he has approximately 150,000 Instagram followers). They are often shot in his dressing room, with a chair as the only prop while he does développés from an arched handstand, for instance—a feat of upper-body strength and flexibility.

"I think people are genuinely intrigued and interested in what we do: I get lovely comments offering suggestions to alter the exercise."

Keep reading at

Ballet Stars
Photo via @abtofficial on Instagram.

Though according to our calendars today is the first day of spring, it feels like anything but. That's why we've been extra jealous watching American Ballet Theatre dancers' Instagram posts from their tour to Singapore. From swimming in rooftop pools to hiking with monkeys to jet-lag influenced shenanigans (oh, and dancing Swan Lake), their photos are making us believe that warm weather really is on its way. We rounded up some of our favorite shots from the first half of ABT's Asian tour; they'll spend this week in Hong Kong dancing Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream. Keep the photos coming, ABT!

Rather than cling onto the railing in fear (like we would have), Isabella Boylston stepped gracefully into the highest pool in the world with a low arabesque.

Keep reading... Show less
Richmond Ballet dancers in "An Open Later..." by Matthew Frain. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy Richmond Ballet.

What's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

The Bolshoi Premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina

Last July Hamburg Ballet presented the world premiere of John Neumeier's Anna Karenina, a modern adaptation on Leo Tolstoy's famous novel. Hamburg Ballet coproduced the full-length ballet with the National Ballet of Canada and the Bolshoi, the latter of which will premiere the work March 23 (NBoC will have its premiere in November). The production will feature Bolshoi star Svetlana Zakharova in the title role. This is especially fitting as Neumeier's initial inspiration for the ballet came from Zakharova while they were working together on his Lady of the Camellias. The following video delves into what makes this production stand out.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Beijing Dance Academy students Pei Yu Meng and Wang Yuzhiwan in rehearsal. Photo Courtesy BDA.

In one of 60 spacious dance studios at the Beijing Dance Academy, Pei Yu Meng practices a tricky step from Jorma Elo's Over Glow. She's standing among other students, but they all work alone, with the help of teachers calling out corrections from the front of the room. On top of her strong classical foundation and clean balletic lines, Pei Yu's slithery coordination and laser-sharp focus give her dancing a polished gleam. Once she's mastered the pirouette she's been struggling with, she repeats the step over and over until the clock reaches 12 pm for lunch. Here, every moment is a chance to approach perfection.

Pei Yu came to the school at age 10 from Hebei, a province near Beijing. Now 20, and in her third year of BDA's professional program, she is an example of a new kind of Chinese ballet student. Founded in 1954 by the country's communist government, BDA is a fully state-funded professional training school with close to 3,000 students and 275 full-time teachers over four departments (ballet, classical Chinese dance, social dance and musical theater). It offers degrees in performance, choreography and more. BDA's ballet program has long been known for fostering pristine Russian-style talent. But since 2011, the school has made major efforts to broaden ballet students' knowledge of Chinese dance traditions and the works of Western contemporary ballet choreographers. Pointe went inside this prestigious academy to see how BDA trains its dancers.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Tim Verhallen, via Instagram

Dutch National Ballet Soloist Michaela DePrince has been busy winning over the mainstream media. Since last spring, the First Position star not only landed a spokesmodel deal with Jockey, but she also recently teamed up on a commercial with Chase Bank and just announced that Madonna will be directing her upcoming biopic, Taking Flight (totally casual).

What could possibly be next? The cover of April's Harper's Bazaar Netherlands, it turns out. Posing in an arabesque with her hair slicked back in her usual ballet bun, DePrince traded in her leotard and tights for a stunning metallic Gucci dress (can we do that, too?).

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Leanne Benjamin and Luke Heydon in "Coppélia," via YouTube.

Dancing with The Royal Ballet from 1992 until 2013, former principal Leanne Benjamin tackled just about every role in the classical gamut, from Juliet to Nikiya to Giselle. As the young and spirited Swanilda in this clip from Coppélia, Benjamin reveals that she has equal talent for the silly as the serious. Her comedic performance in Swanilda's doll dance is this role at its best.

In an effort to trick the scheming Dr. Coppelius and save her beloved Franz, Swanilda pretends she is the doll Coppélia come to life. As she begins to dance, Benjamin is stiff and mechanical one moment and then flopped over like a rag doll the next. Dr. Coppelius, played by character artist Luke Heydon, watches her enthralled and Benjamin's gaze is fixed in a plastic stare. But when the toymaker looks away, Benjamin's Swanilda breaks doll character and frantically tries to figure out an escape. Feebly, Dr. Coppelius tries to keep up with her. Although we feel some sympathy for the delusional old toymaker, we can't help laughing at Swanilda's antics. And that slap at 1:55? Gets us every time. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!





Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox


Win It!