In July, an exceptional American Ballet Theatre dancer made her New York debut as Juliet—a sparklingly innocent and yet impressively mature rendition of Kenneth MacMillan’s heroine that was both touching and daring. She danced with abandon, sailing into the arms of her partner and giving each pirouette the appropriate tinge of ecstasy or despair. But what was most surprising was that this ballerina, Hee Seo, is listed in the corps de ballet.
For several years, there has been a buzz about Seo. But ABT’s 2009 Metropolitan Opera spring season was without a doubt her breakthrough. She performed leading roles in Romeo and Juliet, La Sylphide, Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper and James Kudelka’s Désir. And she demonstrated that mark of a true ballerina: the ability to carry a ballet and imbue it with her distinct aura for an audience of nearly 5,000 people.
What is it that has propelled her into the coveted ABT limelight? The plasticity of her body is reminiscent of a young Natalia Makarova, with all movement emanating from a supple spine and technique that spellbinds with its combination of tensile strength, lightness and fluidity. But Seo is her own dancer and doesn’t need comparison. She has a dramatic quality that radiates from her soul.
“Beyond her ballet-friendly physique, she has a point of view and sensitivity that leads her towards roles like La Sylphide and Juliet,” says ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Seo began dancing at age 11, receiving her primary training on a scholarship at the Sun-hwa Arts Middle School. At 13, she earned a scholarship from the Universal Ballet Academy (now The Kirov Academy of Ballet) in Washington, DC, where she worked with the legendary Kirov ballerina Alla Sizova in a strict curriculum that adhered rigorously to the Vaganova syllabus.
In 2003, Seo won the Prix de Lausanne, which earned her a scholarship to the John Cranko Ballet Academy in Stuttgart. That same year she also won the Youth America Grand Prix, and John Meehan, then the director of the ABT Studio Company (now called ABT II), offered her a contract. She was allowed to defer one year so she could continue her training in Germany.
Once she arrived in New York, her experience with the Studio Company was initially disorienting. Russian-trained, Seo wasn’t used to the American approach to dancing and had trouble picking up styles quickly. She felt lost. One day Meehan called her into his office, and Seo broke down in tears. “From the bottom of my heart I wanted to get better, break down the barrier and step up,” she says. “But I didn’t know what to do.” With help from Meehan (“He was like a dad to me”), she began to change, to learn new ways of working.
In 2005, Seo joined ABT as an apprentice. By 2006, she was an upwardly mobile corps member, dancing soloist roles in Dark Elegies and Ballo della Regina. But in 2008, she was sidelined by sharp pains in her back (doctors never delivered a definitive diagnosis). “Before then, I never had time to go out front and watch. Seeing a lot of the shows made such a big difference,” says Seo. That time to observe and reflect had an impact on her approach, particularly, she says, watching Julie Kent. “She has a softness and a charisma that I love,” says Seo. “She looks so comfortable and confident in herself.”
To remain healthy after her injury, Seo realized she had to eat more. During the busy Met season, it’s hard for her to keep her weight up. “The way I am holding up now is by eating well---the right food.” (Seo’s mother came to New York during the Met season and cooked breakfast and packed lunches for her.)
In January, McKenzie casually mentioned to Seo in the hallway that she’d been cast as Juliet. She was ecstatic. She and partner Cory Stearns rehearsed rigorously for two months to make the ballet feel comfortable. The two are close friends from their days in the Studio Company, although his quirky American sense of humor offended her Korean sensibility enough to prompt her to stop talking to him for nearly a year. (He would joke about Korean food, but she says, “If you really understand and know him, you have to love him.”) They debuted in the ballet in Detroit on March 14, Seo’s 23rd birthday, with nearly the entire company watching.
“The role of Juliet is not so technical; it’s all about imagination,” says Seo. “So many great ballerinas have done this role, and here I am—a corps member. I have to make my own Juliet. It’s been challenging. Even though you feel it, it’s hard to express. Making sad faces isn’t going to read, you have to express it with your body. Kevin and Georgina Parkinson (an ABT ballet mistress) worked with me to find my own way. They would direct me, but not say ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ ”
To research the role, Seo watched a number of movies based on Shakespeare’s play: the1936 George Cukor black-and-white film with Norma Shearer, the Franco Zeffirelli extravaganza with Olivia Hussey and the contemporary version with Leonardo DiCaprio. And ever since she was a child, she has been mesmerized by the video of the ballet starring Alessandra Ferri. “I watched it over and over,” says Seo. “I almost knew the steps already because I watched it so many times.”
At a studio rehearsal in June, in the bowels of the Metropolitan Opera House, former ABT ballerina Martine van Hamel coached Seo for her debut in another principal role: the sylph in La Sylphide. Van Hamel advised her to contain the delicate Bournonville movement without losing its breadth. Five minutes later, Seo was rehearsing the peasant pas de deux from Giselle, attacking the allegro batterie. Afterwards, she sat on the floor, beat on her thighs and commanded her body to cooperate. It was that kind of season.
“Principals will ask if I’ve recovered from dancing that principal role last night,” says Seo. “There’s no such thing as recovery for me. I’m on every night, doing every part of the ballet. It’s crazy, but I can’t complain because there are dancers who don’t have the opportunity to do it.”
Seo speculates that some of her ability to inhabit dramatic roles stems from her own experience. “Because I left home when I was so young, I never could be childish. I had to be an adult. I had to grow up.” Like Juliet and other heroines she longs to dance, such as Tatiana in Onegin and the protagonist in Manon, she faced challenging circumstances being away from her family at a young age.
In their New York debuts in Romeo and Juliet, Seo’s and Stearns’ long, modern lines underscored the dramatic sweep of the ballet. Seo moved with a wind-driven passion. With time, the nuances of her performance and the dynamics of Juliet’s dramatic arc will surely expand.
At the end of the performance, which also celebrated Frederic Franklin’s 95th birthday, Seo and Stearns took their bows to a cheering audience. Franklin, dressed in costume as Friar Lawrence, accepted a bouquet from Seo and kissed her sweetly.
It was as if he—and ABT—were officially consecrating her as a ballerina.
Joseph Carman writes about dance and is the author of Round About the Ballet.
Cory Stearns: The other side of the partnership
By Dan Capello
It is late afternoon on July 4. In a substage rehearsal studio, ABT ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson watches Hee Seo stretch out. Parkinson is set to rehearse Romeo and Juliet with Seo and Cory Stearns, both of whom will make their New York debuts in the leads in five days. When Stearns breezes in, Seo—the picture of restrained, unflappable grace—straightens her back and gazes up. They exchange giddy, grinning glances and the sight evokes Shakespeare’s young lovers.
Flushed and exhausted, Stearns has come from dancing Orion in Sylvia, where he strained a muscle in his right leg. “I’m just a little heavy in the calves,” he assures Parkinson. And then he and Seo launch into the balcony pas de deux. By their Thursday night debut, they will have fixed the slight imperfections that surface in rehearsal. During a lift in the balcony scene, he will keep his beaming face fixed in a clean profile line; she will straighten her back and sit like a swan in the arms of her newfound love. Their fresh sentiment and vigor will lend a youthful verisimilitude to the ballet that even many principals can’t conjure.
Stearns has a classical appeal—a serene bearing, long musculature and wide, chiseled features. A danseur noble in the mold of the company’s male leads, his is a physical, almost macho approach. Born Paul Cornell Stearns in Southampton, NY, Cory grew up playing baseball, soccer and tennis. His mother had studied Graham technique and insisted that her children take up dance, too. As Stearns puts it, “She didn’t want us just to be jocks.”
The training started early. When he was 3, Stearns was enrolled in a creative-movement class. By the time he was 5, he had begun his classical training at Seiskaya Ballet in St. James, NY. At 13, he received a full scholarship to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre summer program. For the first time, he saw an array of ages and abilities, and the impression was lasting. “By the time my parents picked me up from Pittsburgh, I knew I would be a dancer.”
At 15, he participated in Youth America Grand Prix and earned a full scholarship to The Royal Ballet School. There David Peden, a former Royal Ballet soloist, helped the young dancer refine his technique and perspective. “Before David, I was all about pirouettes and jumps. David was all technique and cleanliness.”
At the end of his training, Stearns joined ABT’s second company, entered the main company two years later and was named soloist this year. Last fall, he learned he would dance Romeo. Soon Seo was cast as Stearns’ Juliet. “Hee and I have a natural chemistry. What I love about her is how she feels the role; she doesn’t overthink it. I’m trying to adapt right along with her, to be a 16-year-old Italian boy.”
For Stearns, Romeo has been one of the most difficult roles. “MacMillan is very emotional. Romeo is not as technically demanding as some parts, but you have to remain in character, in control, every second of the ballet.” To achieve that went beyond coaching. “Hee and I watched the Zeffirelli film together. I watched videos of former productions. When you do this role for the first time, you live it—you dream about it, hear the music when you’re in bed, act it out in the shower.”
On debut night, the youth and energy of Stearns’ and Seo’s star-crossed lovers was palpable. Despite reinjuring his calf mid-performance, Stearns pushed forward. “Sure, it’s disgustingly tiring,” he said lightly several days later. ”But this role is a process. It’s something you develop over the years.” And Stearns has many years of Romeos ahead.