Crystal Pite considers herself to be on the contemporary end of the dance spectrum, but she’s playing in the major league of ballet companies this season. In September, the Canadian choreographer debuted The Seasons’ Canon, a large-scale work for 54 dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet; in March, she will follow up with her first work for The Royal Ballet.
For POB, The Seasons’ Canon turned out to be a powerful collective experience at a time of transition. The French institution was left in turmoil by former director Benjamin Millepied’s resignation announcement last February, but Pite channeled their strengths into a rare creation using a third of the company’s impressive roster. In just four weeks—“a sprint” according to the choreographer—she took the dancers on a creative ride. “They’re open, willing, generous, patient and delightfully hungry,” she says.
Pite, an alum of William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt, reconnected with her ballet roots for the occasion. “As a dancer, it was always a real battle for me to fit into ballet,” she says. “But I love working with classical dancers, because I get access to all that articulation, their sense of line and shape. The kind of architecture they have in their bodies is so ecstatic and beautiful.”
And you could have heard a pin drop at times in the POB’s studios, with the dancers also eager to stretch themselves in Pite’s grounded style, built in part using improvisation. Paired with works by Forsythe and Justin Peck, The Seasons’ Canon brought a bold new female voice to the fore in European ballet. Pite will go big again in London, with another group work set to Górecki’s harrowing Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
All photos by Julien Benhamou
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.
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.’ ”
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.”
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.
Laura Cappelle is a dance writer based in France.
In less than 24 hours, what started as a murmur in the French magazine Paris Match (here, if you read French) became a full-fledged roar throughout the ballet world. Benjamin Millepied is stepping down from his role as director of dance at the Paris Opéra Ballet—after only a little over a year.
When Millepied assumed directorship, his vision was at least somewhat at odds with the entrenched culture of POB. He was outspoken about his dissatisfaction with the company's classical technique, training program and system of promotion to French media outlets. He also commented on the need for POB to become more racially diverse.
Millepied delivered a major coup when he announced that William Forsythe would join the company as associate choreographer. But while Forsythe's presence was a major vote of confidence from a legendary choreographer, his work is also definitively boundary-pushing. Was Millepied's vision for POB to turn it into a lab for experimentation? It's possible that those two sides could have coexisted, but now we'll have to see how things play out under new leadership.
POB's press conference today stressed that Millepied was stepping down of his own volition to better focus on choreography and L.A. Dance Project, his contemporary troupe in Los Angeles. His lasting impacts, such as greater attention to the dancers' health and 3e Scène (the digital platform he spearheaded), will likely remain in place. As for Forsythe, he told The New York Times that he wouldn't stay past the end of Millepied's tenure. His agreement to come on board at POB seems to have been based on hopes that Millepied would make lasting changes to the company.
Now, recently retired étoile Aurélie Dupont will step into Millepied's place. According to frequent Pointe contributor Laura Cappelle, who live tweeted news and opinions from the POB press conference this afternoon, Dupont will take over in summer 2017. Stéphane Lissner, the general director of the Opéra, stressed the continuity between Millepied and Dupont. However, Dupont had a few words of her own, saying that for her, POB would be a classical company that performs contemporary works, not the reverse, and that two classic ballets in an upcoming season is too few (as is the case with the company).
Despite the collaborative spirit that Lissner championed at the time of Millepied's appointment, it appears that Millepied might have tried to change too much too soon—and bitten off more than he could chew as the director and choreographer for two companies. He will return to L.A. Dance Project with the goal of expanding the company and increasing its repertoire, free from the administrative pressures of running a more than 300-year-old institution steeped in tradition. He will also continue to choreograph for POB, at least over the next few seasons.
The endless love affair between dance and fashion will never get old. Especially when photographic geniuses like Annie Leibovitz compose moments like this one:
Leibovitz's photographs for Vogue are usually whimsical, romantic and downright inspired. In these, she's succeeded again, capturing the magic of the Palais Garnier—home of the Paris Opera Ballet.
Hamish Bowles wrote the magazine's cover story to commemorate Benjamin Millepied's much-anticipated assumption of artistic directorship at POB. The high-society world is all a-buzz with the prospect of someone like Millepied—young, handsome, with Hollywood connections—taking over such an historical institution. Dancers, of course, are more concerned with who he'll hire and fire in the company, and whether L.A. Dance Project will suffer from his commitment to POB.
Millepied's real debut won't be until 2015-2016, when the season will include seven world premieres. In the meantime, enjoy these stunning images of model Natalia Vodianova, Millepied and dancers of the POB. For the full spread, click here.
Benjamin Millepied, Natalia Vodianova and POB étoiles (photo by Annie Leibovitz via Vogue)