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
Hannah O'Neill
Age: 20
Training: Mt. Eden Ballet Academy (New Zealand), The Australian Ballet School
Dream roles: Odette/Odile, Giselle
Favorite performance: Balanchine’s Serenade

Ballet Careers
Sisters Isabella Shaker and Alexandra Pullen. Photo Courtesy Alexandra Pullen.

This is the second in a series of articles this month about ballet siblings.

My mom was in the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. A generation later, so was I. As if that's not enough for one family, my younger sister Isabella Shaker dreams of following in our dancing footsteps. Her endeavor, and her status as somewhat of a child prodigy, stirs feelings of pride and apprehension within me, since I have lived through the ups and downs of this intense yet rewarding career.

Ballet will always be my first love and the thing that brings me the most joy, and my dance career has opened endless opportunities for me. However, it's a difficult career path that requires a lifelong dedication. It's super competitive and can lead to body image issues, physical injury and stress. Most dancers will face some of these problems; I definitely dealt with all three.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Jayme Thornton

It's National Bullying Prevention Month—and Houston Ballet breakout star Harper Watters is exactly the advocate young dancers facing bullying need. Watters is no novice when it comes to slaying on social media, but his Bullying Prevention Month collaboration with Teen Vogue and Instagram is him at his most raw, speaking about his own experiences with bullies, and how his love of dance helped him to overcome adversity. Watters even penned an incredible op-ed for Teen Vogue's website, where he talks candidly about growing up queer. Catch his amazing anti-bullying video here—and, as Watters says, "Stay fabulous, stay flawless, stay flexible, but most importantly, stay fearless."

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News
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Sedge Leblang, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

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