Opera ballet

“Art transcends race”: the first Asian star ballerina of the Paris Opera Ballet

When Sae Eun Park auditioned for the oldest ballet institution in the world, her hotel room in Paris was so small that she couldn’t fully stretch her legs.

A decade later, the South Korean became the first Asian ballerina to reach the top “star” – or “star” – rank in the Paris Opera Ballet’s 352-year history.

The 31-year-old’s promotion came as the world of elite classical ballet faces growing calls for diversity and inclusion.

She is one of only two foreign-born stars in the famous company, defying years of different training, a language barrier, injuries and the notorious POB contests, which determine all but the highest promotions. thanks to its rigid five-row hierarchy.

“I believe that art – not just dance – transcends nationality and race,” Park told AFP.

“I became the first Asian ballerina to be a star and it became a topic of discussion, but I think it’s something very natural.”

The world of elite classical ballet faces growing calls for diversity and inclusion Yelim LEEAFP

Originally from Seoul, Park trained in the “Vaganova” method of Russian ballet – which emphasizes expression, strength and flexibility of the soul – at South Korea’s top art institutions.

When she arrived in Paris at the age of 21, she spoke little French and had never taken lessons at the ballet school affiliated with POB, which provides around 90% of its dancers and teaches a style of a dance that favors elegance and precision.

But in June, after Park had played the female lead in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, her ‘star’ nomination was announced at the Opéra Bastille, prompting a standing ovation and she burst into tears.

“A lot of emotions overlapped – I was so happy and so grateful, and I thought there really was such a day,” Park recalled.

“I’ve been waiting for so long…and there were some tough times, and all of that was reminded of me at the same time.”

– Seoul to Paris –

Park joins a group of millennial South Korean dancers in the front rows of the world’s most prominent companies, including Kimin Kim at Mariinsky Ballet and Hee Seo at American Ballet Theater – many of whom are inspired by pioneer Kang Sue-jin , a former principal of the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany.

Celebrated as a teenage prodigy in the South, Park was dubbed the “Queen of Pageants” after winning the Grand Prix de Lausanne and the gold medal in Varna, two major prizes for aspiring ballet dancers.

Sae Eun Park joins a group of millennial South Korean dancers in the front rows of the world's most prominent companies, including Kimin Kim at Mariinsky Ballet and Hee Seo at American Ballet Theater
Sae Eun Park joins a group of millennial South Korean dancers in the front rows of the world’s most prominent companies, including Kimin Kim at Mariinsky Ballet and Hee Seo at American Ballet Theater Yelim LEEAFP

At the time, she was particularly valued for her technique, such as jumps and turns, but Park says she always wanted something more and found her inspiration in YouTube videos of POB dancers, including her current manager. Aurelie Dupont.

She left her solo position with the National Ballet of Korea – her second-highest rank – for a one-year contract as a POB quadrille in 2011, the company’s lowest position.

Now she is also praised for her emotional depth and lyricism, with Paris-based dance critic Laura Cappelle noting her “inner serenity, a gift for slowing down time on stage”.

Park – who comes across as shrewd, humble and genius – trains up to nine hours a day.

Her rise through the ranks was cut short in 2015, when she needed cosmetic surgery after a colleague accidentally kicked her in the forehead while she was practicing.

She failed promotion exams that year and fell into depression, avoiding mirrors for a time for fear of seeing her scar.

The only coping strategy was to simply keep dancing.

“You only have two options anyway,” she said. “Either give up or keep trying.”

– ‘White world’ –

Kim Yong-geol, a former South Korean POB dancer, described the company as a “cloistered society that prides itself on its tradition”, with a “ruthless” promotion system.

“It can make you feel completely broken,” he said. “The very last survivors of this grueling process are becoming stars. I think she’s accomplished something impossible.”

Unlike the American Ballet Theater in New York or the Royal Ballet in London, the Paris Opera Ballet has very few foreign dancers.

After Black Lives Matter protests gained momentum in France, the Paris Opera launched a diversity campaign in February, commissioning an independent audit that pointed out that only 25 of the ballet's 154 performers were foreigners.
After Black Lives Matter protests gained momentum in France, the Paris Opera launched a diversity campaign in February, commissioning an independent audit that pointed out that only 25 of the ballet’s 154 performers were foreigners. Yelim LEEAFP

After Black Lives Matter protests gained momentum in France, the Paris Opera launched a diversity campaign in February, commissioning an independent audit that pointed out that only 25 of the ballet’s 154 performers were foreigners.

The organization was “a white world far removed from what contemporary French society looks like,” the authors write.

POB did not respond to multiple requests for comment from AFP.

Gavin Larsen, the author of “Being a Ballerina”, described Park as an “important artist for our time”.

“Her choice to explore beyond her native culture, both in terms of ballet and daily life, shows her willingness to be vulnerable – which is the only way a true artist can be,” said- she told AFP.

Park admitted she wondered if being Asian would rob her of opportunities.

The competition has always been fierce and effectively pits dancers against their own longtime colleagues.

“We all train together, so you can’t avoid seeing how other people dance even if you don’t want to, and that can make anyone very anxious,” she said.

“It’s really hard, but it’s so much harder if you feel resentful or get jealous of other people.

To really survive, she added, “you have to make your rivals your friends.”