Named as one of Moët & Chandon’s Vanguards at their recent Must be Moët party, Kiwi ballerina Hannah O’Neill – famed for her career as a premiere danseuse of The Opera National de Paris – speaks openly with Fashion Quarterly on how she gained momentum on the world stage.
Can you explain your career path to date?
Early years… I started dancing at the age of three in Tokyo and continued in Auckland after moving to New Zealand with my family. I then moved to Melbourne at 15 to attend the Australian Ballet School where I studied for four years. It’s been quite an exciting journey to watch everything unfold, in my first year at the ballet school I was chosen to compete in the Prix de Lausanne 2009 where I was awarded first place. The momentum continued in 2010, I competed in the Youth America Grand Prix where I was also awarded first place.
In 2011, I joined the Paris Opera Ballet on a seasonal contract for two years. 2013 was a breakthrough moment for me when I was engaged as a lifetime member of the company. I moved up the ranks quite fast; within the first three months from joining, I was promoted to Coryphee quickly followed by Sujet in 2014 and Premier Danseuse in 2015. In 2016 I was invited to dance at the Mariinsky Ballet in St Petersburg which was my first international guesting experience. Later that year I won the Benois de la Danse which is the calibre of winning an Oscar in the dance world.
I have had the opportunity to participate in many gala performances around the world over the past few years. As you can imagine, we have an extremely rich repertoire at the Opera where we get to dance all sorts of styles and be a part of beautiful productions.
Can you explain exactly what a first soloist is and how that fits into the company?
My role as a Premiere Danseuse means that I no longer dance in the Corps de Ballet which is all the group parts and the body of the Ballet. Being a first soloist also means I get the opportunity to dance solo roles and Principal roles (i.e. the main character or lead role). With this role, it allows me to have a lot more time to perfect my dance and work on more technical or artistic work.
What does a typical day look like for you?
On non-performance days… I wake up around 8:30 /9am and have my coffee usually in a rush with a piece of toast and lots of Manuka honey. We have class for an hour and a half either from 10am, 11am or 11:30am depending on which teacher I’m working with. Rehearsal goes from 1:30pm to 4pm and then a second block from 4:30pm to 7pm.
On a performance day… we rehearse until 4pm and then from 4pm to 5:30pm is eat/nap/relax time and then from 5:30pm I start my preparation for makeup followed by hair. I do a full barre to warm up my body for the show which gives me a little feel of the stage just before the curtain goes up. It really depends on the production, but I would say on an average I finish around 10pm. Once I get home, I like to have my glass of wine and relax before going to bed and preparing for the next day.
What do you love most about your job?
Performing of course! I also love all the inspiring and interesting people I get to meet and have met throughout my career so far. Sometimes it’s the stories I like to keep and others are relationships I will cherish forever.
What is your biggest accomplishment at work or a moment you’re most proud of?
As a dancer, I am always wanting more and think so far ahead that the feeling of accomplishment is very rare. Although a lot has happened since [becoming a permanent dancer into the Paris Opera Ballet], I was extremely excited as nothing could have happened the way it has if I had not been accepted in the first place. But a more recent accomplishment was being named as one of Moët & Chandon’s Vanguards at their recent Must be Moët party where I was honoured alongside some other exceptional Kiwis for our success.
What are some challenges you’ve faced or had to overcome?
I have faced and am currently facing two significant challenges in my career. Firstly, my promotion to Premiere Danseuse, I was so incredibly happy and overwhelmed but also realized the enormous responsibility of being a soloist. I got tied up in negative thoughts which led to losing a bit of self-confidence. With some time, experience and a good entourage I have grown into my position and take much more dignity with my role.
The second challenge I am currently battling with is post-operation rehab. Two months ago, I had an operation to remove my first rib and some muscle surrounding the area due to mechanical issues and was in the hospital for two weeks. As you can imagine, it was a quite scary and unpleasant experience, but I am now working my body back into shape and hopefully will be back onstage in early 2019.
What motivates you?
All of the hard work I put into in the studio perfecting my performance is what motivates me every day.
What’s the best piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
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What are your top three tips for landing a job in your industry?
There are no real tips. It all comes down to talent, passion and personality whether you get seen or selected amongst other dancers. It is very personal and depends on peoples taste or what directors are specifically looking for.
In another lifetime what would you want to be when you grow up?
I have absolutely no idea!
How do you relax away from work?
I love to wine and dine with my friends! Go for long walks around Paris and a good massage always helps.
Your career requires you to travel relentlessly, often only spending a few days in each place. Is there something you take with you (ie; a token, memento or lucky charm) to make you happy or remind you of home?
I take Manuka Honey with me everywhere. Travelling around means lots of new cuisines- and I love that, but it’s always nice to have a bit of familiar taste!
What’s the first thing you do when you return home to NZ? And more importantly, what’s the first thing you eat?
The first thing I do when I come home to New Zealand is breathe. I know it sounds very odd but it’s amazing how different the air is. I can feel it going through my whole body and putting me into recovery mode.
The first thing I like to eat is Jet Planes!! They are my favourite lollies and they definitely do not have them in Paris.
Who do you most admire in your industry? Why?
Anyone that chooses this career path I believe is courageous. I admire all those dancers out there all around the world. But my favourite dancer would have to be Diana Vishneva; her beauty and grace are just inexplicable.
Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My friends and family, but I turn mostly to my mother. She is a very good listener and always says the right thing at the right time.
You have already achieved so much, but what’s next for you?
For me this is always an ongoing question, having a goal every day to reach my ultimate dream which is to become an Etoile of the Paris Opera. I know that if one day this dream comes true there will be a lineup of goals and aspirations afterwards until the day I retire.