SEOUL (AFP) – When Park Sae-eun auditioned for the world’s oldest ballet institution, her Paris hotel room was so small she couldn’t fully stretch her legs.
A decade later, the South Korean was the first Asian ballerina to achieve the highest “Etoile” or “Star” rank in the 352-year history of the Paris Opera Ballet.
The 31-year-old’s promotion came as the world of classical ballet faced growing demands for diversity and inclusion. She is one of only two current foreign-born Etoiles with the renowned company, who defied years of different training, a language barrier, an injury and the notorious competition exams of the Paris Opera Ballet, all but the highest promotions determined by their rigid five-level hierarchy.
“I believe that art – not just dance – goes beyond nationality and race,” Park told Agence France-Presse. “I became the first Asian ballerina to be an Etoile and it has become very much a topic of conversation, but I see it as something that is very natural.”
Born in Seoul, Park was trained in the best arts institutions in South Korea in the Russian ballet method “Vaganova”, which emphasizes soulful expression, strength and flexibility.
When she arrived in Paris at the age of 21, she spoke little French and had never attended a class at the ballet school attached to the Paris Opera Ballet, which makes up around 90 percent of dancers and teaches a dance style that is elegant and precise puts the focus.
But in June, after she starred in Romeo and Juliet, her “Etoile” nomination was announced by the Opera Bastille, which led to a standing ovation and she burst into tears.
“A lot of emotions overlapped – I was so happy and grateful and thought there really is a day like this,” recalled Park. “I’ve waited so long … and there were times that were a little tough and I was reminded of all of that at the same time.”
She joins a group of millennial South Korean dancers who are in the top echelons of the world’s most famous companies, including Kimin Kim at the Mariinsky Ballet and Hee Seo at the American Ballet Theater – many of them inspired by a former pioneer Kang Sue-jin Rector for the Stuttgart Ballet.
Hailed as a teenage prodigy in South Korea, Park has been dubbed “Queen of the Concours” after winning the Grand Prix de Lausanne and the Varna Gold Medal, two of the top prizes for budding ballet dancers.
At the time, she was particularly praised for her technique such as jumps and turns, but Park says she always wanted something more and found her inspiration in YouTube videos of dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet, including current director Aurelie Dupont.
Her solo position at the Korean National Ballet – the second highest position – she gave up in 2011 for a one-year contract as a ballet quadrille at the Paris Opera, the lowest position in the company.
Now she is also being praised for her emotional depth and lyricism, with Parisian dance critic Laura Cappelle noting her “inner serenity, a gift for slowing down time on stage”.
Park trains for up to nine hours a day. Her rise through the ranks was interrupted in 2015 when she needed cosmetic surgery after a coworker accidentally kicked her forehead while practicing. She failed this year’s promotion tests and fell into depression. Afraid of seeing her scar, she avoided mirrors for a while.
The only coping strategy was to just keep dancing. “You only have two options anyway,” she said. “You either give up or just keep trying.”
The South Korean Kim Yong-geol, a former dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, described the company as a “monastic society proud of its tradition” with an “unscrupulous” promotion system.
“It can make you feel completely shaken,” he said. “The very last survivors of this grueling process will become Etoiles. I think she achieved something that is impossible.”
In contrast to the New York American Ballet Theater or the Royal Ballet in London, the Paris Opera Ballet has very few foreign dancers. After the protests against Black Lives Matter gained momentum in France, the Paris Opera launched a diversity campaign in February and commissioned an independent test, which found that only 25 of the ballet’s 154 performers were from abroad.
The Paris Opera Ballet did not respond to several AFP requests for comment.
Park admitted that she wondered if being an Asian woman would deprive her of opportunities.
The competition has always been tough and allows the dancers to effectively compete against their own long-time peers. “We all practice together, so you can’t avoid watching others 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 when you get angry or get jealous of others. To really survive, “she added,” you have to make your rivals your friends. “