Paris ballet's foreign legion reaches for the stars
PARIS - AFP
It didn't stop Bianca Scudamore daydreaming about it, though. And now, having just turned 19, she's the rising star at the world renowned company, where a cosmopolitan generation of young dancers are making names for themselves.
Unlike the Royal Ballet in London or the New York City-based American Ballet Theater, the Paris Opera Ballet has very few foreign dancers of its 154, only 25 are not from France.
That's more than was traditionally the case, as dancers from elsewhere have in recent years been accepted into its hierarchical ranks, some even without having first trained at the company's prestigious ballet school, unthinkable, at one time.
In 2012, Argentina's Ludmila Pagliero became its first dancer from Latin America to be named an "etoile," a term reserved for a select few, equivalent to principal dancer. There have been a few other non-European "etoiles."
Described as the "baby ballerina" because of her tender age, today she is just two steps away from the lofty "etoile" title.
Scudamore threw herself into the English-style classical ballet of The Royal Academy of Dance, aged 13. At 14, she auditioned for the Paris company's ballet school, despite her teacher's reservations.
"My teacher told me, 'foreigners don't really get to this school, you don't really have any chance,' so I said I am going to take my chance," she said. It paid off.
Nevertheless, she had to adapt to the French school of dance, a style of ballet rooted in tradition and quite different from what she had learned in Australia.
The foot movements are much faster and more difficult and another difference is in the epaulement, or use of head and shoulders in ballet, Scudamore said, of the Paris technique. She faced other challenges too.
"In the beginning it was very hard because I am very close to my family," she said. "The whole year I cried almost every night. But it was the ballet that kept me going, kept me motivated when I was feeling down," she added.
Now she feels at home in Paris and has a strong social media presence, with 16,000 Instagram followers.
For Sae Eun Park, a 29-year-old South Korean, arriving in Paris was something of a rude awakening.
"I was a soloist with the Korean National Ballet and I danced all the principal roles. "When I arrived at the Opera I was on a limited contract and in the wings the whole time," she said. "But I learned a lot."
At 17, she won the Prix de Lausanne, the most prestigious ballet competition in the world, and discovered the French style of dance during lessons given by a former Korean Paris Opera dancer, describing it as a revelation. In 2015, she was invited to dance at the celebrated Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg.
In 2015, Chun-Wing Lam caused a sensation in his native Hong Kong when he became the first Chinese to join the Paris ballet.
"Dance is valued more in France. In Hong Kong, they found my story astonishing. He is a "quadrille", the most junior rank at the Paris company.
"The first two years were really hard. At the school, where I was a resident, the use of the telephone was forbidden in the day and with the time difference I found it hard to talk to my parents," he recalled.
The moment she'll never forget was seeing a video of the ballet "Cinderella" starring Rudolf Nureyev, the legendary Russian dancer who led the Paris Opera ballet troupe, and star Paris dancers Sylvie Guillem and Charles Jude.
"From that moment on, for me, Paris Opera was ballet," said Hannah O'Neill, now a first dancer, one step away from "etoile".
Born in Tokyo, the daughter of an ex-rugby player from New Zealand and a Japanese mother, the 26-year-old inherited a strong physique and love of dance.
At 14, she suffered a setback by failing the external competition for a place at the Paris school. Instead, she joined the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne and won the Prix de Lausanne and Youth America Grand Prix.
But she never gave up on her dream and was accepted by the Paris Opera at 18, arriving in the city without a word of French. "I tried to copy as much as possible. I am quite good at mimicking. It was quite handy," she laughed.
She, too, had to adapt to the French technique. "The footwork is accentuated, everything is more sophisticated and so stylish." And she got her big break when Benjamin Millepied, head of dance from 2015 to 2016 who called for more diversity in the company, gave her the title role in "Swan Lake."