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South Korean ballet dancer Sae Eun Park is the first Asian to attain the top rank at the Paris Opera Ballet. Photo: Instagram/@saeeun_park

‘Art transcends race’: Paris ballet’s first Asian elite dancer plays down her origins, but former Korean member of troupe says she’s achieved the impossible

  • Sae Eun Park has reached the top rank of the world’s oldest ballet company 10 years after her audition to join the company
  • Her nomination to the star rank came at a time when classical ballet faces calls for more diversity and inclusion

When Sae Eun Park auditioned for the world’s oldest ballet company, her Paris hotel room was so small she could not fully stretch her legs.

A decade later, the South Korean has become the first Asian ballerina to reach the top etoile – 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 current foreign-born etoiles at the renowned company, having defied years of different training, a language barrier, injury and the company’s notorious competitive exams, which determine all but the highest promotions through its rigid five-rank hierarchy.

Paris Opera Ballet’s first Asian etoile ballerina, 31-year-old Sae Eun Park. Photo: Yelim Lee/AFP

“I believe that art – not just dance – transcends nationality and race,” Park says. “I became the first Asian ballerina to be an etoile and it’s very much become a talking point, but I think of it as something that’s very natural.”

A Seoul native, Park trained in Russia’s Vaganova ballet method – which emphasises soulful expression, strength and flexibility – in South Korea’s top art institutions.

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When she arrived in Paris aged 21, she spoke little French and hadn’t attended classes at the Paris Opera Ballet’s affiliated ballet school – which provides around 90 per cent of its dancers and teaches a dance style that prioritises elegance and precision.

In June 2021, after Park performed the female lead in Romeo and Juliet, her etoile nomination was announced to the Opera Bastille, prompting a standing ovation and Park to break down in tears.

“A lot of emotions were overlapping – I was so happy, and so grateful, and thought there really is such a day,” Park recalls.

Park has been praised for the emotional depth and lyricism of her dancing. Photo: Instagram/@saeeun_park

“I had been waiting for so long ... and there were times that were a bit tough, and I was reminded of them,” she says.

Park joined a group of millennial South Korean dancers in the top ranks of the world’s most prominent companies, including Kimin Kim at the Mariinsky Ballet and Hee Seo at the American Ballet Theatre – many of them inspired by trailblazer Kang Sue-jin, a former principal for Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet.

Celebrated as a teen prodigy, Park was dubbed the “queen of concours” after winning the Grand Prix de Lausanne and Gold Medal at Varna, two leading prizes for aspiring ballet dancers.

It’s really hard, but it’s so much harder if you resent or become jealous of others
Sae Eun Park, ballerina on her gruelling training

She was particularly praised for her technique, such as leaps and turns, but Park says she always wanted something more and found her inspiration in YouTube videos of Paris Opera Ballet dancers, including its current director Aurélie Dupont.

She quit her soloist position at the Korean National Ballet – its second-highest rank – for a one-year contract as a Paris Opera Ballet quadrille in 2011, the lowest position at the company.

Now she is lauded 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 has become the first Asian ballerina to reach the top rank – etoile, or star – in the Paris Opera Ballet’s 352-year history. Photo: Yelim Lee/AFP

Park trains for up to nine hours a day. Her ascent through the ranks was interrupted in 2015, when she needed cosmetic surgery after a colleague accidentally kicked her in the forehead while practising.

She failed that year’s promotion exams and fell into depression, avoiding mirrors for a time for fear of seeing her scar. The only coping strategy was to keep dancing. “You only have two options anyway,” she said. “You either give up or just keep trying.”

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

“It can make you feel completely shattered,” he says. “The very last survivors of that gruelling process become etoiles. I think she has accomplished something that’s impossible.”

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

Among them is Hong Kong’s Lam Chun-wing, who became the ballet company’s first Chinese dancer in 2015. He entered the Paris Opera Ballet School in 2011 at the age of 14 and was among a handful who survived the notoriously strenuous training.

Lam recalled that he and a Ukrainian boy were the only two non-French students in his dance class. “He was my best friend,” said Lam. “And at the end of the first year he was kicked out.”

A decade later, Lam is now a coryphée, or lead dancer in the corps de ballet.

Lam Chun-wing in 2015. He was the first Chinese dancer to be admitted to the Paris Opera Ballet and is now a lead dancer in its corps de ballet. Pictured at Jean M Wong School of Ballet in North Point. Photo: Franke Tsang

After Black Lives Matter protests gained momentum in France, the Paris Opera in February 2021 launched a diversity drive, commissioning an independent audit that pointed out only 25 of the ballet’s 154 performers were from overseas.

The organisation was “a white world, a long way from what contemporary French society looks like”, the authors wrote.

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,” he said.

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Park admits she wondered whether being Asian would deprive her of opportunities. The competition was always fierce and effectively pits dancers against their own long-standing colleagues.

“We all practise together, so you can’t avoid witnessing how others are dancing even if you don’t want to, and this can make anyone very anxious,” she says. “It’s really hard, but it’s so much harder if you resent or become jealous of others.”

To truly survive, she adds, “you have to make your rivals your friends”.

Additional reporting by Staff Reporter