Cover Photo: AFP

Park Sae-Eun is one of only two current foreign-born etoiles at the Paris Opera Ballet

South Korean Park Sae-eun is now the first Asian ballerina to reach the top etoile or star rank in the 352-year history of the Paris Opera Ballet.

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The 31-year-old’s promotion comes as more people call for diversity in the world of elite classical ballet and was announced shortly after the star gave an emotional performance in a rendition of Romeo And Juliet in June this year. 

Park played the iconic role of Juliet and her etoile nomination was announced to the Opera Bastille following the performance. The audience gave the dancer a standing ovation and she broke down in tears.

“A lot of emotions were overlapping - I was so happy and so grateful, and thought there really is such a day. I had been waiting for so long... and there were times that were a bit tough, and I was reminded of all of these all at the same time,” Park said in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

As one of only two current foreign-born etoiles at the renowned ballet company, here are five things you need to know about Park. 

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1. She trained in Russia’s “Vaganova” ballet method

Park started her ballet career in South Korea where she trained in Russia’s Vaganova ballet method in some of the top ballet schools in South Korea. 

The Vaganova ballet method was developed by Russian dancer Agrippina Vaganova and has been refined over the course of 300 years.

It places emphasis on soulful expression, strength and flexibility. It also takes human anatomy into consideration and aims to be structured and scientific in its approach to ballet.

This is likely why today, Park is lauded for her emotional depth and lyricism on the stage. 

2. She was considered a teen prodigy in South Korea

In South Korea, Park was considered to be quite the teen prodigy and was even dubbed the “queen of concours” after she won the Grand Prix de Lausanne and the gold medal at Varna. These are two of the leading prizes for aspiring ballet dancers.

At that time, she was well-known for her technique especially when it came to her leaps and turns. 

3. She started out at the lowest position in the Paris Opera Ballet

Though Park was doing well in South Korea, it was not enough for her and she wanted to do something more.

At that time, she turned to YouTube where she found numerous videos of Paris Opera Ballet dancers. She began to take inspiration from their work and decided to quit her soloist position at the Korean National Ballet.

She then signed a one-year contract as a Paris Opera Ballet quadrille in 2011. This was the lowest position at the company. 

4. She never attended the Paris Opera Ballet’s affiliated ballet school

Entering the Paris Opera Ballet in itself was quite an accomplishment for Park. In fact, when she arrived in Paris when she was 21, she spoke very little French and had never attended classes at the Paris Opera Ballet’s affiliated ballet school.

The Paris Opera Ballet’s affiliated ballet school typically provides the Paris Opera Ballet with about 90 per cent of its dancers. It is also meticulous in its teachings and emphasis a style that is more elegant and precise. 

Park had to overcome the language barrier as well as competitive exams and different training to claw her way to the top here.

5. She suffered a devastating injury in 2015

The life of any professional ballet dancer is notoriously difficult and it is equally, if not more so, for Park. Park reportedly trains for around nine hours a day and works extremely hard. 

However, in 2015, Park’s rise to the top was interrupted when a colleague accidentally kicked her in the forehead while they were practising. Park needed to undergo cosmetic surgery and actually failed that year’s promotion exams. 

She quickly fell into a depressive state following the injury. Thankfully, she picked herself back up and continued trying to get to where she is today.

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