Cover Park Sae-eun is the first Asian ballet dancer to reach star status at the Paris Ballet Opera (Photo: Julien Benhamou)

The South Korean ballet dancer has ascended to the highest rank—étoile—at the world's oldest ballet institution, becoming the first Asian ballerina to do so in 352 years

“At some point, I believe that my path was destined to become a ballet dancer,” says Park Sae-eun, who started dancing at 10. What she couldn’t have known then is that she would reach a ballerina’s highest status and break new ground for Asian representation in the elite world of classical ballet.  

Park studied at the Korea National University of Arts, where she mainly trained in the Vaganova method or the Russian style, designed to use the whole body in every movement with equal attention given to the upper body, legs and feet. Park’s career development took a pivotal turn when she met Kim Yong-geol, a professor at the university who had been the first Asian soloist at the Paris Opera Ballet (POB). Kim taught Park the French style, which appealed to her and inspired her to look up YouTube videos of Aurélie Dupont, an étoile at the POB who has since become its director.

“She became my source of inspiration. She shone. She was natural, elegant, and delicate,” says Park to Tatler. Things came full circle at Park’s audition for the POB, where Dupont was one of the jurors.

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But we’re getting ahead of ourselves as Paris was not her first stop after graduation. She received a scholarship to join the American Ballet Theatre’s second company, ABT II, in 2007. Two years later, she returned to South Korea to join the Korea National Ballet.

At the Korean National Ballet, Park became a soloist and performed many lead roles. In 2010, she won the top prize at the Varna International Ballet Competition. Park’s big break came in 2011 when she finally earned a place at the POB—the oldest national ballet company—although she had to start at the bottom, as a corps de ballet dancer, a group of dancers who aren’t principal dancers or soloists.

“When I arrived in Paris, I couldn't be on stage often. I spent a lot of time watching the company dancers from the corner next to the stage,” she recalls. She had to switch between the Vaganova style and the French method; the latter is characterised by technical precision, gracefulness and elegance. “As time went on, I noticed that the two styles were clearly different. Rather than trying to change [my] style, I added [the] French style to my dance. After all, dancing has to be done with the heart,” she says.

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Park continued to climb the ladder as one of a handful of foreign dancers within a traditional, competitive ballet company—adapting to the dance style as well as a new culture and language. A year after joining POB, she ranked first out of 130 applicants during an audition, making her a permanent member—the first Korean woman to join full-time.

In 2013, Park was promoted to coryphée, the leading dancer in a corps de ballet. A year later, another promotion came, this time as a sujet, a dancer with a solo role in a performance. Continuing her ascension to star status in a cutthroat industry, Park was named première danseuse (principal dancer), the second-highest rank in the company in 2017, again becoming the first Korean to reach the rank.

When the pandemic hit, the theatre was closed for over a year, so it was a triumph for Park to return to the stage in June 2021 in the lead role of Romeo & Juliet, which she describes as “possibly the hardest and most difficult ballet I have ever done.”

See also: A Ballerina's Journey: Jemima Reyes on Why It's Not for the Faint of Heart

“Even if I were French, becoming an étoile would not have been easy. Art is not a matter of nationality or colour.”
Park Sae-eun

She was well rewarded as it was during her run in this role that she was named étoile–and the person who advocated for her to become the highest-ranked ballet dancer was none other than Aurélie Dupont.

“Étoile was truly a dream destination,” says Park, adding that whether she were Asian or not, the challenges are the same. “Even if I were French, becoming an étoile would not have been easy. Art is not a matter of nationality or colour. I've been working really hard and building my own career for a decade.”

The ballerina continues to be booked and busy. She just wrapped up a stunning run of La Bayadère, which she performed for the first time in Paris after doing so in South Korea in 2011. “It is one of my favourite ballets. The costumes and decorations are different but the choreography and music are almost the same.” She cites passion as the most important thing in dance and throws herself into each new performance. Up next is her turn as Giselle in July 2022. “It’s my dream role so I’m excited about my performance.”

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