Paris Opera names first South Korean star dancer

Park Sae-eun became the first South Korean to earn the highest "etoile" (star) title at the Paris Opera ballet.
Park Sae-eun became the first South Korean to earn the highest "etoile" (star) title at the Paris Opera ballet.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Dancer Park Sae-eun became the first South Korean to earn the highest "etoile" (star) title at the Paris Opera ballet, a top honour reserved for just a handful of dancers in the company.

Opera director Alexander Neef made the announcement to a standing ovation following Park's performance as the lead in Romeo And Juliet at the Opera Bastille last Thursday.

"We have all had the pleasure tonight of seeing a magnificent dancer who has shown us the extent of her talent," he said. "It gives me immense pleasure to name Mademoiselle Sae-eun Park an etoile dancer."

Elevated to "first dancer" in 2017 - the second-highest status - Park has been lauded for her elegant and fluid technique.

Born in Seoul in December 1989, she joined the company a decade ago, having already been a soloist in her home country.

"With the Korean National Ballet, I was already a soloist and dancing lead roles. When I joined the Paris Opera, I was always in the background, but I learnt a lot," she told Agence France-Presse in 2019.

She won the Grand Prix de Lausanne at 17 and the Gold Medal at Varna, two of the leading prizes in the world for aspiring dancers.

The daughter of a pianist and a Samsung employee, Park had initially trained in the Russian "Vaganova" style of ballet in Seoul. She discovered the French style when she took a class from a Korean former member of the Paris Opera.

"It was a revelation," she said. "Vaganova is more about the upper body. The French style relies more on the feet. The technique came more naturally to me."

But she also had wise words from her former Russian teacher: "She told me, 'Don't forget that despite the differences in style, the important thing is to express what is within you.'"

Park is now part of a handful of foreign etoile dancers at the Paris Opera, which includes Ludmila Pagliero, who became the first from Latin America in 2012.