Paris Opera Ballet Étoile Hannah O'Neill's Star Turn Takes Her Back to Tokyo

Hannah O'Neill, who now dazzles audiences from around the world as a Paris Opera Ballet Étoile, was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a New Zealander father. This article delves into how O'Neill remembers and connects with Tokyo, her childhood home until she moved to New Zealand at the age of 8, and how it helped set the stage for her rise to the Paris Opera Ballet's highest rank.
O'Neill, posing at Japan Performing Arts Foundation, NBS (Meguro, Tokyo), credits her mother for urging her to speak Japanese.

Tokyo was where O'Neill had her first ballet lessons, an experience that would set her on the path she followed to become the esteemed Étoile she is today. Now, whenever she has a free moment on trips to Tokyo, she makes it a point to visit the ballet studio where that journey began. Those regular reunions are nothing new, either. When her family lived in New Zealand, she would spend her winter breaks in Tokyo. There, she kept herself in ballet shape with visits to the studio for lessons from her past teachers—mentors she maintains strong relationships with today. But what O'Neill gained from her time at that memory-rich Tokyo studio was more than just a mastery of the basics of ballet. "I learned how to show my teachers and elders the proper respect, not to mention what proper etiquette is all about," she says. "Students would only leave the studio after they'd wiped the floor down and emptied the wastebaskets. I remember being surprised at that, since I never did anything of the sort in New Zealand."

Walking from the station to her old ballet school in a quiet residential neighborhood of Setagaya City, Tokyo, always brings a nostalgic tear to O'Neill's eye.

Virtually everything shaping in O'Neill's childhood—her kindergarten, her elementary school, and the studio where she took ballet lessons—was within walking distance of her home in the Seijo area of Setagaya City, Tokyo. Until she was 8, she laughs, Setagaya City was the entirety of Tokyo to her. Thinking back on those formative years, O'Neill sees how the lessons she learned at home play a pivotal role in the way she lives her life. "One of the things my grandmother taught me was the word gaman, which expresses a kind of patience and tolerance. She'd tell me it was an amazing, special word," she remembers. "And since I was growing up with two little brothers, someone was always there to remind me I had to gaman. But in the end, that helped me learn how to be more selfless and get through the struggles I've had to deal with in my career. Then there was my grandfather, who was worldly and always ready with a story from the time he'd spent working abroad," O'Neill recalls. "I remember him telling me, 'Don't knock anything until you try it. Take every chance you get to try something new!' My commitment to embracing whatever opportunity or challenge that comes along has a lot to do with what my grandfather taught me, I think."

One thing that O'Neill loves about Japan is how people line up for trains, a practice that she teaches her French friends.

Reconnecting with her roots

Despite knowing hardly a word of French, O'Neill was determined to make her dream of becoming an Étoile for the Paris Opera Ballet come true—so she took the plunge and joined the company. She worked to get accustomed to her new surroundings in France, after which she started picking up words and phrases here and there. As someone who said goodbye to home in hopes of flourishing on the global stage, O'Neill has a message for young people looking to leave Tokyo and see what the world has in store. "There might be times when you feel scared or overwhelmed," she says, "but you can't let yourself back away just because you're from another country. The important thing is to push yourself and give everything your best shot."

When O'Neill joined the Paris Opera Ballet, almost everyone in the company was French. Now, though, the roster is much more diverse; O'Neill is one of six current dancers with Japanese heritage. Even that group has its share of diversity, as most of the dancers with Japanese heritage grew up in various places overseas. O'Neill can sense the differences those divergent experiences have fostered. For her, being born in Tokyo, taking ballet lessons in Tokyo, and experiencing home life in Tokyo are things to cherish.

lay_23-0726_Un Soir a l'Opera_546A0036_photo_Kiyonori Hasegawa.jpg
O'Neill dances at a Tokyo performance of Un Soir à l'Opéra—Gala Tribute to Nureyev in July 2023. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa

The Paris Opera Ballet is now preparing for its February 2024 tour of Japan. On the program for the performances is Rudolf Nureyev's rendition of Swan Lake, a technically demanding version of the classic work, and O'Neill is set to take on the starring dual roles of Odette (the White Swan) and Odile (the Black Swan). "It's been a long time since I've danced the White Swan in a full-length production. I'm sure there will be some nerves," she says. "But having the chance to do it in Tokyo is just incredible. I'll be on stage with performers I've grown so close to, dancing in front of people I've gotten so much support from. I couldn't be happier."

lay_23-0726_Un Soir a l'Opera_546A0615photo_Kiyonori Hasegawa.jpg
Pas de trois from the third act of Swan Lake, part of the Un Soir à l'Opéra—Gala Tribute to Nureyev, featured O'Neill and Étoile Marc Moreau. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa

Hannah O'Neill

Hannah O'Neill was born in Tokyo, where she lived until moving to New Zealand at the age of 8. After graduating from The Australian Ballet School in 2011, she became a regular member of the Paris Opera Ballet in 2013. Successive promotions through the company's dancer ranks culminated in March 2023, when she attained Étoile. During her time in Japan, O'Neill looks forward to visiting Meiji Jingu (a shrine in Tokyo), relishing Japanese cuisine, and delighting in Japanese sweets. Her favorite hobbies include watching films and reading.
Interview and writing by Omura Mariko
Photo (Portraits) by Sakaki Mirei
Translation by Tom Kain
Special thanks to NBS-Japan Performing Arts Foundation