KoreAm: South Korean ballerina Hee Seo dazzles in ‘The Sleeping Beauty’

KoreAm (by James S. Kim):

There are a few perks to being an artist in New York City. Hee Seo is always surrounded by classical arts performances, many of them featuring her friends, with whom she goes out for drinks and food. There’s also the occasional Broadway show she can pop into as well.

Seo (pronounced “Suh”) sees herself as a “normal 28-year-old girl” in the city. But not many can claim to be a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), one of the world’s most renowned classical ballet companies located in NYC.

The Seoul native began ballet lessons at age 12 without any thought of going professional, but after being awarded a three-year scholarship to attend the Universal Ballet Academy (now the Kirov Academy of Ballet) in Washington, D.C., Seo’s career took off. She studied at the John Cranko Ballet Academy in Stuttgart, Germany on a scholarship before being invited to join the ABT Studio Company in 2004.

It wasn’t easy: Seo had trained under a Russian syllabus, and the American styles and approach to dancing made for a difficult adjustment. But with the help of her mentors, she was able to adapt, even battling through a back injury. Seo climbed the ranks, beginning as an apprentice, then joining the corps de ballet.

Seo had been performing soloist roles since 2006, but she really had her breakthrough year in 2009, performing lead roles in Romeo and JulietLa SylphideOn the Dnieper and Desir. As Pointe Magazine put it, she was already demonstrating the mark of a true ballerina with her “ability to carry a ballet and imbue it with her distinct aura for an audience of nearly 5,000 people.”

Hee SeoHee Seo. (Photo by Gene Schiavone)

Seo was promoted to soloist in August 2010, then to principal dancer in July 2012. Each ballerina brings her own style, personality and expertise to each role, and the New York Times’ Gia Kourlas described Seo’s dancing as “[exuding] an unhurried purity that sums up all that is lovely about ballet. But while dramatic, Ms. Seo is also unassuming: as her delicate back and arms melt into place, Ms. Seo fills the stage with serenity. You see a person as much as a dancer.”

This past weekend, Seo reprised one of her leading roles as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty alongside longtime partner Cory Stearns (Prince Charming) for a rare West Coast swing. Seo spoke with KoreAm by phone last Friday, a day after the first of two performances of The Sleeping Beauty before packed audiences at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Seo discussed her preparation for the role, and how her love of classical ballet allows her to tackle the physically and emotionally demanding challenges of professional ballet. She also mentioned how her family, particularly her parents, continue to fuss over her—and how she has no problem with it.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As a ballerina, what is the most important aspect of yourself that you bring to a performance like this?

Seo: A lot of people ask me, “What do you want audiences to feel when they see your performances?” I want them to be completely lost in the ballet, the show, and not think about what they have done that day, or the stress or the problems they had before—just enjoy. Ultimately, ballet is about love and human feeling.

The Sleeping Beauty is a beautiful ballet. I had an opening-night dinner with some donors of ABT, and the placement setting said, “A kiss can change everything.” It’s true, and it’s so nice.

I love to dance, and I think people can just simply enjoy it.

ABT The Sleeping Beauty - photo by Doug Gifford (15)Seo as Princess Aurora, center, with partner Cory Stearns as Prince Charming.

Regarding the theme, do you “lose yourself” in that as well?

I try to. That’s my ultimate goal. There’s so many things that I need to be aware of: the lighting, the set, costumes, people around you, the steps. The ballet itself is very challenging. You try to be on pointe, on your toe, on balance. There’s a lot of things going on in my head.

I’ve been working with ABT for almost 10 years now—nine years. I think over the course of that time, I tried and learned how to lose myself in that and not think about other things—just like what I ask of the audience. Just come in and enjoy yourself.

Who have been your biggest influences?

Many people. My coach, Irina Kolpakova, she’s a legendary ballerina from Mariinsky Theater in Russia. She’s my coach, and I’ve been working with her since I joined the company, she’s my biggest influence and mentor. I think she knows more than I know about myself, because we really share a lot of time in the studio and outside of the studio. I tell her everything. She’s 80 years old—she just had her birthday. She’s the most positive, energetic person I’ve ever met in my whole life.

When I come into the studio, sometimes I’m tired and I don’t want to do anything. But when I see her, she’s like, full of energy—she fills you with that positive energy. I learned how to carry myself with positive energy from her.

Also, all the dancers from ABT—people who just stand on the side, or who aren’t even dancing on pointe, they’re always supporting me when I’m dancing. They always do their best to bring the best performance on stage.

Also, there are three [principal] ballerinas who are retiring this year. … [They] were great dancers who made this company very famous and on the top level. Now, they’re on their way out, and there’s a new corps of principal dancers, and I have to carry that weight on my shoulder.

I loved working with them. They have been so helpful and taught me what they knew—how to be a principal dancer at ABT, how to communicate with people, how to be normal and not a big-headed diva. (laughs)

Did you think you were a big-headed diva when you first joined ABT?

I think everybody who comes into ABT at first, everyone has a huge ego. They were first in their own class, or they did great in competitions. They were always treated as princesses or princes. When they come to ABT, you have to start from the back of the line, and then you slowly learn where you really stand in the professional ballet world, not back in school.

I know some people get annoyed when young dancers come in and they do their own thing, and they aren’t aware of senior dancers, but I always think, give them a little time. They will learn by themselves, and I think I was like that. I just didn’t know; it’s not that I was a big-headed diva, but I just didn’t know what to do and what it was like to be a professional dancer.

I only knew from my own school. I came into the professional world, and everything changed. Everyone adjusts, and that takes some time.

The company is filled with great, kind people. Everyone is willing to help each other. I think the environment is very healthy and happy. People adapt over time. I don’t think…there are big-headed divas in the company. (laughs)

ABT Sleeping Beatuy- March 3 by Doug GIfford (3)Sleeping Beauty

What are some of the strengths you recognize in yourself?

Actually, yesterday afternoon, Kevin McKenzie, our artistic director, came in and told me, “You could improve your [emotional gestures].”

I saw myself on video, and I thought that I was doing extra gestures. I thought I was losing the [grace of] classical ballet, so I actually wanted to hold it back a little bit. Kevin said, “It’s impossible not to be graceful for you, so I think you can do a little more.” It was a big compliment.

I have the grace of classical ballet innately, because I was trained in classical ballet. But I think I need to work on powerful steps, like out of my box, more excitement in my dancing. That’s what I’ve been working on with my coach.

I think it’s all about how you present yourself. That’s something I work on all the time, rather than the technical stuff. A lot of things I could do, without a problem.

What keeps you moving forward and constantly trying to improve?

I love what I do. (laughs) It sounds so cheesy, but I really do. I love waking up in the morning, going to the ballet studio.

We begin our day at 10:15 at ballet class, when we warm up all together. We have a very old studio in New York, but it has a big window overlooking Broadway. The sun shines in, and there’s always light and music playing.

Even though sometimes I don’t want to go to work, when I get there, it gives me such comfort. It feels really good. Without class, I don’t feel like my day is starting.

After the show last night, I was so exhausted, but I went into class this morning. I love working with my friends, I love going into the studio. I think it’s really a gift that I get to do what I love to do.

After a performance like last night, how tired do you get?

It depends on the ballet, and for the ballerinas, every performance is challenging. In particular,Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, they’re really hard on the body because the steps are really challenging. The hours—running full force for a few hours is quite tiring, with the costume changes, and my nerve is going. Our legs get shot.

For me, after the performance, I still have that excitement, it’s still going. Last night, I couldn’t go to bed until like 4 a.m. My body was tired, but I woke up at 7.

You get used to it, like how basketball players, they run and work like crazy. But they train that way. Their body works like that. And we are the same way—we work hard, and we train this way.

Sometimes, I’m amazed at what our bodies can do when you train it. Sometimes—this is out of my own curiosity—I love what I do, and also I’m curious how far I can go with my own body. Every day, every performance, I want to push it a little more.

How do your parents react to your performances now? Do they still worry over you?

They do. They actually visited me in New York a couple of weeks ago. All my family lives in Korea, so it’s a long trip to see me, and it was only for four days. They wanted to see my new apartment, see how I live. I left for ballet school when I was 12 or 13, so they still think of me as that teenage girl.

They’re always concerned about me day to day. We have our family group chat on KakaoTalk, and my mom always says, “Have a good show! Are you eating properly? How’s your body?” They take care of me. That’s their job.

Sometimes, I’m like, “Mom, I’m old enough.” I’ve lived by myself for a long time, so I’m OK, but sometimes I like that. When I got to work or elsewhere, I have so much pressure, and I have to be on top of everything. When I go home, I can be their daughter, I can be taken care of. At first, I didn’t like it, but now I love it. When they visit me, they clean my apartment for me, laundry, cook—I love it, I enjoy it.

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