In June, breaking news from the performing arts community came from France.
The Paris Opera Ballet (POB), one of the world's four most prestigious ballet companies, named Korean ballerina Park Sae-eun as danseuse etoile (principal dancer), the first Asian to receive the honor in the 352-year history of the troupe. The POB has 16 principal dancers of both sexes among its estimated 150 members.
The word "etoile" means "star" in French, and reaching the top tier at the POB means becoming a star among stars. The performing arts community has praised Park's achievement as valuable as figure skater Kim Yuna winning gold medals at the Winter Olympics and BTS topping the Billboard chart.
Aurelie Dupont, POB's artistic director who granted Park the designation, said in an interview, "Park Sae-eun is the perfect example of diligence, humble personality, technique and artistry."
In a July 22 interview with Korea.net at a cafe in Seoul's Songpa-gu District, Park said, "It was surreal at first but since I'd received a lot of congratulatory messages from Korea, I started to realize that I'd achieved something incredible."
When she joined the troupe as a temporary performer after auditioning in 2011, being a principal dancer was far from her thoughts. Ten years later when she received the honor, directors and colleagues all said "Meritez!" (Deserved).
Park said, "What I heard the most was 'eligible' and that this day should have come earlier."
The POB has five classifications for its dancers: quadrille (group), coryphee (group leader), sujet (soloist), danseuse premier (first) and danseuse etoile (principal). The troupe is the world's only ballet group to have a promotion system, and thus competition among POB dancers is intense since roles and dances are limited by level.
Park forced herself to test for the second-highest tier despite injury. Her initial failure to do so led to a prolonged slump, but she said she overcame this thanks to her husband, who lives with her in France.
The ranks below premier are selected through entrance exams but etoile dancers are chosen through discussions between the artistic director and council. On the criteria to reach the top tier, she said there is no definite criteria, adding, "I'd also like to ask Director Dupont."
"Every colleague is excellent but I might've been more suitable given the characteristics and dance styles that the art director pursued for productions."
Privileges for etoile include a large changing room with a bed and shower plus a private secretary. The best benefit, Park said, is the right to star in any production she wants. "For the first 10 years, I received casting news through announcements but after I became etoile, directors asked me what work I want to appear in and with whom," she said. "I hope to show good performances in the works I'm good at and those I'd like to do."
Majoring in ballet at Seoul Arts High School and Korea National University of Arts, Park was hailed as the "queen of ballet competitions" as she won three of the world's top four contests in the field: the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland and the Varna International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria. In 2018, she was named best female dancer at the Benois de la Danse in Moscow, a competition likened to the Academy Awards of ballet.
Though she appears gifted with natural ability, her tenacious drive and hard work are what enabled her achievements. Her nickname ppakse, a term derived from Korean slang, means "extremely difficult." Though she is one of the top ballerinas in the POB, she still practices nine hours a day without rest.
"I wasn't good at ballet at first," Park said. "Impresarios tell me that I'm a dancer who has shown the biggest improvement between her first performance and last."
Being Korean was her impetus for growth, she said, adding, "Since the French have such a good image of Korea, I could perform with pride as a Korean."
"I often receive suggestions to get French nationality because of limitations as a Korean national in performing in certain works, but I've never considered this even once," she said. "I'm proud and grateful to be Korean."
Hearing that Korea.net's Honorary Reporters from France support her, Park said, "Those who value my efforts and love my dancing encourage me," adding, "I want to become a dancer who's more loved by French audiences."
To her Korean fans, she said, "I appreciate my Korean fans who haven't forgotten me and keep supporting me though I perform far from Korea. I hope to meet them at my performances in Korea next summer."