The American Ballet Theatre corps member makes her debut in Romeo and Juliet.
Tue Jul 7 2009
Shakespeare pretty much summed up the American Ballet Theatre corps member Hee Seo with, “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” When Seo dances, she is something like the sun, spreading her calm radiance over the stage. On Thursday 9, she will make her New York debut in Romeo and Juliet opposite Cory Stearns. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Seo came to ballet relatively late, but briskly gained attention; after training at the Universal Ballet Academy in Washington, D.C., she won the Prix de Lausanne Award and the Grand Prix at the Youth American Grand Prix. She joined the ABT Studio Company in 2004 and the main company two years later. With her wry humor, which gives her innate elegance an edge, Seo, 23, spoke about her blossoming career.
How did you start ballet? How old were you?
I was 12 when I started dancing. I used to swim. Then I quit because I sucked. But my mom figured I needed to do some kind of exercise because I was small and skinny, so she put me into a dance class.
How long did you swim?
For awhile. I have two brothers and all of us swam and played piano. It was just a family thing. It was just something that my mom thought we should know how to do.
Did you train in ballet from the beginning?
It was in a small studio, a community-service kind of class. Basically, you were just skipping around and holding hands and the teacher would say, “Do the butterfly.” Then you would do the butterfly.
Did you like dancing?
I don’t know. I think back that maybe I did like to dance. When I was accepted to the arts school in Seoul [Sun-hwa Arts Middle School], I said that I wanted to go. But at that time, compared to now, I didn’t know what ballet was and I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I do now. In a way, I’m glad that I didn’t start that early. And I’m glad that my mom is not a ballet mom. She’s totally away from it. That did help me. I saw a lot of my friends get stressed from their moms. I think I am a very independent person. I wouldn’t be where I am if my mom was like that.
Because you would have rebelled and done the opposite?
How did you get into the arts school?
I don’t know if Americans have this too, but when I was in elementary school students would pick one person to become the school president. I was the school president. The dean of the school got a letter from this arts school that they were holding a competition at a really famous arts school in Seoul and it said, “I you have somebody who can come to our competition, please do.” They had just started the competition so they didn’t have very many people. The dean knew that I was dancing—doing the butterfly—but he thought it was ballet and he asked me if I wanted to do it. I said, “Sure why not?” I am a very open person. I will do whatever comes. So I did it and it’s so funny. I got a prize from the competition and I was totally not prepared. I borrowed shoes from one of the girls. I didn’t own any of the ballet clothes or anything. I would just wear shorts and a T-shirt for ballet class. After I got a prize from the competition, the school asked me to attend on scholarship. It was like, “Whaaat?” I had only started dancing six months before, and in Korea, the competition is very hard.
What was the award?
It’s just a competition for the school; if you get the award they just invite you to attend the school on a scholarship. You can accept it or you don’t have to go, but most people die for it. And they train years and years to get to that point. It’s funny. I never thought that I was the best in my class, even though I was the one who got to do all these good parts out of all the students, but I knew that I wasn’t good enough. I can see people and I know they are better than me. But then because I was doing so many things I knew that I had something special that other people don’t have. But I didn’t know what it was. I still don’t know what it is. I know I’m not the best one, but I get to do a lot more things than other people.
When you first started dancing at ABT, my eye always went directly to you.
Maybe because I am Asian?
No, no. It’s something else. You’re a very peaceful dancer. You’re not desperate.
[Pauses] I think it’s part of my personality. I think I try to be a good person—not because I want to be a good person, but I love dancing and when you dance your personality really shows; so if you’re a bad person or if you’re weird in some way, it’s such a pure art form that it comes out somehow. I think it’s so true.
It is true—even in those shows like Dancing with the Stars. Don’t their personalities come out?
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. It’s weird right?
So you were on scholarship—for how long?
I was there for just a year. And then I moved to Washington, D.C., to go to the Universal Ballet Academy. I think everything just happened. The door was kind of open—I wasn’t going to do this competition and I wasn’t expected to get a prize and I wasn’t expected to be accepted into arts school. Everything just kind of happened and I remember the day I auditioned. It was late December and the artistic director of the school came to Korea for a business trip. My teacher asked me if I wanted to take an audition. As I told you, I am an open person, so I was like, “Okay!” and it was that day. A couple of other girls auditioned too, and then I was accepted and I went to Washington, D.C., in January. That happened in two, three weeks. It’s crazy, right?
Had you ever been to America?
No, never. That was my first time taking a flight.
What did your parents say?
My parents were like, “You’re not going anywhere.” I was so young. [Laughs] I wasn’t really wanting to go or anything, but because my mom said no, I wanted to go. My teacher convinced my parents, and they let me.
How did you like the school? The training?
I hated it. It was really, really hard. All of the teachers are Russians, and they’re so strict. If you see them, even on the street—not even the hallway of the school—you have to do a little curtsy. I don’t cry anymore. I think because I cried during the three years when I was in the school. But I had friends there. I had a good time, and the training was the greatest. I was so far behind; everybody else had trained for years and years and I had just gone to the arts school in Korea. I didn’t know the names of the steps. One day I cried and told my mom, “I need a private lesson or something to catch up.” And she was like, “If you cannot even follow the school, the private lesson will not help you.” [Laughs] We had a dance exam twice a year, and during that time everybody would get a private lesson and buy a new leotard, new tights, new pointe shoes and my mom wouldn’t go there. So I never had a private lesson. But I guess because I started late, I could see steps and absorb everything faster than as a little kid.
Did your friends help you? Did you have friends like that?
When I was in Seoul, I didn’t have any friends. They were all from the same ballet studio; they had been together for years and then they grew up together, so they were already friends. There are two major studios where kids are raised to go to the arts school. If you are not from one of these two studios, you are just so out. I was the only one who wasn’t from one of these two studios. So I didn’t have any friends for a year.
You were the butterfly.
[Laughs] I was the butterfly! It was really sad. Before the exam, I talked to my mom. There were 19 of us and I told her, “I don’t know if I’m going to be 19th or 18th.” There was one guy and 18 girls and I didn’t know if I was going to be the last-scored girl or if he would be the last-scored guy. But then surprisingly, I was the first one. No way, right?
I’ll bet you made more friends that way.
I did. But then I was like, They are so mean. Ballet girls are all like that. They weren’t even talking to me because I was bad and after I did something, they were like, “Oh, you’re our friend.” I just kind of have a “whatever” personality. I was like, Okay, whatever.
Were you especially close to any teachers?
Madame [Alla] Sizova [at Universal Ballet Academy]. She’s my role model. She was a prima ballerina at the Kirov. She taught me a lot, not just about dancing. I have one little story. She has such a sweet personality, she’s such a sweet woman, so whenever people had a bad day and would cry in class, she would be very sweet about it and say, “Don’t worry, it will get better” and blah blah. And one day I was having a bad day and I cried, and she kicked me out of the class. The next day I found myself sitting in the dean’s office with Madame Sizova and the artistic director, and I was like, “Aren’t you supposed to be sweet about me, too?” But what they were saying was that if people are looking at you, then you cannot really show your emotions because people will let you down. You’re like 13, 14 years old. How could you understand? But what they meant was that you have to always be prepared, always be strong, always be on top of everything so that way, people can look up at you. I really realized that is so important. Not because I’m a good or great dancer but that’s how you’re supposed to hold yourself and I always keep that in my mind. They taught me so many things. Her son died, so she had to go back to Russia. Since then I haven’t seen her. I would love to see her. She is my teacher.
Why did you leave the academy?
I went to Stuttgart because I did another competition, the Prix de Lausanne. I won a prize and I got to go wherever I wanted; I chose Stuttgart. Actually, I wasn’t really thinking about where I wanted to go, but the director of the Stuttgart Ballet asked me to join the company.
Yes. So I was like, “Oh, okay!” I was 16 then. From 17, you can go to the company, but since I was 16 I only could go to the school. But I did performances and rehearsed with the company. Mr. Anderson was very generous with me and he let me do a lot of work with the company. I did Swan Lake and Giselle. They are doing a lot of John Cranko’s stuff. They do the Cranko version of Swan Lake and it is so beautiful. The Black Swan, how she acts is a little different, but it makes a huge difference in the ballet.
You left Germany—to do what?
To join ABT Studio Company. I had done another competition: Youth America Grand Prix. So that’s where I got the contract. I chose to go to Stuttgart. Then [former ABT Studio Company director] John Meehan called me in January and said, “Come to ABT.” And I said yes. [Smiles] He was a judge for the Prix de Lausanne for the next year and I met up with him in Switzerland, and I signed my contract. I love John. When I was in the Studio Company, I didn’t know why, but I was going through such a rough time. There was a period of a month where we were at White Oak, and we were learning a new Brian Reeder ballet and a lot of exciting things, but I just had no motivation. One day, John pulled me out of the rehearsal and we just talked. And I don’t know why but I just cried with John and everything kind of went back to normal. So in that sense, I feel really comfortable and I feel very calm with John. I feel like he’s my dad. He’s the one who actually brought me to New York.
What was going on when you were so unmotivated? Was the Studio Company too American? The people or the system?
Maybe I was stressed and holding everything inside and not able to let it out. The system—I wasn’t very adapted to the American style of dancing because I was in the Russian school and I went to Stuttgart for a year. And maybe I wasn’t the dancer that they wanted in a way. I could not do a fast jump. I was not used to seeing those steps. [Shrugs] I don’t know.
You got into the company fairly quickly.
I really appreciate the artistic staff of ABT. I didn’t do the Met season, because my ankle wasn’t good, so I didn’t expect them to take me in the company, but they did. Last spring, I had a back injury for a long, long time. After that injury, the first role they gave to me was Peasant pas, which really only the soloists are doing. I was a corps member, but that was the first thing they gave to me for the comeback show—but because of my back, I could not even do it.
What was wrong with your back?
They never figured out. I think it is kind of a lifetime injury. Once your back is bad, you just live with it. Kevin [McKenzie] is so helpful and positive with me. He helped me a lot and I love to rehearse with him; he knows so much. He is like a big library, but he doesn’t do like, “Okay in this part it’s like this so you have to do this, this and that.” Instead of saying something, he can just make a facial expression, and you understand everything. And he doesn’t talk about his perspective, but my perspective of dance. One correction I got during Romeo and Juliet was during third act. When I dance and when I have to act I don’t really put things in a word, like “sad” or “happy.” Sometimes human emotions cannot be explained, right? So I have a good image of what I wanted to be, a clear image, but I don’t necessarily put it into words. And I guess it wasn’t very clear with him. He told me, “In the third act, everybody wants you to do something, so you’re like a caged animal.” And ta-da! That’s it. He makes everything so clear.
Can you talk about Juliet?
Where should I start? When I first heard about getting the role, I was like, Whaaat? I was in the hallway walking to a studio to rehearse something and Georgina [Parkinson] came out. She was all excited and said, “When are we going to start rehearsing?” And I was like, “Rehearsing what?” Kevin walked by and Georgina said, “You haven’t told her!” So Kevin was like, “Oh, by the way you’re doing Juliet.” I just didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Okay...I will make the whole speech later. I am just so shocked that I don’t know what to say.” And Kevin said, “All right, come to my office tomorrow and make a speech about it.” [Laughs] It was so amazing because Alessandra Ferri’s farewell show was Romeo and Juliet, and it’s one of my favorite ballets. The steps are so precious. There are times where you’re just looking at your partner—you don’t have to do much. The choreography and the music are so perfect.
Were you learning it with Cory Stearns, who plays Romeo, or by yourself?
With Cory. From the beginning, we were going to do it together. We really created our own version. Ours is more youthful. The other Romeo and Juliets are so well groomed. Everything is in perfect shape, but ours is rough in a way. They’ve given us two or three months to prepare, which is very rare for ABT. Never happens. [Laughs] But even with the time, we weren’t experienced onstage; [at the Detroit premiere] that created a young atmosphere of dancing, and I think that was the best part. As a partner, Cory is amazing, and we really work together. It is not just me and him; I feel like when we’re onstage, we are one. I wasn’t nervous. I was so relaxed to be there with him, and I think that’s how he feels as well. So the chemistry was there. I feel so lucky and honored. It’s everybody’s dream role. And it was actually on my birthday when I did my premiere.
What a present!
I know. It was one of those unforgettable performances.
What are you doing for Juliet outside of the studio?
Like research? I watched videos. I watched movies. Olivia Hussey is so Juliet in the Zeffirelli film; she is so beautiful. And then I’ve seen the newer one, the DiCaprio one. And I found a really old movie [George Cukor’s 1936 version]: It’s in black and white. Juliet [Norma Shearer] is old. When I first played the movie, I thought, She is just too old for Juliet, but as I watched it I really liked her. I also YouTube a lot to see other dancers. Cory and I randomly meet each other on Facebook to talk about what we think it is. We are doing a lot of mime rehearsal. Sometimes people think that it’s stupid, but I think acting is a reaction: reacting to the act. If you really hear the music, everything is in it. Actually, in my first performance, when I go to get the potion, Cory came in too fast; I am supposed to run and see that he’s not there and run back. Then I feel he’s there and then I go back to him. But he was already there! Instead of running back and forth, I just kind of took my time. It’s kind of nerve-racking. [Laughs]
Are you excited or nervous to do it again?
I’m excited. I usually don’t get nervous about the show. It’s weird. Before, I have this feeling, a little nervous feeling, but when I’m onstage and feel the lights it just goes away.
You also danced the lead part in On the Dneiper this season. How did you like working with Alexei Ratmansky?
Of course, it was the ABT thing. We didn’t have enough time to rehearse everything, but he is so great. What he does is not just give you the steps, but every step has a meaning, which I feel is kind of similar with Tudor. I haven’t seen any of [Ratmansky’s] work before, so this is my first piece that I’ve seen and been working with him, but in a way I felt he was similar to Tudor. The step itself is just something like tomb pas de bourree, pass, pass—but it has a meaning while you’re doing it. I’m so glad that he came to ABT, because he will make great ballets for us. I am very excited.
What was your preparation like for La Sylphide? Did it strike you as a good role for yourself?
It’s challenging because the image of it kind of matches with me, but it is very rough because she’s the fairy of air. She has to be really light but is very stylized—the way she moves her head or an arm. The port de bras is in front of you. It’s as if you are in a corset. When you jump, you have to use your arm to prepare yourself, but you really can’t do it, so it’s hard. I’ve been jumping a lot these days. Giselle is all the jumping. Swan Lake. It’s all jumping. Jump, jump, jump.
Does it hurt your back?
No, just my legs are tired. My whole body is just tired.
What has your ABT experience been like so far?
There are a lot of impressions. If I have to put it in one way, it’s a whole learning experience. I’ve learned so much and I’m learning every day and I feel myself progressing little by little; it’s fun to feel yourself progressing. It gives me a reason why I wanted to be here in dance, and because I’ve gotten so much love from everybody on the artistic staff and all the dancers—I feel so beloved in this company. I really appreciate every single moment that I am spending here.
Do you think this is where you were meant to be? Is this where you want to stay?
Yeah, as of now, but I don’t really think about that. If something is to happen, I know that the door will open for me. It always has.
What would you like to dance?
[Laughs] I want to do everything. I am glad that they think I am suited for lyrical roles, but I want to challenge myself more to do more serious dancing, like a Black Swan. I don’t know—something with more dancing than acting. Maybe more Balanchine? But I cannot really handle a leotard look. I kind of feel weird to wear a unitard onstage. But all of them love to put me in the unitard.
Well, you have nice lines.
I don’t think I have nice lines. I have this idea that if it’s not the best it’s not good. Like Alessandra Ferri’s foot is amazing—so that’s good. But anything else is bad. I’m getting better at accepting myself; that I can still be pretty even though I don’t have Alessandra Ferri’s feet.
Do you have a lot of friends in the company?
Not really. I’m friends with everybody, but I don’t have best friends. I kind of like to be alone. It sounds kind of weird, but I do. It’s not that I’m thinking about something or doing something productive, but it’s just to be myself, alone, in a quiet place makes me feel relaxed. I need to be relaxed to be able to dance.