It’s about 2 p.m. on a warm summer day in Seoul, and ballerina Seo Hee walks into the lobby of the Universal Ballet Company. Wearing a sleek black dress with matching stilettos and pearl earrings, the 26-year-old dancer looks poised and demure.
This is the place where the ballerina, who is now the principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre, used to hang out as a teenager more than 10 years ago.
“I used to climb the walls to sneak into the building,” says Seo, walking down the aisle of the building located close to her alma mater, Sun-hwa Arts Middle School.
|Ballerina Seo Hee poses for a photo at Universal Arts Center in Seoul on Monday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)|
Last week, the dancer returned to the Seoul-based troupe’s rehearsal studio to give ballet lessons to aspiring dancers. This is where she chose to be after experiencing what must have been the most overwhelming month of her life. In just the space on a month, she was promoted to the American troupe’s principal dancer and finished her first Asian tour ― Taipei and Seoul ― as a prima ballerina.
“There are a lot of things for me to do (since I’ve become the principal dancer),” says Seo.
“I was very happy and comfortable as a soloist for the last two years. I was learning a lot and really felt like I was progressing. The promotion came as a total surprise because I didn’t expect it to happen at all. The position is something that I’ve always wanted, and throughout my life I very often questioned whether or not I’d be able to achieve it. Now that I’ve become where I wanted to be, I think my goal is to live up to the reputation of my title.”
Since moving to the U.S. to train at the Universal Ballet Academy in Washington D.C. in 2000, at the age of 14, Seo has been living alone overseas. She joined the ABT studio in 2004, became a member of the corps de ballet in March 2006 and was promoted to soloist in August 2010. She made her leading-role debut as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” in July of 2009, when she was only a corps de ballet member. The 2009 show was also the leading-role debut for her partner, Cory Stearns.
“Both Cory and I were very nervous the day before our debut,” remembers Seo.
“We had dinner together, told each other to get a good night’s sleep, and went to our own rooms in the hotel we were staying in. But I could not sleep because I was so excited. Turns out, Cory could not sleep either. He called me up again, saying he could not sleep, and we ended up going out for some desert. Together we went over the choreography of the show while having ice cream. It’s one of the memories that I’m most fond of, and I still enjoy performing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Cory the most.”
Though Seo enjoyed training in the U.S. so much that she didn’t even want to return to Seoul during her summer breaks, things haven’t been always easy for the dancer. But she is the product of a happy, loving family, Seo says, and it is her appreciation for her family that made her interested in other things in life, aside from ballet. She regularly supports children in need of foster-care, is keen on environmental issues and recycling, and has a teaching certificate for Gyrotonic, an exercise modality.
“I was injured a number of years ago to a degree that I couldn’t dance at all,” she says. “My mom called and said, ‘Just come home in Korea. You can’t dance even if you are in New York anyways. Just enjoy your mom’s food and relax.’ I was so devastated that I didn’t even want to go home. But when I did, I was surprised how nice it was to be with the family. I felt very fortunate to have the people who’d love me unconditionally no matter what. And the experience made me think about the ones who don’t have the kind of support and care I get from my parents.”
Among the many renowned living dancers, Seo says she admires ABT’s long-time principal Julie Kent for her balance in life. The award-winning dancer, who joined ABT in 1986, is also a mother of two children. She famously danced on stage during ABT’s 2003 fall season while pregnant with her first son, William.
“My family is the biggest blessing of my life,” says Seo, who confesses she is often “scared” that she loves ballet so much that she often lets it dominate her life.
“My parents are a very happy couple and I’d love to raise a family of my own like them someday. I’ve talked to Julie about balancing life and family. She told me that after living for herself (and her career) for 16 years, she one day realized she is ready to experience other things in life. She told me not to plan things ahead, and the moment will naturally come and I’ll be able to make my decisions.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)