Hannah O’Neill joins the elite of the Prix Benois de la danse

The annual Prix Benois de la danse held at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, is a northern hemisphere event.

So it’s no surprise that since the inception of the Prix in 1992 most of its winners, or ‘laureates’ as they are titled, have been European dancers and choreographers, and the jury members over the years have also been from Europe or the United States.

Six of the eight jury members this year were from European countries, with the exceptions being Xiao Suhua, choreographer and professor in the department of choreography at the Beijing Dance Academy and Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce Theatre Foundation in New York. *

Throughout the history of the Benois de la danse, just one Australian has won the best female dancer award and only one winner of the best female dancer category has a New Zealand connection.

Australian born Kirsty Martin, the former principal dancer of the Australian Ballet, won in 2009 and this month, Hannah O’Neill, daughter of a New Zealand father and Japanese mother, won the top award for a female dancer for her performance in the title role in the ballet, Paquita.

Now a principal dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, O’Neill shared the honour with Alicia Amatriain, a principal dancer at the Stuttgart Ballet.

For O’Neill, 23, the award is a remarkable achievement.

Born in Tokyo she moved with her family to New Zealand when she was 8. At the age of 15 O’Neill furthered her training at the Australian Ballet School.

She considers herself a New Zealander and, she says, she inherited her athleticism from her father, Chris O’Neill, “because he was a rugby player, he played professionally in Japan”.

As the dux of the Australian Ballet School in 2011, O’Neill would have found a future career at the Australian Ballet but she had her mind set on Paris.

After winning a short-term contract at the Paris Opera Ballet she was taken into the company and was given a lifetime contract in 2013.

O’Neill’s achievement this month has been acknowledged in New Zealand but hasn’t made news in Australia perhaps because the award is not well known in Australia and in any case, the Aussies can’t really claim O’Neill as one of their own, despite her years at the Australian Ballet School.

So what is the Benois prize? The name refers to the Benois family of Russian artists, architects and musicians.

The statuette given to the Benois laureates was designed by the Parisian sculptor, Igor Ustinov, a member of the Benois family and the son of the late actor, Sir Peter Ustinov.

Ustinov’s mother was Nadezhda Benois, known as Nadia, a painter and ballet designer.

Nadia’s father, Leon, was an architect and Leon’s brother was Alexandre Benois, the stage designer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Initially, the Benois awards and performances by the laureates were held in various European cities but now Moscow has well and truly claimed the event as its own.

* The jury members change each year with the exception of the jury president, the Bolshoi Ballet choreographer and ballet master, Yuri Grigorovich, 89, who has been president every year since 1992.

The first jury members in 1992 were Grigorovich, Galina Ulanova, Carla Fracci, Kirsten Ralov, Yvette Chauvire, Rudolf Nureyev and John Neumeier.

In the history of the Benois, only eight jury members have been from Asia and only two from Australia, David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, and Stanton Welch, the Australian born artistic director of the Houston Ballet.

Only three Australians have been nominated in the dancer category, Margaret Illmann in 2000, and Kirsty Martin and Adam Bull in 2009, when the Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David McAllister, was a member of the jury.

Just one Australian choreographer has been nominated – Gideon Obarzanek in 1998.

The videos show O’Neill dancing in La Bayadere and Don Quixote.

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Mathias Heymann and Hannah O’Neill, La Bayadere, photo © Little Shao/Opéra national de Paris

Hannah O’Neill, Paquita, Paris Opera Ballet, photo © Laurent Philippe

Hannah O’Neill and Alicia Amatriain, Benois de la danse laureates 2016, for best female dancer, photo © Jack Devant

Yuri Grigorovich, president of the 2016 Benois de la danse jury and John Neumeier, awarded Lifetime Achievement, photo © M. Logvionv