She may be the principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre, but Seo Hee didn’t always have such lofty ambitions.
As a student at Sunhwa Arts Middle School, she simply wanted to be part of a group of friends who would go out to eat tteokbokki (stir-fried spicy rice cake) after class.
Having started ballet at a relatively late age of 13, she was shy and timid, thinking she fell behind her classmates.
However, things began to change when it turned out she took the third place at a school performance test when everyone had expected her to come in last.
“Friends started to want to spend time with me,” said Seo, speaking during a lecture about her experience as a ballet dancer held at Seoul Cyber University on Monday.
“That was when I realized the power of ballet, something like a medium that one could achieve many things with, as long as I am good at it.”
Seo Hee speaks at Seoul Cyber University on Monday. (Seoul Cyber University)
She soon left for the US and Germany to study ballet, spending the rest of her teenage years overseas. During that period, she won Prix de Lausanne and Youth America Grand Prix, which ultimately led her to join the American Ballet Theatre in 2005.
Seo quickly rose through the ranks at ABT, becoming a soloist in 2010 and a principal dancer in 2012, the first Asian principal dancer at the ballet company.
But she achieved that title too quickly -- before she could think deeply about what kind of ballet dancer she wanted to be, Seo said.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself, thinking that I have to keep up with people’s expectations,” she said, adding that the workload of at least 30 to 40 performances a year gave her little time for reflection. “I was a type of a person who loved practicing so much that I did not go to bed … but the happiness I used to feel seemed to have disappeared.”
Seo overcame the slump after she realized she would never be free from the responsibilities and pressures, and learned how to manage it instead, by focusing on herself, not on what others thought about her performance. “Then I truly become the character that I performed,” she said.
“My strongest weapon is the fact that whether I sink or swim, I have continued my career and did my best, spending half of my life in one field -- ballet,” Seo said. “For me, the most difficult thing is to do my best every day, and confidence comes when I actually did my best on the day.”
Seo was given a chance to think about how to use her power, power that typically comes with success, when she was asked that question at an ABT sponsors’ event.
“After thought about it, I determined that I will live an ethical life,” Seo said. “I hope every word and action that I take has a kind influence on others, which will ultimately lead to my becoming good ballet dancer as well.” -Hee Seo Foundation-
In 2015, Seo established Hee Seo Foundation in Korea to help underprivileged prospective ballet dancers in rural areas receive training through a program called HSF Master Class.
Seo visits Korea every summer for the program. This summer, she met about 400 students by visiting eight private ballet institute. The HAF Master Class has been running for five years, reaching out to more than 1,000 students.
“This is something natural to me,” Seo said. “I have received so much help and support from people. … I am really pleased when I work for the foundation.”
The foundation is still small and consist of some five people who are all volunteers. Most of the fund raising takes place in the US, she said.
Seo has also put a lot of effort into having Korea host a regional contest for YAGP, renowned global ballet competition for the 9 to 19-year-old group, to help young aspiring Korean ballet dancers take the regional contest here instead of traveling to New York. Now, those who pass the regional contest here travel to the US for the finals.
“Talent alone doesn’t complete a successful dancer,” Seo said. “Whether they have passion or perseverance is the key, which is actually more important than the talent they have at the moment,” she said.
“What I tell people is that not to compare themselves with others,” Seo said. “I realized that one becomes a real artist when one starts to recognize that one has different strengths from others and that people are all different.”
By Park Yuna (email@example.com)