What makes a dancer, or any artist, great?
Talent just gets you in the door.
Desire only takes you so far.
Those 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell made famous?
Necessary but not sufficient.
The real key to success in the arts, and perhaps any demanding field, is a willingness to impose on oneself radically higher standards than the world around you might set.
Seo Hye Han, a principal dancer with Boston Ballet who will dance Aurora for the first time in Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty, running now through May 27 at the Boston Opera House, exemplifies living by those self-imposed standards.
Han dances with such exquisite grace that it’s unfair to say she makes it look easy. Instead, she makes it look perfect. And to achieve that level of perfection, she pays a huge price.
Han knew from the time she was eight years old that she wanted to be a professional dancer. She grew up in South Korea and her parents were deeply supportive of her desire.
By her late teens, Han had sacrificed enough to become one of the world’s top dance prospects, winning a competition in Switzerland, which afforded her a scholarship to study dance in Russia.
“South Koreans are very family-oriented,” Seo says. “It was very hard to leave my family, but Russia offered such great training that I couldn’t say no.”
Han settled in Boston in 2013, where she became a member of the internationally-focused Boston Ballet. The life of a dancer is grueling, with performers typically notching 11-hour days including practice, rehearsals, classes, stretching, and working out.
Initially deeply homesick, Han recreated a sense of family with her fellow Boston Ballet dancers.
“Everyone is from all over the world,” she says. “We are all away from our families. So we get together – I’ll cook Korean food one night, a Brazilian dancer will cook Brazilian food the next night. It’s fun.”
The life is also exhausting.
“You have to remember to smile, even though you are absolutely physically exhausted,” she says. “Sometimes I see pictures of myself dancing, and I remember how exhausted I was when they took that photo, and I say to myself, ‘I don’t remember smiling, but I was.’
Learning ballets isn’t easy, either.
“It’s all muscle memory,” Han says. “It’s not about using your brain. It’s about teaching your body to remember each move. You cannot rely on your brain in a performance. Your body has to know everything.”
So what does Han think about during performances?
“Details,” she says. “Are my feet pointed the right way? Are my hands where they should be? I’m always thinking about improving.”
This season alone, Han’s exacting standards have brought her leading roles in Ivan Liška’s Le Corsaire, Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker, William Forsythe’s Artifact, and now Marius Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty.
“It’s like Giselle,” Han says of her Sleeping Beauty character. “Aurora changes so much over the course of the ballet that it feels you are dancing multiple roles. In the first act she is young and it’s very technical. Lots of jumps. In the second act she is more mature, so there is more acting. The third act is more technical again. It’s a lot of work to get it right.”
Is there one role Han has not yet danced?
“Juliet,” she says, smiling. “I want to know what it feels like to dance the role of Juliet.” And she may get her chance as Boston Ballet will present Romeo and Juliet next season (March 15-April 8, 2018).
“I know that ballet isn’t forever. I don’t want to be doing this while I am still 40. This is my time, and I understand the effort it takes. I’m happy to do it. I’m living my dream, despite the exhaustion and despite living so far from my family. We Facetime all the time. But if it’s what you want, you pay the price.”
Boston Ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, Boston Opera House, now through May 27. For tickets and information, BostonBallet.org.