Amongst American Ballet Theatre’s roster of stars, Herman Cornejo is surely one of the brightest. The Argentinian virtuoso is a veteran principal who has danced most roles in the repertory to critical acclaim and, as he approaches his 20th year with the company, he has just added another accolade: Dancer of the Year at Positano Premia La Danza. We caught up with Herman by email a few weeks before the prestigious gala ceremony:
TBB: First of all, congratulations on being recognized by the Positano Premia La Danza as Dancer of the Year. What does this award mean to you at this stage in your career?
Herman Cornejo: It is definitely very pleasant to be recognized for what you are doing. It is a recognition that was given to such icons of dance as Nureyev and Fracci. I am also celebrating 20 years with American Ballet Theatre in 2019 and this award comes at a very special moment. I always say that prizes don’t make you a better dancer, but, they do give you a certain confidence in your work and it is indeed an inner joy to receive them. I take these prizes as a reminder that what I do has been seen and valued around the world.
TBB: You have worked with some of the world’s most notable choreographers. Can you tell us a bit about your favourite roles and favourite works?
HC: I have done almost the whole repertory of the classic ballets with ABT and I can say that La Bayadère became one of my favorite ballets to perform, alongside with Romeo & Juliet and Giselle. I attribute this to the amazing score. Music is what drives my dancing most of the times. In the contemporary repertory that has been created already, the ballets by Jerome Robbins are the ones I enjoy the most, not only because they are beautiful pieces, but also because they feel very comfortable and natural in my body. That being said, probably the most rewarding pieces to dance, are the ones created especially for you. As a dancer, it is the most special gift you can get. I consider myself very lucky to have been choreographed on by Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky, Jorma Elo, Martha Clarke, Wayne McGregor, Demis Volpi, Natalie Weir, Russell Maliphant, Stanton Welch, and most recently, by Justin Peck [Rise Wait Climb Through]. Each one has not only projected a piece of myself, but they have also given me a piece of them. There is a very special connection between the choreographer and your deep self. Creations are a conjunction of abilities, emotions, reality and dreams. Making a collaboration with the choreographer, designers, and musicians, to craft a new little artistic world embodied in a piece is a unique experience.
TBB: Can you tell us about your time going home to Argentina and dancing at the iconic Teatro Colón? What does it mean to dance in your home country?
HC: When I was at school at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, it was almost inevitable that you would pursue your future in a company elsewhere. A dancer in the company would not retire before he or she was 65, leaving almost no space for the new generation to join the company. For me, to be able to return to the theatre where I grew up, is always a very emotional experience. I went back home to perform a full-length ballet for the first time under the direction of Maximiliano Guerra. He was actually the artist who inspired me to pursue ballet at 8 years old, when I saw him perform Spartacus.
My second guesting was under the direction of my former colleague, friend and partner (on one occasion), Paloma Herrera. My next appearance will be in August of 2019 as James in La Sylphide. This was my first full length ballet, when I was 18 years old. I remember it well, because it was a tour organized by Maximiliano Guerra and his company Ballet del Mercosur. It was a tour within Argentina, performing 28 shows in 30 days, with my sister Erica as the Sylph. We were young then.
TBB: You are going to be celebrating 20 years with ABT. Looking back, what have been some of the challenges you faced, and what are you currently focusing on?
HC: Looking back now, I can say that everything happened rather fast for me. I was promoted to Principal at only 22 years old. But, in my 20 years with the company, I had to really fight for what I have now. I was considered a short dancer for the company. At the beginning of my contract as an apprentice, I was given the soloist roles, which was definitely a recognition of my ability, but my fear was to get stuck in these roles in the eye of my director. I had to push and wait to do the leading roles. I was lucky to have Xiomara Reyes in the company, a partner who matched my height and so I was given the opportunity to lead. I seized the chance to prove to my director that I could be one of ABT’s male leaders. Xiomara and I had a phenomenal partnership for ten years and after she retired, I have had amazing partners to share this journey, like Alessandra Ferri, Natalia Osipova, Alina Cojocaru, Evgenia Obraztsova, Maria Kochetkova and my loving ABT resident partners: Sarah Lane, Misty Copeland, Skylar Brandt and Cassandra Trenary.
The next role I am looking forward to debuting in is Des Grieux in Manon. My goal for now is simply to prepare for my next performance and to keep creating roles with exciting choreographers. Maybe one day in the far future, I would like to become the director of a company, to carry out the many ideas I have come up with all along my years as a dancer. Maybe one day, ABT. That’d be another dream come true!
TBB: How do you think ballet has changed in the last two decades?
HC: The essence of ballet per se does not change. Dancers, for a fact, do. And also technique and the intersection with medical knowledge of the body, some athletic inspiration that dance has taken along the way have made ballet look different. To see this evolution and changes throughout he years is very amusing. In ballet, as with many other art forms and, I dare to say, as in sports, there are waves of styles, fashions, habits, genres, ways to move the body according to this or that school, this or that choreographer. For instance, before I joined ABT, the company had a significant amount of Russians in the company and as leading dancers. The influence of their style was very clear. When I joined, and more specifically around the year 2000, we had 25 Hispanic dancers, who also influenced a particular way to work. Today, Asians are a large portion of the company, which also shapes a perspective. This inevitably changes the way ballet is performed, due to the different schools and cultures intertwined in everyday life at the company.
These days, ballet technique has improved significantly. If not balanced, this can potentially get dancers a bit distracted in the effort of achieving great tricks, which attracts the attention of big audiences. Dancers are usually now compared to athletes. The line is very thin to become something else than an artist, which is what we are. I personally don’t feel or think that way. I think we have a complete different approach and goal. I do not feel athleticism is in the essence of ballet. We do train our bodies in a physical way, but we deliver on stage something completely different. When a dancer really gives an outstanding performance of pure soul and real chemistry with the partner, the audience can see and appreciate this more than any technical virtuosity.
TBB: How do you see the role of social media in dance, how do you see things evolving there?
HC: Most people tend to say, that “art is not like before” or life has grown poorer and more superficial. My parents said that as well, and so did my grandparents. It seems that we are never happy in the present life, we do nothing to prevent the evolution for the future and yet, we always want to live in the past. Things will always evolve and eventually change: we just need to use these technological advances for the good reasons.
Before I moved to New York, when I was 16 years old, I had no information about companies or dancers around the world besides ABT and famous names like Baryshnikov. After the internet, I learned so much. Not necessarily about the past, but about the present. Now, I actually have a wider view, I can have my own opinion about so many things I could not have access to before. And, when used interestingly, it gives me the power to show my work just the way I want. You can use it as yet another channel for creativity. I think that’s amazing.