New Facets on a Gem

April 27, 2009

Fifteen years ago, Paloma Herrera was an 18-year-old American Ballet Theatre soloist who had audiences at her feet and critics showering praise. Her exhilaratingly polished debut as the ballerina in Balanchine’s challenging Theme and Variations led The New York Times’ Anna Kisselgoff to proclaim the young Argentine the “spirit of rebirth” at ABT.


Her career took off at warp speed. At 19, Herrera became the youngest female principal in ABT’s history. She earned her star status in the 1990s as a whiz kid of the tutu-and-tiara classics, such as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, the fiery Kitri in Don Quixote, the doomed Nikiya or the evil Gamzatti in La Bayadère—roles that demand stamina, virtuosity, and a body that flows and arches in poetic beauty. The question was, would this poised prodigy succumb to the too-much-too-soon syndrome? For the most part, the answer is a resounding no.


Herrera considers herself a work in progress. She insists she has been evolving since she was 7 and credits her first teacher, Olga Ferri, for her strong technique. A year later she enrolled—one of 15 out of 500 applicants—at the official ballet school of the Teatro Colón. She continued to study with Ferri, who, Herrera says, “made us go on pointe with no pointe shoes to strengthen our legs and feet.” At 10 she could whip off 32 fouettés on pointe. “It was too early, but turned out OK,” says Herrera philosophically.


Because of her prodigious talents, Herrera was put on the ballet competition circuit at age 9. “I did not like competitions at all,” she says. “I had to compete like an athlete and not as an artist.” If ballet had been an Olympic event the young prodigy would have earned more medals than Michael Phelps.


But this grueling regimen toughened her up. When she enrolled in the School of American Ballet at 15, the shift to the Balanchine style was startling, but she took to it like the proverbial duck to water. In the spring of 1991, after only six months at the school, Herrera performed the lead in Raymonda Variations at the annual SAB workshop performance. Then, on a whim, she attended an ABT audition and signed a contract on the spot. The rest is history.


Over the years Herrera has amassed a huge repertory. Although she was known as an exemplar of classical roles, she created parts in many contemporary ballets. Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of ABT, praises her adaptability. “Paloma’s body just hones in on a particular or quirky choreographer’s style. And she is able to grab on to the most difficult music and make something happen.”


When William Forsythe came to ABT to set his off-kilter ballet workwithinwork, Herrera says, “I discovered a whole new way of moving my body, and I enjoyed it—although I was sore after rehearsals.”


In Lauri Stallings’ idiosyncratic new ballet last fall, Citizen, Herrera portrays a wild thing, an outsider. She skitters stiff-legged around the stage, randomly scissoring her arms, and projects a stark kind of lyricism in her duets with David Hallberg. Stallings, somewhat awed by Herrera, says, “It’s intriguing to watch Paloma digest the music and wrap the movement around her. She works in musical phrases, not counts. To clarify the role for herself, Paloma kept asking questions about specific ways to do the movement.”


Herrera also gave her input on the costume, which she felt was confining. By showing the designer bits of the choreography, she helped edit the costume down to a scanty two-piece that showed off a toned midriff and freed up her torso.


Early in her career, Herrera confesses, “I was such a bun-head, and nobody really trusted me that I could do these modern ballets. Twyla was the first who gave me opportunities while I was still a soloist.” Tharp cast her in How Near Heaven, in which she is tossed around like a rag doll. As the girl in red pointe shoes in In the Upper Room, her beautifully arched feet highlight the fleet footwork. Brief Fling—a tongue-in-cheek Scottish romp—brings out the breezy bravura and chemistry between Herrera and Marcelo Gomes. Tharp’s latest work for ABT, Rabbit and Rogue, paired Herrera with Jose Manuel Carreño in a stylishly intertwining pas de deux.


Tharp calls Herrera a “massive talent” and appreciates how natural she is in her work. “Today,” Tharp contends, “Paloma is at the height of her artistic powers. It is where she has worked her entire life to be.”


Her ascent was not without its pitfalls. In the 1990s she was cast in an overload of taxing ballets, earning her the label of the “Olympic ballerina” among critics. (“The truth is,” says McKenzie, “that great dancers can develop faster than great artists.”) Early in 1999 Herrera’s back was ailing, a condition that recurred when she was overworked. She went home to Argentina and her family to rest and rethink her priorities. Her mother and father, a lawyer who oversees her contracts, and sister, also a lawyer, are her safe haven. After about a month she returned, renewed and invigorated.


Since then she practices yoga religiously and tries to limit her guest appearances to gigs she really wants to do—for instance Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Teatro Colón, and Angel Corella’s new company in Spain.


At ABT she often performs with principal Marcelo Gomes, and the two mesh seamlessly. “Paloma is an extremely strong technician, like I’ve never seen before,” says Gomes. “I barely have to partner her because she is so on her legs.” But it’s also Herrera’s spirit that he responds to. “She has so much joy being in the studio, and onstage. She is a really hard worker, a strong lady. It would take a lot to take her down.”


No one keeps a sharper eye on Herrera’s progress than her coach Irina Kolpakova, the former Kirov ballerina. Since Herrera’s first day at ABT, she has been molded by Kolpakova in the classics. “Paloma has become ballerina at top of ballet art,” Koplakova says in her heavy Russian accent. “She is natural in her life and in her communication with her audience. I love this. But she not stopping. She wants to learn to be more dramatic. To work with someone so open and willing to work is wonderful, absolutely.”


In recent years Herrera has found new colors and nuances in classical roles, possibly because she’s absorbed Kolpakova’s coaching more in the last five years. Her upper body has loosened, and her epaulment is freer. As Aurora, she is a giddy teenager flirting with her four cavaliers in the Rose Adagio while nonchalantly balancing on pointe. “I never believe in showing off technique, but you have to have it,” she says. “It is the only thing that gives you the freedom to do whatever you want onstage.”


“Paloma is reaching a whole new plateau,” says McKenzie. “Her artistry has caught up with her amazing gifts. The sort of electric energy that she had as a young little thing—she has grown four inches since she joined ABT—was so seductive and attractive and the press ate it up.” He knows that Herrera aspires to more dramatic roles like Manon and says, “Manon is definitely on the horizon for Paloma.”


Many prodigies flame out under the glare of the spotlight, but not Herrera. Her inner strength keeps her motivated, and her deep love of dancing helps her survive the ebb and flow of a long, stellar career and revitalize her drive.


This spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House (May 18 to July 11), Herrera will debut in a new staging of On the Dnieper by ABT’s resident choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. She will dance Giselle with guest artist Roberto Bolle, as well as Romeo and Juliet, Sylvia, Swan Lake, and more.


Today Herrera, 33, is perched in the catbird seat. Once again the spotlight shines on her but this time more as an artist, and the glare is muted. And she is happily in love with Fernando Aldazabal, a fellow Argentine and a lawyer, who knew little about ballet before he met her. Now he sits in the front row at the Met at each of Herrera’s performances.


As for her future, “I think there is another breakthrough for Paloma,” says McKenzie. “She now has a perspective on life. She has a life, and dancing is part of it instead of the end all and be all. Paloma is a perfectionist, which is good and bad. But sometimes you have to be human and forgive yourself, because that is where artists emerge from.”


Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to
Dance Magazine, Playbill, Pointe, and other publications.

From top: Herrera in costume for Lauri Stallings’
Citizen. Photo by Matthew Karas; as Nikiya in La Bayadère. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT; in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations with Marcelo Gomes. Photo by Hidemi Seto, Courtesy ABT; with Jose Manuel Carreño in Kirk Peterson’s The Howling Cat. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.