Paloma Herrera's final performance of Giselle in 2015, like the rest of her 24-year career with American Ballet Theatre, was impeccable. The New York Times described her as "wonderfully musical, unexaggerated and unmannered," words that more or less encapsulate the quality of her dancing in a vast array of classical and contemporary works.
Now, just two years after her retirement and subsequent return to her native Argentina, she has a new role: director of her country's largest and most celebrated ballet company, the Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón. The company, founded in 1925, has around 100 dancers and a storied past—as well as a gorgeous home theater—but has been hobbled in recent years by meager seasons, labor strife and a crisis of confidence in its leadership.
Herrera's directorship was announced in a surprise press conference in February and she got to work right away. As she says, she has barely left the theater since.
So, what happened to the freedom you were looking forward to after your retirement?
I know! Where did it go? I'm in rehearsals and then, during my breaks, I'm in the office, and afterwards I stay late answering emails. I have no life! But I'm happy.
How did the appointment come about?
It was a total surprise. María Victoria Alcaraz, the Colón's general director, contacted me at the beginning of the year to tell me they were looking to completely replace the artistic team at the opera house. Once I understood her vision and could see that they really wanted to make a change, I was interested.
I gave them a long list and said that if these things couldn't be accomplished, I wouldn't take the job, because it wasn't something I needed or wanted. I was perfectly happy teaching, coaching, traveling.
What were the conditions?
Some things are more immediate and some of them will take time. First of all, the dancers need to dance more, including tours. [For the 2017 season, the ballet company is scheduled for only 27 performances.] Then there's the issue that the dancers need more coaching. And then there's the question of retirement age. [The federal retirement age is 65, which makes it hard to hire new, younger dancers.] No one wins with the situation we have now.
But the retirement age is beyond your control, isn't it?
We're discussing different options with the authorities. It's a complex problem, but I'm determined to change it, because that will change the expectations of the dancers, and help them value what they have. There have to be opportunities for everyone. The best person—the one who works the most and deserves it the most—will be chosen for each role.
How were you received by the company?
It was incredible. Already on the first day the dancers put in a great effort, with lots of energy and a positive attitude. They've been amazing. I hope it continues. I talk to them a lot, and I'm brutally honest, about the good things and the things I don't agree with.
You've just written a memoir, haven't you?
Yes! It's called Mi Intense Vida [My Intense Life], and it was presented in May at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair. Writing it was an intense experience, in every sense.
Have you found it difficult to see yourself as the leader of a company?
You know what? I haven't. Not at all. I use the same formula that served me well during my entire career. It's simple: pure hard work, and a love for what we do.