What happens to companies when their stars retire?
Paloma Herrera will dance her final performance with ABT on May 27. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.
Shouts of “Brava!” will accompany a number of ballerinas when they take their final bows this summer. American Ballet Theatre’s Paloma Herrera, Xiomara Reyes and Julie Kent will soon dance their final performances with the company: Herrera in the May 27 matinee performance of Giselle; Reyes in the same ballet that evening; and Kent in Romeo and Juliet on June 20. Carla Körbes will also retire, from Pacific Northwest Ballet, on June 7 (in a program to be announced).
Körbes, 33, has been a dynamic presence at PNB. “With Carla it’s not about the pirouettes, jumps, feet, extension—though that’s all there,” says artistic director Peter Boal. “It’s about these higher levels of humanity, a graciousness, a generosity—the rapport she develops with a corps de ballet around her and the partner she’s dancing with.”
When ballerinas retire, it has an impact on a company. Corps members emulate them. Choreographers tailor roles for them. They sell tickets. They create an esthetic and often mentor younger dancers. But as physics states, nature abhors a vacuum, and younger dancers rise to the occasion. “I think you’ll see a shift,” says Boal. “There are other PNB dancers with a fan base. There are choreographers who were very excited to create for Carla. When they got here, they discovered somebody else as well.” Boal has also hired back Noelani Pantastico, who will return as a principal this November.
At ABT, Herrera has established her own commanding charisma since joining as a brilliant 15-year-old prodigy in 1991, then later as a fully blossomed ballerina. Several reasons led to her decision to retire: a desire to leave the stage while still dancing with full-tilt energy; her enjoyment in teaching and coaching younger dancers; and “feeling kind of like a dinosaur” regarding the social media frenzy that now shapes ballet careers. In recalling former ABT stars who retired, she says: “It was a huge thing when Alessandra Ferri retired. I cried more when she retired than when I told Kevin McKenzie I was retiring. For me she’s always been a huge role model.”
Boal recognizes that although ballet companies try to delegate roles equitably among dancers, stars do emerge and those retirements can be heartbreaking. “But it can’t be a one-ballerina company, even though people gravitate to that.” Körbes assumed a sort of stardom that former PNB ballerina Patricia Barker had before. “Somebody does emerge in the public’s eye and the public appoints them prima ballerina,” he adds. “We certainly don’t.”
Herrera has no regrets about her 24-year career at ABT. After doing a farewell tour this fall in Argentina, she will turn 40 in December. “And then it will be a whole new life,” she says. “I’ve been part of an era—an incredible era. I enjoyed it. Now it’s a new generation.” —Joseph Carman
Carla Körbes tells Gigi Berardi why she chose to retire at the peak of her career.
Why step down now?
I’m fortunate to have danced many different roles, 75 leads at New York City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet combined. Yet, the flip-flop between contemporary and classical is demanding—it’s getting more difficult for my body to change gears between styles. I want to leave while I’m still comfortable performing—and not frustrated that I can’t do the ballets that I want.
Has this affected your approach to the current season?
In the beginning, yes. I felt a lot of pressure. I realized this is the last time I will be performing big ballets with a big company. I’d tell myself ‘People are talking,’ ‘This is the last time I premiere a work by…’ I was throwing myself off. So, I let go a bit. Now I give 125 percent onstage.
Any qualms about retiring?
Financially, it’s stressful. I’m trusting that I’m going to figure it out. I certainly figured it out when I was 16 in New York.
I don’t know. I certainly don’t have the expectation that the next thing I’m going to do is going to feel the same way as I do onstage. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity. Many people don’t get to have this much fun in a lifetime.
Catch Körbes as the artist in residence at Vail International Dance Festival, which runs July 27–August 10.
Above: Körbes in Swan Lake. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.