Paragons of Dance

Classic Arts Features   Paragons of Dance
 
American Ballet Theatre dancers Julie Kent and Paloma Herrera both celebrate major milestones this year. Herrera celebrates two decades with the company, and the season marks Kent's 25th year at ABT.


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It's a sunny winter day, and Paloma Herrera, the raven-haired Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theatre, is just back from vacation. Well, sort of a vacation. Granted, she was far from her Manhattan home, but she still took both ballet and yoga classes. Every day.

"I don't like vacations at all," Herrera concedes in lightly accented English. "I'm addicted to work. I'm happy when I'm working and performing." Putting in her time at the barre, she says, "is my moment to improve every day." It's a work ethic she's maintained since she was seven, when she skipped birthday parties to go to class in her native Argentina, and it goes a long way toward explaining why she is celebrating her 20th anniversary with ABT this spring. But even with two decades under her bun, she is not the company's most senior ballerina. That title belongs to Principal Julie Kent, Herrera's former dressing-roommate, who will be fê_ted this season for her 25 years as an ABT dancer.

Both women joined ABT as teenagers, and both have come to own the classical repertoire, but, as Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie says, "there would be no mistaking either for the other."

Herrera, a tiny but intense ball of energy, had come to New York City to study for six months at the School of American Ballet, where the Balanchine-infused style was in stark contrast to the classical Russian technique she'd learned in Buenos Aires. She heard that ABT was holding auditions on the day before she was returning home. "I had nothing to lose," she says. At the end of the audition, Jane Hermann, then-co-director, offered her a contract for the corps de ballet. "I left running, screaming, on the street." She was all of 15.

McKenzie was named Artistic Director soon after and quickly promoted Herrera to Soloist at 17 and then Principal Dancer when she was only 19. "Paloma, when I arrived, was literally a baby," McKenzie says. "With Paloma, I feel a little bit like a papa." McKenzie recalls her startling ability to stay on pointe absurdly long and execute a "ridiculous number of pirouettes."

"She had this ferocious need to excel. She had this fearless technique even when she was a child and still coltish and hadn't grown into her body," he says. "She's now such a beautiful woman and has developed into a ballerina with such command of the stage. There was a single-mindedness there called W-O-R-K. It's lovely to have seen her grow up and have a L-I-F-E. "

For her part, Herrera says, "I never felt I was pushed too soon. I always felt very taken care of." She does admit, however, that becoming a principal at 19 instantly propelled her into adulthood. "In some ways I felt like I was 40," she says with a laugh. "We all make choices. It was my choice."

Herrera has relished the opportunity to work with a slew of world-class choreographers, from William Forsythe and Alexei Ratmansky to Twyla Tharp. "How many ballets has Twyla Tharp choreographed on me? That's been incredible," she says. As have her partnerships. Early on she was frequently paired with Angel Corella, another spitfire, and they seemed to dance in the same language. Lately she has found a similar simpatico with Marcelo Gomes. "We could rehearse one day : he understands my body so well."

Off-stage, Herrera says she has never dated dancers. Her boyfriend of more than five years is an Argentine lawyer. "I love what I do but know there are other things in life," she says. "It's good not to live in a bubble."

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Paloma Herrera
photo by Rosalie O'Connor

On the very day that Herrera was made a Soloist, in 1993, Kent was promoted to Principal Dancer. She had joined ABT at 16, following an audition for Mikhail Baryshnikov, then the Company's Artistic Director. Kent recalls being surprisingly relaxed. "I knew if they took me, my dad wasn't going to let me go," she explains over a latte and a blueberry muffin on the Upper West Side. "It was an opportunity for Baryshnikov to see me."

Just seeing her, though, turned out not to be enough for Baryshnikov, who invited Kent on a brief tour of The Nutcracker. A few months later, while ABT was performing in Washington, D.C., Rachel Moore, then in the corps de ballet and now the Executive Director, twisted her ankle. Kent, who lived in nearby Maryland, was asked to fill in. "I came in early that morning and they taught me the part," she says. Baryshnikov offered Kent a corps contract. "I cried, 'I'm not ready, I'm not ready!'" Kent says, laughing at the memory. "I don't think he was expecting that reaction."

Graceful and elegant, with a delicate beauty, Kent rose quickly through the ranks. Promoting her, McKenzie says, was a "no-brainer." He saw his job as finding ways to challenge her by casting her against type.

"Julie has grown into one of the greatest dramatic artists we have," McKenzie says. "She's got that beautiful instrument and good, solid technique but has developed the ability to explore a character and make you care about a character. It takes a tremendous amount of imagination to go there."

Kent says that, though it may sound counterintuitive, dancing has actually gotten easier for her over the years, "because I know what I'm doing. If you can use your experience, and call on it and trust it, it can serve you well. There's a freedom." Kent is careful to add that she is still learning. "I think I danced one of my best Swan Lakes ever this past season. I wouldn't have been able to acknowledge that 10 years ago, but experience has given me that kind of perspective." Kent credits much of her education to Georgina Parkinson, the ABT ballet mistress who served as Kent's coach and died in 2009. "She was with me every moment of my career," Kent says.

Perhaps more than most dancers, Kent's life is inextricably tied to ABT. Her husband, Victor Barbee, is the Company's Associate Artistic Director. (They first got to know each other while rehearsing for "Dancers," the 1987 Baryshnikov flick). "Victor has added more to my life and career than anyone could imagine. His innate intelligence, sensitivity and artistic insight have always guided me." Eager to share what they consider the special community of ABT, the couple bring along their son, 7, and daughter, almost 2, on tour. "They've been all around the world," Kent says.

Kent seems a little stunned that 25 years have gone by. "It's not a given that you're going to make it to these milestones," she says appreciatively. "It is an accomplishment." Will there be a 30th anniversary? "I would be surprised, but I'm not ruling it out!"

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Julie L. Belcove, the former deputy editor of W magazine, is a freelance writer based in New York.

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