• Kristyn Burtt

Herman Cornejo Isn’t Letting 20 Years At American Ballet Theatre Slow Him Down

Updated: Apr 26


American Ballet Theater principal dancer, Herman Cornejo, is having a very big year. This month, he was honored with the prestigious Positano Premia la Danza 2018 Award in Positano, Italy. He joins the ranks of other notable dancers like Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova, who have also received the award. 

More: ABT's Sarah Lane Gets Real: Her First Season as a Principal Dancer

Next year, Herman will be celebrating his 20th anniversary with ABT next year. After joining the company in 1999, he quickly rose through the ranks to principal dancer within four years. But this big milestone in the dance industry isn’t slowing him down one bit.  

Dance Network recently spoke with Herman about his career and the changes he’s seen over the past two decades, his love for ballet and how social media has changed the game in the ballet world.  

More: Petra Conti & Eris Nezha Are Ready to Reinvent the L.A. Ballet Scene

Dance Dish: You recently performed at the Muse Ique Festival in Pasadena, California dancing Twyla Tharp’s ‘Sinatra Suite’ to a live orchestra for the first time ever! Share what that experience was like. 

Herman Cornejo: It was amazing. It was the first time Sinatra Suite was performed live because Twyla Tharp never gave permission to do it without the recordings. This time, they promised they would take Sinatra's voice out of the original recordings, so you have Sinatra singing with a live orchestra.  

DD: What inspires you about Twyla Tharp's choreography? 

Herman: It was created in the '80s and it's still an amazing piece. I think Sinatra Suite is a timeless piece. Interestingly enough, even though it's Sinatra singing about his wife and the relationship they had and it was created for [Mikhail] Baryshnikov, you would think it would have to be done a specific way. It's actually a piece you can make your own and put things that happened in your own life. Twyla gives you the opportunity to do that and that's really nice. Twyla has an amazing eye and view for that. It lets you reach deep inside yourself. 

DD: What are some of the challenges of Twyla Tharp's movement? 

Herman: There's a piece I'm going to do again with ABT called In The Upper Room. It's one of those pieces you have to think ahead. You can't be late in the music, you have to really focus on what's next because of the speed of the movement.  

It's very exciting because the audience can see how hard this piece is. It's nice to be doing something hard and the audience understands that.  

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DD: What do 20 years mean to you at American Ballet Theatre? 

Herman: I think the fact that ABT was my dream from the beginning and I knew American Ballet Theatre through Julio Bocca [former principal dancer at ABT]. In that time in South America, we didn't have the Internet, so the information was limited. So I learned about it through Julio and it became my dream company. Just to be able to join them when I was 17 years old — it was magical. I never want to leave that dream. 

DD: What has been the hardest part about your time with the company? 

Herman: Of course, in 20 years, you have ups and downs and there are moments that you are pushing and you don't know if it's going to happen. But I look back and realize it happened really, really fast. It happened fast because I pushed and I was ready to do the things.  

When I was a soloist, I was scared to get stuck in those roles and it took a lot for me to prove to [ABT artistic director] Kevin [MacKenzie] with my height because he saw me as a short dancer. I showed him I could do the lead roles and lead the company around the world, but I am fortunate that Kevin saw that and he gave me the opportunity to do it. 

DD: What advice would you give to young dancers who are being told that their height is an issue? 

Herman: Height is not an issue and I think it happened to me because Kevin is a tall man and was a tall dancer. His inclination may be to like tall dancers, but if look at Baryshnikov or Fernando Bujones, both short dancers and some of the best dancers in the world. In my time with Kevin, I had to push for that and fight for my opportunities. 

I did it in a respectful way. I never told Kevin he was right or wrong. Every knock he had on his door was asking him to consider me. I always took the criticism in a good way and it might not even be my height. It might be having the right partner. That’s a plus to have Xiomara Reyes, now Sarah Lane and Misty Copeland. And the guest dancers that I've had in the last 20 years like Alina Cojocaru, Alessandra Ferri, Natalia Osipova and Evgenia Obraztsova have been amazing for my career and my life.  

DD: What's been the biggest change you've seen ABT in two decades? 

Herman: I think the biggest change took place when [Alexei] Ratmansky took the position of the resident choreographer. I think that was a big change for the company choreographically and in the style of ABT. He brought a style to the company that I can't say I support that or not. I think he has done beautiful work for the company. 

In a way, though, it's preventing new creations from different choreographers, which I regret because I would love to be working with more choreographers on different things. Certainly, that was one of the biggest changes for ABT. 

DD: What is the best thing the ballet world is doing right now? 

Herman: I think the evolution is a consequence of the new dancers. I think of it as waves. Before I joined ABT, it was a wave of Russian dancers. The company was filled with Russians in the lead roles, so it had a way of dancing and performing.  

When I joined the company, we had about 25 Hispanic dancers out of 90. I think that changed how the company looked onstage. Today, a big percentage is Asian. So those are the moments where things change, so the approach of the ballet and deviations to the dance is how it is presented to the audience. The dancers who are in the company with different backgrounds bring new interpretations to the roles.  

DD: How has social media impacted your career? 

Herman: Social media is a great way to be informed. I know the new generation might spend too much time on their phone. But when I came from Argentina, I only came here knowing ABT and I didn't know any dancers other than Bocca, Baryshnikov and Nureyev. 

Yet the younger generation also needs to learn to pay attention to what is happening in front of them. I see that in the studio and in the performances. They really need to look at what's happening in rehearsals and come to performances more to appreciate the principal dancers in the moment and see it live. You can learn more.  

DD: Do you have an idea about what your career looks like in the next five-to-seven years? 

Herman: I think now I am at the peak of my career and I really want to absorb new choreography and go around the world to different companies to gain knowledge. I want to be a director in the future, but it is something that takes a lot of work. It's something I want to do after I stop dancing. It's a totally different job from working as a dancer to an artistic director — it's important to understand the needs of a company. Being a director is definitely in my mind in 10 years. 

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