Upon turning seven years old, Paloma Herrera’s father already had plans made for her to attend a ballet school in the then–Soviet Union, in Minsk, Belarus. She was prodigious, conspicuously talented even at such an early stage, in her native Argentina, where she studied with the great Olga Ferri. At the age of 15, Herrera was off to the American Ballet Theatre, where her career, about to end in retirement in late 2015, was distinguished from the first moment, being added to the corps de ballet almost immediately, a soloist soon after, and prima ballerina by the age of 19.
Precocious, apparently, but clearly she is a special dancer. In a few moments taken from a mentoring class with a few enthused and fortunate young dancers from the Goh Ballet Academy, Herrera says, “I was so unaware, really, at the age of 15, basically still a baby.” She pauses, looks at her students. “I was the happiest person in the world.” She went from triumph to triumph, and has graced many of the world’s great ballet stages, performing the iconic central masterpieces of the genre, along with her fair share of more contemporary works.
She remains, even with her self-imposed retirement looming, a passionate, not at all jaded artist, thoughtful, appreciative of her life in ballet. “It has been a fulfilling career. Special each day. When I began, I knew it was a career with a relatively short life-span. Ballet is very demanding, physically, emotionally, and takes a lot of discipline. All along I knew it would have to end one day, but I did not over-think it. I would know when it is time to stop.”
Still, the nearly 25 years of professional dancing have yielded magnificent results, all part of her dedication, and yes, ambition. Ambition though, is defined in this case as wanting to improve every time out. “Every time I leave the stage after a performance, I want to get back out there and do it again, because I have just learned in that last performance how to improve it.” So, for example, her role in Don Quixote, which she first performed nearly 20 years ago, acts, in her mind, as a kind of bookend in her career, since she is again preparing for it, for a series of performances later this year.
Herrera’s roles include, among a voluminous list: Mathilda Kchessinska in Anastasia; the title role in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella; Kitri in Don Quixote; Giselle in Giselle; Clara, the Princess, in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker; Juliet in Romeo and Juliet; Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty; Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, all for American Ballet Theatre. She has been a guest artist in yet another lengthy list of productions, including the Sugar Plum Fairy in the most recent Goh Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.
For Herrera, “All the classical ballets are very difficult. They are long-lasting for a good reason. They are, for the most part, the most challenging works. To make the dancing look easy is the whole challenge. So, there really is no separation of technique from artistic inspiration. Technique makes me free, to be automatic where I need to be, not at all to show off for the sake of technique, but to be free to take the work to its highest levels of expression. And, as I said, with these works, the minute I leave the stage, what I want most is to do it again.” She smiles, pauses, looks at the students again, going through their exercises. “I love teaching, coaching, have been doing it for quite a while now. When I am finally done performing, I will certainly dedicate much more time to it.” She surveys the scene, here on The Nutcracker stage, and clearly she is dedicated to being part of ballet’s future, even if she is retired from performance.
There are still some demanding aspects to her schedule for 2015, and Herrera has been a member of the Artists Committee for the Kennedy Centre Honors since 2004. So there will never be a shortfall of things for her to do. “Ballet is my life. Time, focus, energy, dedication. That’s what it takes. I had a dream as a kid, and in truth, my life has been much more than I imagined. Now, in my last year of performances, all I want to do is finish it in a beautiful way.”