Herman Cornejo was on the phone Wednesday, putting off his lunch to talk about the American Ballet Theatre’s upcoming performances at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.
“We have a lot of rehearsals today,” Cornejo said during the 3 p.m. conversation. “We’re opening tomorrow with 'Romeo & Juliet' in Detroit. We started at 11 a.m. and will go until 8 p.m. tonight. This is my only break, for lunch and talking to you.”
On Friday, the ABT will open “The Firebird” on the Lied stage, with principal dancer Cornejo as Prince Ivan, opposite acclaimed ballerina Misty Copeland in the title role.
“I remember when I did the opening night at the Metropolitan Opera House six years ago,” Cornejo said of “The Firebird.” “I haven’t done it since then.”
So he, Copeland and the rest of the troupe were squeezing in some “Firebird" rehearsal around the “Romeo & Juliet” practice last week, relearning Alexei Ratmansky’s modern choreography of Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 adaptation of the Russian folklore story.
Christine Shevchenko and Thomas Forster, two other ABT principal dancers, will dance the lead roles in “The Firebird” Saturday. Cornejo and Copeland will perform the Act II pas de deux from “Swan Lake” during Saturday’s program.
The ballet company and St. Louis Symphony also will present “Serenade After Plato’s Symposium” and the “Swan Lake” Act I pas de deux during their Lincoln performances.
“We’ve done a lot of things together," Cornejo said of Copeland. "‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Giselle,’ we are doing ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘The Firebird.’ It really is becoming a beautiful partnership.”
Even though they work together seamlessly on steps and lifts, a great partnership, like that developing between Cornejo and Copeland, requires more than technical skill from each of the dancers, Cornejo said.
“It’s that trust,” he said. “It’s a process. With some dancers, you feel it in the first minute. With some, you need to work on it. With Misty, thank God, in the first minute we knew. It was there. It's quite easy to enter a pas de deux with her.”
Combine the trust with a repeatedly practiced understanding and execution of the choreography and the ballet, Cornejo said, can go up a level for the dancers and the audience.
“Once you know all this in your body, you can start improvising with your emotions and feel them and show them,” he said. “That can only happen when you’re comfortable. Then you can be open, and it can be improvised, not in the steps, but in the emotions.”
American Ballet Theatre won’t perform “The Firebird” again until after it has returned to the Met in May. By then, ABT will have, in 2018, traveled to Washington, D.C.; Detroit; Chicago; Singapore and Hong Kong with a Los Angeles engagement set for July.
The outlier on that interary is, of course, Lincoln -- which makes this week’s performances special for Cornejo, who was impressed when told that more than 4,000 tickets have been sold for the two performances, with many, likely, to people who have never seen a ballet.
“This, to me, is one of the most beautiful things the company is doing, bringing it to Lincoln,” he said. “The audience doesn’t have to be afraid if they’ve never been to a ballet performance before. We are doing full ballets that tell a story. It’s about the visuals, the music, the story. It is an amazing event, when you can, for a first time, experience a major ballet.”
And, he said, the performances will be as good as ballet gets -- which he can confirm from the nights when he isn’t dancing.
“It’s a high quality performance,” Cornejo said. “When I see American Ballet perform, the 2½ hours I’m sitting in the audience, I completely forget about my personal life and troubles and am transported to a different place. Especially now, I think people need that, to enjoy beauty and enjoy art.”
Asked to put the American Ballet Theatre in context, Cornejo, a native of Argentina who has danced around the globe, had an instant evaluation.
“It’s top in the world, actually.” he said. “It’s amazing when you join the company. I joined the company 20 years ago. My goal was to be promoted to principal and do all the leading roles. When it happened, it was such an honor to be considered one of the best in the world and be surrounded by all of these dancers.”
Making principal dancer wasn’t a sure thing for Cornejo. He was an international award winning prodigy when he came to New York, but at 5-foot-6, Cornejo was seen as too short to be a principal by director Kevin McKenzie.
“When I joined the company, I proved to him that even being shorter, I could lead a ballet, a full-length ballet,” he said. “I never considered myself short. But for different directors, short is my size. On stage, it’s all about proportion. If I have the right partner, we’re going to look good.”
Cornejo began “dancing” at age 6 when his parents took him to their Buenos Aires club and had him choose a sport. He picked ice skating and stuck with it for a couple years. Then he saw his older sister Erica studying dance.
“I saw my sister in the studio, and I loved the movement with the piano and the music, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Cornejo said. “When I take a look back it is ‘How could I at 8 know?’ It’s really incredible you can do that.”
At 9, Cornejo was one of 20 young dancers selected from more than 200 applicants to study at Instituto Superior de Arte at Teatro Colón, South America’s top ballet school. At 14, he studied at the School of American Ballet in New York before joining Ballet Argentino.
In 1997, at age 16, Cornejo became the youngest-ever winner of the Gold Medal at the VII International Dance Competition in Moscow, and became a Ballet Argentino principal dancer.
In 1998-99, Cornejo moved to New York to join the American Ballet Theatre. In his second season with ABT, Cornejo was cast to dance the Bronze Idol in “La Bayadère,” a principal part for the dancer who was still an apprentice.
That necessitated his promotion to corps de ballet just before going on stage. The next year, he became a soloist and in 2003, at age 22, he became a principal dancer.
Over the next 15 years, he danced a myriad of roles in more than 60 ballets, counting “Romeo & Juliet” and “La Bayadère” as his favorites. “In ‘La Bayadère,' I play a warrior,” he said. “For some reason, I kind of like being a warrior on stage. Probably because it’s so opposite from what I am in real life.”
Now 36, Cornejo is at the peak of a career that will, unavoidably wind down in next five to seven years.
“It’s a short career,” he said. "There’s really a limit of your body to go jumping and turning like a young boy. It’s usually a range of 40, 42 years, some got to 45 and performed a full ballet. Nowadays, there’s so much more training and treatment, the life of a dancer is stretching longer.
“Being a ballet dancer, you’re also an actor. That’s what makes it different from an athlete, you’re an actor. You can play different roles and have a longer career.”
As we chatted about the similarities between training for dance and athletics and the commonalities of teamwork in ballet and sports, lunch and duty called for Cornejo. As we signed off, I thanked him for taking half of his break to talk.
“No,” he said. “Thank you. I wanted to do this. It’s very important to us. Coming to Lincoln is very important for us. We want people there to know that.”