For me the most special aspect of being a ballet dancer is the expression of the soul through movement and music. I was five years old when my parents took me to their local club to choose a sport and I initially chose roller-skating! I think that this was already an indication that I needed to express myself through movement of my body.
At that time I would also accompany my mother when she would take my older sister Erica to her dance class. I can remember how I loved to watch her practice and could be found standing on my tiptoes with my nose pressed to the glass window of the studio door! Her teacher, Wasil Tupin, was a wonderful teacher and a man who would teach his students with care and kindness. I remember that he would often sneak me honey candies that I would stuff in my pockets to eat later! My eagerness to join the class must have shone through my face and one day I found him opening the door to the studio and placing my two hands on the barre to invite me into the class. I remember that special day and how happy I felt to be dancing alongside my sister.
For a special treat one afternoon, my parents took me to see Spartacus, with Maximiliano Guerra in the title role. It was the first time I had ever watched a live full-length ballet; to watch the technical control, strength and amazing virtuosity displayed by Maxi filled me with inspiration. In a moment I knew with certainty that that was what I wanted to do with my life. A few days later, I remember, I was given a video of the ballet featuring Vladimir Vasiliev. I watched that video time and time again, cementing my resolve to realize my dream.
When I was nine years old my parents applied for me to study at Teatro Colón’s Instituto Superior de Arte. Of over two hundred applicants auditioning, I was one of only twenty selected. It was the beginning of my dream to be accepted into one of the most recognized classical dance schools in Latin America. I studied classical dancing, character dancing, French, music, art history and anatomy. At the final exams of my second year, Erica and I were the first students in the history of the Instituto to receive the grade 10 Felicitado by unanimous vote of the jurors.
In 1995, two of my teachers at the Instituto, Katty Gallo and Raúl Candal recommended me to the School of American Ballet, the ballet school of the New York City Ballet, which accepted me with full scholarship. It was an unforgettable experience to be taught by Andrei Kramarevsky and Stanley Williams in the school that was founded by Balanchine.
When I returned to Buenos Aires I received a call from Lidia Segni, who was at that time the Artistic Director of Julio Bocca’s Ballet Argentino. She offered me a position in the company. I accepted without hesitation, excited to dance with my sister again and to work with such a wonderful dancer as Julio. My time with Julio and his company was truly memorable; I toured the world and performed in some of the most famous and amazing theaters. It was hard work but we were a group of young, talented and motivated dancers.
During my second season with Ballet Argentino, Julio asked me if I wanted to compete in Moscow’s VIII International Ballet Competition. Julio had won the Gold Medal in this very competition in 1985 and Baryshnikov in 1969. Julio wanted to offer me sponsorship to be able to compete and so accompanied by Lidia, I flew to Moscow in June 1997. I had two intense weeks of rehearsals; my solos included La Sylphyde and Diana and Acteon in the first round, Flames of Paris, The Nutcracker and Ana Maria Steckelman’s Canaro en Parisin the second round and Don Quixote in the final round. Throughout the competition Lidia was an invaluable source of technical and emotional support. The results were announced the night before the award ceremony and an assistant from the Competition came to our hotel to tell us the results. In broken English, sign language and by pointing to a golden ring she told us that I had won the Gold Medal of the VIII International Ballet Competition. I was presented with my medal by the great Yuri Grigorovich at the Competition’s award ceremony, it was a fantastic experience and I was so thrilled to be the youngest dancer in the history of the competition to win first prize.
Six months after I returned from Moscow, Erica and I were invited to a special event in New York at the suggestion of Lino Patalano. The event was organized by Teresa A.L. de Bulgheroni and Horacio Milberg, the co-chairs of the XXXVIII Annual Ball in the Opera House honoring Argentina. We were invited to perform El Chamuyo, specially choreographed by María Steckelman for the occasion, at the gala dinner held on the Grand Tier of the Met. Although I was not actually on the Met stage I performed for the President of Argentina and senior members of the Clinton White House!
While we were in New York Erica and I decided to take class with American Ballet Theatre through our connection with Julio. After our class the members of the artistic staff who were watching the class invited us to become apprentices with the company. I was seventeen years old and overjoyed at the prospect of joining one of the greatest ballet companies in the world! Although our parents were sad to see Erica and I move to New York, they were very happy we had the chance to live out our dreams to dance in ABT. Their support and encouragement has been, and will continue to be, my strength.
In my second season with the company and while on tour in Japan, I was cast to dance the Bronze Idol in La Bayadère. As this role is a principal part and I was still an apprentice, I was promoted to corps de ballet just before going on stage! A year later I was promoted to Soloist and in 2003, at age twenty-two, I was made Principal Dancer.
Throughout my career I have felt so privileged to work and share the title of Principal alongside dancers such as Nina Ananiashvili, Julio Bocca, Jose Manuel Carreño, Angel Corella, Alessandra Ferri, Marcelo Gomes, Guillaume Graffin, Paloma Herrera, Susan Jaffe, Julie Kent, Vladimir Malakhov, Amanda McKerrow, Xiomara Reyes, and Ethan Stiefel.
Some of these incredible artists have retired and I have bittersweet memories of their farewell performances, where they had asked me to perform alongside them one last time. Julio Bocca asked me to dance Lescaut for his last Manon with Alessandra Ferri at the Met in 2006. And Alessandra asked me to dance Mercutio in 2007 for her last Romeo and Juliet.
As an artist and dancer, the most special part of my work is when I get to become someone else and tell a story, transporting the audience to another place and making them feel something buried within them. For me this aspect of ballet makes this profession the greatest career in the world. Modern life can be stressful so, if through my performance and the story I am telling, I can give the audience a moment of peace and contemplation, then I have achieved my goal. This is the reason why I love to dance full-length story ballets and also why the most meaningful compliment I have received was when The New York Times recently wrote that “I often am ABT’s truest artist”.
Erica and I have also taught Master Classes as part of a summer course in our old ballet school in Buenos Aires. The feeling that I can help and inspire up and coming young ballet dancers is just wonderful and something that we plan to continue doing in the future.
I have been a part of ABT for over thirteen years now, performed in both private and charity galas, festivals and also as a guest with other companies around the world. I have an enormous energy and passion for my work and want to continue to seize every opportunity I can to further develop my art.
1. Herman, age 5, with his rollerskating teacher and a prize
2. Herman, age 8, at Wasil Tupin's studio
3. Herman, age twelve
4. Erica Cornejo and Herman, Ballet Argentino de Julio Bocca, 1996
5 through 9. VIII International Ballet Competition, Moscow 1997
5. Herman and Lidia Segni
6. Herman as Acteon
7. Herman in Canaro in Paris
8. Herman as James in La Sylphyde
9. Herman receiving the Gold Medal from Yuri Grigorovich
10. Herman celebrating with Julio Bocca, Buenos Aires 1997
11. Curtain call of Manon, Julio Bocca's ABT farewell performance, with Herman and Alessandra Ferri, Metropolitan Opera House, 2006. Photo © Johanna Weber
12. Herman, as Mercutio, with Alessandra Ferri after her ABT farewell performance of Romeo and Juliet, Metropolitan Opera House, 2007
13. Herman as Solor in La Bayadère, Madrid 2009. Photo © Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Corella Ballet
14. Herman at ABT studios, New York. Photo © Vanity Fair by Steve Pyke