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Her Success Rises by Leaps and Bounds

Dance: Paloma Herrera has created a stir in the ballet world since she was 15. Now 20, she's American Ballet Theatre's youngest performer to portray Juliet.

February 22, 1996|SUSAN REITER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — The dance world first took notice of Paloma Herrera when she was just 15 and still a student. In 1991, at the School of American Ballet's annual "workshop"--a recital well-known as a place to spot future stars--she was the talk of the event, performing the lead in George Balanchine's "Raymonda Variations." Just a few weeks and an audition later, American Ballet Theatre offered her a contract.

Herrera has been been making waves ever since, igniting the kind of balletomane buzz and adoring ovations that have been in short supply in the dance world recently.

Now 20, the Buenos Aires native became a principal dancer at ABT last April, bearing out early enthusiasm with impressive performances in a growing array of roles. In 1993, in New York magazine, critic Tobi Tobias said that "Herrera's most formidable--and appealing--qualities are her passion and her naturalness. She's a born dancer." When she assumed the famously difficult ballerina role in Balanchine's "Theme and Variations" a year later, Newsday's Janice Berman wrote that Herrera "moves as if she has inhabited the role all her life."

*

Now, Herrera has begun to take on full-length dramatic roles. This weekend, she dances in Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet"--she is ABT's youngest and newest Juliet--at the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts. These will be only her third and fourth performances of the role, which she first danced in Chicago last September.

At the ABT studios recently, at the end of a day of rehearsals, Herrera was anything but jaded about that experience. With her ponytail and oversized sweatshirt, she looked much more vulnerable and girlish than she had moments earlier, refining the intricate variations of "Don Quixote" and Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" under the careful scrutiny of ABT ballet master David Richardson. Her dark eyes glowed as she spoke about learning and performing the role of Juliet.

"The music is so beautiful and powerful, and the choreography fits it so perfectly," she said. "The pas de deux are very difficult, but you're not thinking about steps. The music is making it happen.

"When I finished my first performance in Chicago, I was crying. I felt completely empty. I didn't feel, 'OK, I've done it, that's fine.' I couldn't wait to do it again and again. I [had] wanted to do it early in my career so that I could do it really naturally and then have a lot of time to play with it and develop it."

Knowing what she wants started early with Herrera, who decided she would be a ballerina at 7. "Somehow, when I saw a tutu and toe shoes, I knew I wanted to do that," she recalls. She soon entered the ballet school of the famed Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. At 9, she was already dancing--and winning--in a competition in Lima.

Even when she didn't take top honors at the competitions, Herrera attracted considerable attention. In 1990, she was a finalist at the prestigious International Ballet Competition, in Varna, Bulgaria, despite being at the youngest end of the 14- to 19-year-old category. Her accomplishments there led to her successful audition for the School of American Ballet.

Herrera studied at the New York City Ballet-affiliated school for just six months before dancing in the workshop "Raymonda Variations." She figured she would be heading home once that performance was complete, but she decided to try her hand at an ABT audition just in case. When she was offered a job, she recalls, "I was so happy, I was screaming. I signed the contract--and then called my parents to tell them I was going to stay in New York."

Despite appearances to the contrary, Herrera was nurtured at ABT at a gradual pace. As a corps member, she performed choice solo parts, such as the fleet, darting Amor in "Don Quixote," but she could also be found among the line of dancers at the barre in "Etudes."

"It was a conscious decision on the part of Jane Herman [ABT's director from 1989 to 1992]," explains Richardson. "It was evident right away that something special would happen to her, but she had to grow within the company and go through the normal process of doing corps roles."

"I'm very happy with the way things have gone," Herrera remarks. "It's great to prepare so many different roles. There are some I'm not ready for yet; I don't have to do everything at 20," she says.

Herrera's repertory now includes the ballerina role in Balanchine's "Ballet Imperial," two roles created for her by Twyla Tharp, Kitri in "Don Quixote," (which local audiences may have a chance to see when ABT brings the ballet to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in June), Gamzatti in "La Bayadere," and the title role in ABT's new Ben Stevenson production of "Cinderella."

"I like to be able to dance every type of ballet, not just those that focus on technique," says Herrera. "I think each role helps you with others; Balanchine helps you do 'Don Quixote,' and that helps you do 'Romeo and Juliet.' "

She varies things even further by using her time off from ABT to take on guest opportunities. Last year, she appeared with New York City Ballet as Dewdrop in "The Nutcracker" and danced in Russia on two occasions, including a full-length "Don Quixote" with the Kremlin Ballet.

Clearly, Herrera is happiest onstage, still displaying the delight of the girl who discovered dancing at 7. "My parents say I should come home a little more often," she says with a laugh, "but I just love performing."

* American Ballet Theatre presents "Romeo and Juliet" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, tonight and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. $18-55. (714) 740-2000. Herrera dances on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening.

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