In the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram era, everyone can rack up ‘friends,’ followers and ‘likes.’ But in the real world of ballet, bringing together 18 major stars from 12 foreign countries to dance on one stage is no easy feat. Don’t tell that to Roberto Bolle or Herman Cornejo, however, as this dynamic duo—both principals with American Ballet Theatre—are doing just that with the world premiere of BalletNow.
Hosted and co-commissioned by the Music Center of Los Angeles, this first ever international dance collaboration takes place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: The first night features European stars and is curated by Bolle; the second evening focuses on Latin American dancers and has been assembled by Cornejo; the third and final performance of the engagement will be a thrilling combination of the two.
Bolle, who has also been an étoile at Milan’s La Scala Theatre since 2003 and has been producing his own gala, Roberto Bolle and Friends for some 15 years, is as gracious as he is accomplished. Speaking by phone from New York, where he was finishing ABT’s spring season, the 40-year old ballerino laughed easily and was enthusiastic as he covered a wide range of topics on his star-studded career:
“I’ve done my program a lot in Italy, Paris and in New York, and my desire was to do it in L.A., because I danced only a couple of times there,” explained Italian-born Bolle. “The Music Center said there was this possibility to do my show and put it together with Herman.
“It’s a great idea and I’m a good friend of Herman’s,” added Bolle, who keeps a rock star-like schedule and is managed by his sister Emanuela Bolle of Artedanza, another co-commissioner of the program. “We share the dressing room at the Met during the season and he’s a great dancer.”
Cornejo also spoke from Manhattan, where the New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay wrote of his recent leading man performance in “Romeo and Juliet,” that the dancer was “in marvelous form, poetically swept by high-voltage emotion.” But modesty prevailed when Argentine-born Cornejo, 34, discussed his first time curating a program that will also include him dancing in a handful of works.
“When I was approached to do it I was thrilled to take this engagement. There are so many Latin dancers around the world, but my first view of what I wanted to present was in terms of choreographers—that would make it easier to choose the dancers.”
Among the performers slated to dance on the Latin American program are Cornejo’s sister, Erica, a principal with Boston Ballet, and her husband, Carlos Molina, a former Boston Ballet principal who has also choreographed a world premiere “Carmen,” as well as a duet from “Spartacus” (a West Coast premiere). Argentina-born Paloma Herrera, who recently gave her final performance with ABT, is on the bill, as well.
“I thought that Paloma deserved a farewell in L.A.,” explained Cornejo, “and for me, my sister is one of the best female dancers in the world, so I couldn’t not have her in this night.
“Since we have Carlos on the gala,” added Cornejo, “it’s nice that we can show his view of things. It’s also nice to be moving forward and having fresh and new ideas, even though we are re-creating on those works, “Spartacus” and “Carmen.”
And while Cornejo has had numerous ballets made on him by the world’s foremost choreographers, including Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky, he will be performing a solo, the West Coast premiere of his own work, “Tango y Yo,” set to music of Astor Piazzolla.
“That piece was for the Dance Open Ballet Festival in Russia,” recalled Cornejo of the 2010 work, “and I was awarded Mr. Expressivity. I choreographed two more things—on myself again—because I don’t feel comfortable choreographing on somebody else. I know how I move and I know my body, and what I want to do. It’s also that I’m taking it step by step, little by little.”
Bolle, too, will be performing in four works on opening night, with cast members including Italian-born Petra Conti, a principal with Boston Ballet and the Kazakhstani dancer, Maria Eichwald, a former principal with Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet. In addition, Bolle performs a pair of solos, the U.S. premiere of Marco Pelle’s “Passage,” with music and video by Fabrizio Ferri, and the West Coast premiere of Massimiliano Volpini’s “Prototype,” in which Bolle will dance in front of the film that was screened last year at the Venice Film Festival.
“What I always try to have,” said Bolle, “is a combination of really classical to modern contemporary or neo-classical dances. This time we have something very classical and also something that was a part of Italian history.”
That ‘something’ is a pas de deux from “Excelsior,” choreographed by Ugo Dell’Ara in 1967, after Luigi Manzotti. Indeed, Manzotti’s original ballet was one of the late nineteenth century’s most famous spectacles that not only featured an elephant among its 615 cast members, but was performed at La Scala no less than 103 times. An allegory celebrating the advent of electricity, the work is also an ode to scientific progress, with music by Romualdo Marenco.
Bolle, who danced the full ballet with La Scala in 2002, will partner Conti in the duet. “I thought this was right to open the show with,” explained Bolle. “It’s the only one so iconic in Italian ballet history.”
Of course, Bolle has been making history of his own since the late Rudolf Nureyev took notice of the dancer, whose chiseled good looks are matched by his pristine technique and charismatic presence.
“I remember exactly the day and the moment he walked in the studio and asked me to show him what I was able to do. I started doing exercises at the barre, because I didn’t know what to do. I was really, really tense and it was hot, so I was sweating a lot and doing everything faster. [Nureyev] gave me more corrections—“Do it again. Oh, again.” I was like dying from the tension.
“His agent said that he wanted me to do the role of Tadzio from “Death in Venice,” continued Bolle. “But then I didn’t do the role. The school didn’t give the permission because I was too young—I was 15.”
For his other duet, Bolle shares the stage with Eichwald in “Mono Lisa,” choreographed by Israeli Itzik Galili and set to the music of Thomas Höfs.
“It’s very, very modern and extreme,” Bolle enthused. “The music is electronica, made with the computer, and the work is the inspiration of capoeira, a South American [martial arts-style] dance. It’s athletic and challenging and quite effective. The choreographer took movement inspiration from Forsythe, with off-balances and a kicking of the legs.”
And while male pas de deux have frequently been popping up in today’s contemporary works, this was not in the cards for the BalletNow duo. Bolle, who danced at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin and is the current ambassador for Dolce & Gabbana, said they were two different body types, “who wouldn’t match together very well on stage.”
The 5’6” Cornejo added with a chuckle: “He’s 7 feet tall and I’m 5 feet. It could make it interesting, but we’ll be showing our characters in other ways—how we think and how we dance.”
How Cornejo danced—as a youth—also attracted attention from two Argentine ballet stars:
“I saw Maxi [Maximiliano Guerra] at Luna Park in Buenos Aires, and after seeing him dance on that show, I said, ‘I want to do that. I want to be a ballet dancer.’ I was eight years old. Then I met him when I was in school at the age of 12.”
Two years later, Cornejo, in his sixth year of school at the prestigious Teatro Colón, joined Julio Bocca’s Ballet Argentino. “Julio called me, and it was a big step to move into a company, because school is very important. I thought in that moment, the most important thing is to be on stage and what better than to be next to Julio Bocca—to learn from the best.”
The best is also one of the philosophies behind BalletNow, which began taking shape two years ago at the Music Center, somewhat of a second home to ABT. Explained Renae Williams Niles, the Center’s vice president of programming:
“I loved the connection that could be made with ABT, but delving further into these two phenomenal dancers also having artistic curation roles, that’s when it started to develop. “And,” she added, “with so many of our most renown dancers starting to have these other roles—even while they’re still dancing—this was one of those cases where I talked to Roberto and Herman about the geographic possibilities.
“I like for it to happen organically,” Williams Niles pointed out, “and luckily, both of them hugely embraced the idea.”
Williams Niles said that both Bolle and Cornejo were aware of the logistics (procuring visas, cost factors, production and time schedules), but that they also had more awareness, appreciation and respect for what would go into the artistic component. And while the dancers each had their own wish list, it was Williams Niles who suggested bringing in The Cuban National Ballet principal, Viengsay Valdés, for the Latin American program.
Cornejo, who said he’d actually never seen Valdés, acclaimed for her brilliant artistry and unabashed ardor, is excited to be performing with her. Together with the Brazilian Paulo Arrais, another Boston Ballet principal, they will perform the pas de trois from “Le Corsaire.” The dancers will also be featured in the “Don Quixote” suite with a slew of other stars, including Teatro Colón’s principal dancer, Juan Pablo Ledo and Brazilian-born Kleber Rebello, a Miami City Ballet principal.
Both of these works are on the Saturday bill, with the closing performance also featuring Cornejo and Valdés in the famed pas de deux from “Don Q,” the latter’s YouTube videos featuring her astonishing balances.
No stranger to this immensely popular story ballet, Cornejo explained: “I danced “Don Q” many times, and Viengsay’s is really remarkable. I also think dancing it now with her, that’s what’s going to keep it fresh—to have a new partner. The suite will also be fresh for the audiences—to have many Kitris and Basilios on stage at the same time.”
Both Bolle and Cornejo approach their art with discipline, determination and grace, but each has his own thoughts, especially about retirement. For the 40-year old Bolle, the ‘R’ word might seem imminent.
“I am not yet ready to retire,” exclaimed Bolle, who tours his Roberto Bolle and Friends to Italy this summer and will also dance “Apollo” in November at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In addition, there are his ABT and La Scala gigs, not to mention his many guest appearances around the world.
“Everything I’m doing is really exciting,” added Bolle, “and I have so much joy. My body responds very well, so I don’t think to retire yet.”
Besides, Bolle’s hundreds of thousands of social media followers wouldn’t have it! Cornejo, on the other hand, admits to having Instagram and Facebook accounts, but said he rarely posts anything.
“I’m not into making myself be out there. I always feel that what I do is so beautiful that I’m just so happy I can do what I love and that’s all. I wake up and I go to work, and that keeps me going. There’s no need to do extra things if you just love what you do.
“Thinking ahead,” Cornejo continued, “as a ballet dancer, there is a moment where you have to say ‘this is it’—as a ballet dancer—but not as an artist. As an artist there’s so much to do.”
Bolle, who will be signing his most recent book, Roberto Bolle: Voyage Into Beauty, after BalletNow performances, added, “In the ballet world you have to sacrifice yourself. You have to really believe and you have to work hard every day. You can’t think that you can have success and fame in one day or in two months.
“You have to build your career and work on your body every day. And,” Bolle exclaimed, “you can only do it if you have a big passion.”
BalletNow premieres at the Music Center of Los Angeles, July 10-12, 2015