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ABT – American Ballet Theater – Ballet Review




picture - Paloma HerreraBallet Review

by William Gooch

published July 17, 2009


American Ballet Theater

performing in Los Angeles through July 19


What makes a ballerina great? That is a hard question to answer, mostly because the definition of what a ballerina is has changed over time. Most people think a ballerina is anyone who dances well in a pair of pointe shoes. Ok, maybe that’s too simplistic an answer. How about any woman in a ballet company; is that better? Actually, a ballerina is a title that is bestowed upon a female dancer after she has reached a certain level of technical proficiency and artistry.


Now that the definition of a ballerina is established, what makes a ballerina great and world class? Most dance critics and historians consider ballerinas great when they have successfully conquered the standard classical and neoclassical repertoire—Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Theme and Variations, etc.—and have gained a worldwide reputation for being able to interpret those great works with sensitivity and nuance. That said, when observing American Ballet Theatre’s prima ballerina Paloma Herrera in the classical warhorse Sylvia on July 4th, I wondered why this great technician, hailed for her pyrotechnical skills and classical purity, failed to deliver a performance that lived up to her auspicious abilities.


Based on a rather obscure Greek myth, Sylvia spins a love triangle that includes Aminta (Marcelo Gomes), a gentle shepherd in love with the huntress Sylvia (Paloma Herrera) and the evil hunter Orion (Alexandre Hammoudi), who also is entranced by Sylvia’s great beauty. Add some meddling Greek deities and the lilting music of Leo Delibes and Sylvia becomes a delightful ballet in the French classical style that spans that era between Romantic and Russian classical styles.


This current revival is a testament to Frederick Ashton’s understanding of the French classical style where mastery of petit allegro, hops en pointe and sculpted epaulement is essential. Ashton’s lush, detailed movement style blends perfectly with the lilting melodies of the Delibes score.


Ashton’s choreographic style appropriately emphasizes subtlety over mile-high extensions and multiple pirouettes. And in this respect, Paloma Herrera is miscast. Sylvia is an incredible opportunity for a ballerina of Ms. Herrera’s rank because the role offers such a range of emotions and possibilities. Sylvia is a huntress warrior, a seductress, and, lastly, a heroic bride. With the exception of the well-known pizzicata variation in the last act, Ms. Herrera’s performance failed to register on most points.  Known as a ballerina with formidable technical facility, Ms. Herrera sometimes gets lost in roles that require something more than multiple fouette turns and steely balances. Supported by a strong cast and an impeccable corps de ballet, Ms. Herrera had only to look to Royal Ballet prima ballerina Darcey Bussell, of whom this 2004 revival was made on, to get insight into this role. In short, pyrotechnical feats aside, questions abound about who Paloma Herrera, the ballerina, really is.


These 19th century ballets are really showcases for the principal ballerina, and in the words of the great prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, “if Odette is not good, it doesn’t matter what the 24 swans behind her do.” The same holds true for Sylvia.


williamgooch @


photos are by Gene Schiavone and Marty Sohl


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