When American Ballet Theatre performs at the Kennedy Center this week audiences will see a company undergoing one of the most notable transitions in its 75-year history. Three of its biggest stars — Paloma Herrera, Julie Kent and Xiomara Reyes — will retire in the coming months. Together, they embody nearly 70 years of ABT experience. They are all poised for graceful exits; in the interviews below you’ll see that these extraordinary women are outspoken yet at peace with the close of their dancing careers. The greater burden is on ABT, losing one-third of its roster of top-rank ballerinas. Casting for its spring-summer run in New York suggests soloists Misty Copeland and Sarah Lane may be in line for promotion. But there is no replacing the veteran ballerinas, as those who know them best can attest. “For many years we’ll be speaking about Julie and Paloma and Xiomara,” said ABT principal Marcelo Gomes, who has danced with all three. “Artistically they are at a whole other level from anybody else.” Let us savor their legacies of hard work, dedication and pleasure.
First, it’s her eyes, that set her apart. Xiomara Reyes, rehearsing with the Washington Ballet, makes a dramatic statement just in the way she looks into the studio’s mirror: Her eyes are lively and her gaze is high, not focused on her own reflection but instinctively tipped up to the corners. She is already imagining herself in the theater, seeking to connect with people in the far balconies.
With scarcely a week’s notice, Reyes plunged into the leading role for last month’s world premiere of “Sleepy Hollow,” the ballet inspired by Washington Irving’s tale. Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre called American Ballet Theatre looking for a replacement after his leading dancer broke her foot, and Reyes jumped at the chance. Approaching retirement in May, after 14 years at ABT, the Cuban-born principal dancer was rehearsing roles she had danced for years, so learning Webre’s choreography was a welcome challenge.
Reyes’s partner, Jonathan Jordan, looks a little nervous as he catches her in midair and sweeps her around in a turn. Reyes is, after all, one of ABT’s longtime stars. Petite as she is, she dances gloriously full-scale, with palpable intensity. She bends freely, unpredictably, like a tree in a storm; her arms seem to sweep up all the oxygen. It’s a little intimidating.
“Are you waiting for me?” she asks Jordan gently, reassuring him with a smile after an awkward lift.
“I don’t want to push you,” he says, apologetically. “I — I’m trying to give you more space.”
Well, you cannot keep up with a whirlwind if you hesitate, as Reyes proves when they soar through the steps again. Her character, Katrina Van Tassel, is the town coquette, and Reyes turns the few moments of this scene into a fiery display of predatory teasing.
She locks eyes with Jordan, daring and taunting him, flirting extravagantly. He catches her spirit, and by the end of the rehearsal, she has shaken the doubts out of him by her sheer exuberance.
“Xiomara has no fear,” says José Manuel Carreño, a fellow Cuban who danced with Reyes before he retired from ABT in 2011. “A lot of people get nervous, but she just goes out there and rocks it.”
Reyes “really involves and connects with her partner,” Herman Cornejo, her most frequent partner, writes in an e-mail. “She has the passion, but she also has the ability to show it and to really capture the audience with it.”
Reyes has the diminutive, girlish body of a tween, glowing skin and a cute, turned-up nose. It’s a shock to learn she is 42. It’s an even bigger shock to find out she is a grandmother. She has a 30-year-old stepson with her husband, ABT teacher Rinat Imaev, and the young man has an almost 2-year-old daughter who loves to dance when her grandma is around.
Granny Xio gets around pretty well: On Tuesday, ABT’s opening night at the Kennedy Center, she will embody the boot-stomping Cowgirl in Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo.” This character is part comedian, part firebrand, with a dash of poignancy. Speaking in an empty Washington Ballet studio before her rehearsal, bundled up in a purple down vest and thick leggings over her practice clothes, Reyes reflects on the role from a quintessentially American ballet that she cherishes because it reminds her — of all things — of her childhood in Cuba.
“She wants to fit in, in a place where people were being condescending to her; she was not actually valued,” Reyes says, describing de Mille’s Cowgirl, who yearns for a boyfriend though the guys all dismiss her as a tomboy. “I think we can all relate to that.” And she unleashes another surprise — even bigger than the fact she has a grandchild.
There was a time, she says, when she was too weak to dance and almost got kicked out of ballet school.
“I had what they called ‘baby muscles.’ ” Reyes pinches two fingers together, as if she’s grasping the wing of a fly. “The kind of muscles that would not take to exercise. They wouldn’t form. There was no muscle tone.”
One day, in walked a substitute teacher who was a tyrant. “She was extremely hard. She would bang onto my legs, pinch me and hit me, and in one week I got muscles.” Reyes is convinced the bruising maltreatment woke up her legs. At any rate, she started getting stronger.
Soon she was winning prizes at international competitions. She left Cuba for the Belgium-based Royal Ballet of Flanders, where she met her husband, who was a principal dancer there. She joined ABT in 2001.
Reyes’s range is extraordinary, from the lyrical softness of “Romeo and Juliet” and Antony Tudor’s “The Leaves Are Fading” to the bravura fireworks of “Don Quixote” and other crisp classical standards. She’ll waltz through the title role of Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella” in the March 28 matinee at the Kennedy Center.
Her upcoming farewell, in “Giselle” on May 27 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, is bittersweet, for her as well as for fellow retirees Julie Kent and Paloma Herrera, she says.
“Julie, Paloma and I don’t perform as much as we should.” She faults ABT’s practice of bringing in guest artists to headline performances at the Met.
“All the guests take a lot of performances from you. It’s hard to keep in shape when you’re only doing one performance now and then,” she says. “You get to a point where you say, ‘Let’s see what else is possible.’ I have been very faithful, and it was my dream company, but it’s time to move on.”
She has busy months ahead, directing a summer intensive at the Hartt School in West Hartford, Conn., and another student program in Barcelona. She worries that young dancers focus too much on technique, not enough on artistry.
“This is an art,” she says, “and if you don’t cultivate your soul, and if you don’t cultivate your education and your knowledge of life and beauty and other things, there are limited things you can share on the stage with other people.”
Reyes immerses herself in art: She’s an avid museum-goer, favoring the soft colors and windblown settings of John William Waterhouse and other Pre-Raphaelite painters. Chopin’s music and poems by Rumi and Walt Whitman also offer a lift: “This kind of freedom is so much like dancing. For me, it’s inspiration.”
In a statement, ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie writes: “Xiomara came to us fully formed — she had been a professional for a decade but fit into our culture as if born into it. With a commanding technique and effervescent quality, she charmed us and her audiences alike. She should be proud of the example she has set for her colleagues with her constant ability to improve herself.”
Reyes wants to keep dancing, though her plans are uncertain. “Maybe I’m not going to be dancing more classical ballets now — we will see. But I’m curious about other things. Like I was curious about this.” She looks around at the empty Washington Ballet studio. “It’s such a fun opportunity.”
She smiles wide, then adds: “I’m not so happy that it came about because somebody got injured. I would prefer if it was because somebody got pregnant.” She laughs. “I always prefer to come in when people get pregnant!”
“We are sometimes so focused on everything that is wrong,” Reyes says, turning philosophical, and a little wistful. “But we are blessed. We come here to work and we are surrounded by music and by people who love what they do. We have a very special life, dancers.”
It’s just very simple,” Julie Kent says to her partner, a young soloist named Roman Zhurbin. “There’s not a lot of overacting or trying to comment.”
Simplicity is difficult, which is why Kent and Zhurbin have been working for an hour to refine their approach to perhaps a minute’s worth of choreography. They are working on a scene from Antony Tudor’s 1942 ballet “Pillar of Fire,” a taut tale of a woman who’s afraid of loneliness, gives herself over to a pimp, and finally finds forgiveness from a man who loves her without judgment. Kent and Zhurbin will dance in American Ballet Theatre’s production Wednesday at the Kennedy Center, on a program that includes Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo” and Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations.” It will be Zhurbin’s debut in the role that Tudor simply called “the Friend.”
Kent’s husband, ABT Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee, is overseeing the rehearsal at ABT’s headquarters at Broadway and 19th Street. But Kent, who has the most at stake here — she has to be tossed around and caught by Zhurbin — engages in ballerina diplomacy, gently steering, while offering encouragement.
“Um,” she says at one point, speaking slowly and sweetly, as if she doesn’t want to scare him away. “I’m still not terribly in control after you put me down, after the two jetes.”
They try the sequence again, with the sense of resistance and turning away building as Kent tries to avoid Zhurbin’s gaze and Zhurbin tries to catch her. He jumps and lands at her feet; she rises up to avoid him. But his jump is too big and showy; it should be unremarkable, just a fall. Kent gives him an image: “It’s all part of the breath,” she says, inhaling and lengthening up into a tall column of peach chiffon, as if she were as weightless as the skirt tied around her waist.
A young dancer thinks dancing is about big things — jumps, turns, energy. An older one knows it is about the small things, like simplicity and breathing. You realize this watching Kent, 45, rehearse one of the last two parts Washington audiences will see her perform. The other is the title role in “Cinderella,” which she dances on the evening of March 28. After 29 years with ABT — her entire career — Kent will retire on June 20 at the Metropolitan Opera House, as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Kent grew up in Potomac, attended Winston Churchill High School and studied at Maryland Youth Ballet with Hortensia Fonseca and Michelle Lees. She joined ABT’s corps de ballet in 1986 — which makes her the record-holder for longest-serving ABT dancer.
“The longer you dance, the harder it is to stop,” she says. “It’s your identity, your youth, your love. It’s so hard to let it go.” Kent laughs a husky laugh as she lounges in one of ABT’s offices, stretching her legs out in front of her. She’s wearing a high-necked ivory sweater over her leotard and thick leg warmers. Her long hair hangs loose.
She looks down at her hands and recalls her very first audition, when she was 9 or 10, for a small role in a ballet at the Kennedy Center. She made it to the last round and then was cut. She was brokenhearted. “But my mother said, ‘Julie, your time will come.’
“And my time came, and my time stayed.” Kent looks up and laughs. “And now it’s somebody else’s time. In a nutshell, that’s what it is. You can’t keep making it your time.
“It’s not that I don’t have any value; it just means the format is not going to be the same anymore.”
Her retirement plans are still vague, but one thing she would like to do is “share the voice of an American artist, a woman, a mother and a wife, and I don’t think that voice is heard very much. And I think it would be both surprising and connective.”
“I love that there’s a mysterious allure of the ballerina,” she says. “But there’s so many misconceptions about what that is, and I’d like to lend my voice to what an American artist is. You don’t have to be dysfunctional and not have a family life to contribute something of artistic worth and beauty to the public. And that is what art is. It’s humanity’s reward.”
Kent and Barbee have two children: William, 10, and Josephine, 5. She danced well into both pregnancies. Eight weeks after Josephine’s birth, Kent was back at work. Alexei Ratmansky created a difficult leading role for her in “Seven Sonatas.” (“Didn’t anyone realize I’d just had a baby?” she says with a laugh.) She went on tour to perform it in California while breastfeeding, with a 5-year-old in tow, running to the grocery store to get him dinner before racing off to the theater.
How am I going to make this work? she thought. “What I realized is, I and millions of other working parents are having the same conversation, and I’m not special,” she says with another laugh.
There is nothing so humbling as being a parent. But for Kent, motherhood also meant facing the end of her dancing life. “Raising two children and being a ballerina is really hard, and I’m not a young dancer. You’re constantly wondering, ‘How long am I going to keep this up?’ And that adds stress.”
She rolls her hands up in the hem of her sweater. With her decision to retire, she says, “the biggest relief is I’m not going to have to think about when am I going to retire anymore. It’s been on my mind for years.”
“Really, who gets a career like the one I’ve had?” she says. A year after she was hired by Mikhail Baryshnikov, ABT’s director at the time, she starred with him in a movie: 1987’s “Dancers,” directed by Herbert Ross. Her air of innocence and porcelain beauty made her a natural for the role of a young dancer who falls in love with her director; the teenage Kent was easily the best part of the film. Another followed in 2000: the teen drama “Center Stage,” directed by Nicholas Hytner, in which Kent’s role mirrored her status as an idolized star.
Kent made steady progress through the ABT ranks. As she gained renown for her classical purity, her acting and her iron work ethic, she appeared as a guest artist with the world’s most prestigious companies.
“During my entire directorship, she, more than anyone, was the artist that virtually every choreographer wanted to create new works on,” ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie said in a statement.
For Lees, her childhood teacher, seeing Kent in “Swan Lake” was a revelation, but not for the poignancy of Kent’s Odette, which Lees expected. It was what Kent did with the flip side of that dual role, dancing Odile, the Black Swan, that amazed her. “She has a lovely ethereal quality, and then I saw her do Black Swan and she was such a bitch,” Lees says, affectionately. “I was blown away. I didn’t know she had that in her. She tore the stage apart.”
Retired star José Manuel Carreño, who danced with Kent frequently, said: “She’s one of these dancers who get into you because of what they make you feel. It’s not about technique. You get deep into the drama. She got to that point where she knew so well what she was doing.”
ABT principal Marcelo Gomes, who calls Kent “the Meryl Streep of ballet,” will be her prince in “Cinderella.” In that ballet, he says, “there is a magical moment where Cinderella comes to the ball and she bourrees forward, like she’s in a magical trance, and in one moment she’s in front of the prince. That’s the first moment they have with each other, and that’s key to the whole evening. Julie has surprised me with her look. I’m not looking at Julie per se — I’m looking at Cinderella.”
Kent — like Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes, who are also retiring from ABT this spring — makes clear she is a little concerned about the priorities of the younger generation of dancers. Some are too fixated on celebrity, she says. From Baryshnikov she learned “what was important: the pursuit of excellence. Sophistication. The beauty of classical ballet. Here was the most famous dancer in the world, and he wasn’t about being a star. His pursuit was the work.”
Kent launches into a haughty, spot-on impression of Streep as Margaret Thatcher in the film “The Iron Lady”: “It used to be people wanted to do something. Now they want to be something.”
“The reward is the experience itself,” Kent says. “The reward is, I got to spend my life doing this.”
Now she would like to help others reap their own rewards, by shaping and developing the next generation of dancers. But first, she has to finish her season. “I haven’t had too much time for being sentimental,” Kent says softly.
In the “Pillar of Fire” rehearsal, as the pianist rumbles through a passage in Schönberg’s “Verklarte Nacht,” Zhurbin lands his jump, wraps his arms around Kent’s legs, lifts her and gently sets her down.
“That was better!” she says. “That was a good one.”
They try it again. He jumps toward her but lands a bit too far away. Like a puppy, he crawls the rest of the way on his knees, teasingly, grinning up at her.
She pats him on the head.
Good boy. Good rehearsal.
Then the hour is up. One of Kent’s colleagues comes in to use the studio; the two women chat and laugh for a few minutes as Kent unties her toe shoes. The pianist shuffles through his music for the rehearsal that is about to start. Kent eases her reddened feet into flip-flops and glides out the door, chiffon fluttering.
It’s another dancer’s time.
She blazed onto the stage like a miracle, a teenager with the power of a racehorse and the joy of a bride half tipsy on champagne. It was 1993, and the Kennedy Center Opera House had never seen anyone like Paloma Herrera, the 17-year-old unknown from Argentina whose flight through the devilish “Don Quixote” pas de deux was exhilarating.
If you were in the audience that night, as I was, you never forgot it. Herrera was a last-minute substitution, and after knocking the wind out of us, the dark-haired beauty shot to stardom. At 19, she became one of the youngest principal dancers in American Ballet Theatre history. She combined authority and lovableness, and with her avian delicacy and supple feet so deeply curved they could be ice-cream scoops, she secured her place as one of the nation’s most exciting ballerinas.
But Herrera’s sheer joy in dancing is her most remarkable trait.
That joy is apparent even as she makes her way through a crowded bistro near Lincoln Center. Tall and sleek in a charcoal sweater and slacks, with her glossy black hair pulled into a bun, Herrera flashes a bright smile as she weaves elegantly among the tables to a seat in the back.
At 39, she has an easy, self-assured charm. She offers a hug and an apology for her slightly creaky voice, because she has a cold.
She also has news. It’s a bombshell, in ballerina terms. Herrera was to retire from ABT on June 9 at the Metropolitan Opera House, as Princess Aurora in Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of “The Sleeping Beauty.” But she has pulled out of that show, she announces with a wide smile that suggests relief.
“It wasn’t my choice to retire with ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ” she says, in the lyrical rhythms of a light Argentine accent. “I don’t feel comfortable with it. . . . I wanted to do something that I’ve done a lot with ABT.
“I’ve been here for 24 years and it’s been my life, and I really wanted to retire with something that meant something special to me,” she continues. “It was not very nice that I didn’t have a choice. It was like, ‘You have to retire in this production.’ ”
She pats out the syllables for emphasis. Her pot of green tea shivers. Her silver earrings swish.
Herrera, 39, gave the role a try earlier this month in Orange County, Calif., where Ratmansky’s version had its world premiere. His account is not the standard; his style of dancing harks back to the original 1890s productions, with a comparatively understated technique. It is less athletic, with lower legs, but requires precise positions of the head and arms. The elaborate costumes are inspired by the 1921 Diaghilev production. Aurora wears deeply layered, knee-length tutu skirts and a white wig.
“It’s a whole different look,” Herrera says. “And I felt even more that it’s not how I should be represented in my last performance. It was great to work on something new and I had a wonderful performance, but I thought, ‘This is it.’ ”
Adding to her decision to cancel: Her intended partner at the Met, the Italian star Roberto Bolle, also withdrew from the “Sleeping Beauty” performances. According to ABT officials, Bolle had another commitment that conflicted with the ballet’s California performances and he didn’t want his debut in the ballet to coincide with Herrera’s farewell.
“I would do ‘Sleeping Beauty’ happily if I could do something else later as the last performance,” Herrera says. “But they said the schedule couldn’t be changed.”
Asked to comment, ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie issued this statement: “Regarding Paloma’s decision to withdraw from her June 9th performance of ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ I was taken by surprise that she would allow us to advertise her farewell performance in the ballet for six months before informing me that she would refuse to appear in it.”
Herrera will take her last bow, anticlimactically, in her only other Met performance: a Wednesday matinee of “Giselle” on May 27. (That happens to be the same day that Xiomara Reyes retires; Reyes will perform “Giselle” that evening.) Herrera will dance it with Bolle. And that suits her perfectly.
“I’m fine,” she insists, as her delicate hands sweep away visions of the retiring-star send-off she may miss. “I don’t need a party. I’m just happy with my career as it is. My career is much more than I could have ever, ever dreamed. I’m only thankful — for the company, for the audience, for the opportunity to do what I love. I never wanted the center stage. I just wanted to dance. And I’m completely fulfilled.”
Herrera will also miss a chance to bid farewell to the city that helped launch her career. She is not cast in any of the ballets ABT is bringing to the Kennedy Center.
“Washington for me is very, very special,” she says with warmth, recalling her breakout performance in that “Don Quixote” pas de deux, paired with former Washington Ballet dancer Robert Wallace. “It was the beginning of a whole new level.”
Having proved herself then, Herrera devoured more classical tutu-and-tiara roles — “Swan Lake,” “Le Corsaire,” “La Bayadère” and more. Nothing but jewels and joy. Until choreographer Twyla Tharp arrived. Then Herrera got the challenge she craved, and more.
Tharp “really took a chance on me, and I’ll always be grateful,” she says.
She joined ABT in 1991, but until Tharp took an interest in her, contemporary choreographers had overlooked her; Herrera was typecast as a princess. Tharp created athletic, jazzy, daredevil roles for her: “Americans We,” “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” “Rabbit and Rogue.” The first was in 1995: “How Near Heaven,” with flowing Versace gowns. It premiered at the Kennedy Center. Herrera was 19. She had never known fear, and she was frazzled.
With Tharp’s killer pace “smoke was coming out of my head,” Herrera says, laughing. “I was having nightmares. I was lying in bed trying to remember steps, because she was so demanding.”
Herrera wasn’t the only one who was nervous, Tharp says in a phone interview: “Everybody had trouble with ‘How Near Heaven.’ ” It opened with a double catapult, two men tossing Herrera to a third, while another ballerina flew through the air right next to her.
“It was very scary,” Tharp says. “I mean, like a bullfighter! And she got through it.”
The ballerina’s zeal impressed her. “Of course Paloma was gorgeous — the feet, the whole body,” Tharp says. But Herrera also had the intangibles that make a great artist. “The commitment, the decisiveness, the musicality. She’s good-hearted. There’s a generosity to her that I appreciate as well. She dances for the right reasons. She genuinely wants to be beautiful.”
ABT’s McKenzie summed up Herrera’s legacy this way, in a written statement separate from the one above: “Paloma’s retirement reminds me of my mortality. It seems impossible that when I first laid eyes on her, I had no experience as an artistic director, and she was only sixteen years old. . . . She takes with her, in essence, a spectacular segment of our history that she helped to define — the turnaround of ABT in the early 90’s and an example of the ‘homegrown’ artist that was the face of the company for more than two decades.”
Herrera says that now she feels like “a dinosaur.”
“Everything is so fast,” she laments. “We’re losing concentration with the phones. They’re doing a tendu with the phone.”
Company members? In ballet class?
She nods, furrowing her dramatic brows.
“Now everybody is with phones. . . . In the middle of the performance, they are tweeting, ‘Oh, my shoe broke,’ or, ‘Oh, my tutu.’ They tweet! Yes, backstage! I don’t want to know!” She laughs and claps her hands over her ears.
“I like magic. I’m old-fashioned. But this is the way the world is going. I can’t change that. But what I can change is my career.”
Herrera curls her slim ringed fingers around something imaginary, as if she’s cradling a butterfly.
“I leave it in this moment, when I think it’s fantastic.”
She’ll turn 40 in December and will stop dancing for good, she says. Maybe she’ll turn to teaching, which she enjoys, though she confesses that teaching has shown her how difficult it is to find true talent. But first: performances in Argentina in April and October, and in Los Angeles in July, with ABT colleague Herman Cornejo’s program of Latin American stars.
Then she’ll relax in Buenos Aires with her parents, sister and boyfriend, who works in marketing. Maybe she’ll finally decorate the New York apartment she’s had for 20 years.
And she’ll treasure the memory of her first starring role, on the Opera House stage in Washington: “That feeling that I had then is the same feeling I have now. That’s the most incredible thing about my career — I always kept it fresh and I was always happy.”
She breaks into a broad smile of contentment and gratitude. You can almost hear her purr.
She sips her tea and shrugs.
“When people come see me after a performance and they say, ‘Oh, thank you,’ I always think, ‘Why are they thanking me?’ ” Herrera lifts up her palms, incredulous. Her dark eyes crinkle in delight.
“I should be thanking them.”