NY ballet crowd fetes Herman Cornejo on 20th ABT anniversary

In this Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, photo provided by the American Ballet Theatre Herman Cornejo performs in Twyla Tharp's A Gathering of Ghosts in New York. Cornejo has been a favorite of New York ballet audiences ever since he set foot on the American Ballet Theatre stage 20 years ago. (Kyle Froman via AP)
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On a night full of balletic leaps, the most joyous came during curtain calls, when iconic American choreographer Twyla Tharp bounded into the arms of dancer Herman Cornejo to celebrate his 20th anniversary on the New York stage.

Cornejo, a dashing figure with a mop of dark hair and a breathtaking leap himself, has been a favorite of New York ballet audiences ever since he set foot on the American Ballet Theatre stage as a teenager from Argentina two decades ago.

On Saturday night at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, the company honored his milestone with showers of confetti, garlands of flowers and a special ballet choreographed by Tharp, “A Gathering of Ghosts.”

The evening began with Cornejo, all in white, performing the title role in George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” debuting in the classic role at the seasoned age of 38. It proved a perfect match for his dramatic sensibilities and his physical gifts of a feather-light jump and superb control. Dancing opposite him as Terpsichore was ballerina Misty Copeland, a longtime and frequent partner.

Next came a short film in which Cornejo, as narrator, introduced himself. “Dance has given me a beautiful way of living,” he said, noting how he first became enamored with ballet as an 8-year-old boy in Buenos Aires, when he saw a production of “Spartacus.” He spoke of the influence of his sister, Erica Cornejo, a former ABT dancer who recently retired from Boston Ballet.

Then Erica Cornejo herself came onstage for “El Chamuyo,” a tango-inspired duet with her brother, a brief but crowd-pleasing piece to music by Francisco Canaro and choreography by Ana Maria Steckelman.

The evening ended with Tharp’s new work, a whimsical piece in which Cornejo, in a matador-like jumpsuit in black and shiny silver, played “host” to ghosts including Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, Proust and a character called “Greased Lightning.”

Then came the curtain calls, the ovations, the confetti descending from the rafters, and Tharp, extremely limber at 78, leaping into Cornejo’s arms and wrapping her legs around him.

Cornejo joined ABT in 1999 and swiftly moved through the ranks, becoming a soloist in 2000 and a principal in 2003. Though he captured the hearts of audiences with his superb technique, his relatively short height — he is 5-foot-6 — prevented him at first from getting the romantic leads in traditional story ballets.

But that gradually changed, and he now dances roles like Romeo, Siegfried in “Swan Lake,” and the prince in “The Sleeping Beauty,” among many others.q