Herman Cornejo: Giving Voice to the Earth Through Dance

Halima Tahan Ferreyra*

Abstract

Through his ballet Anima Animal, the exceptional Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo brings to the present the beliefs of an ancestral culture, the Guaraní. The complex genesis of the piece has as its initial reference a libretto that was intended to be staged by Nijinsky.  In its contemporary interpretation, it has been freely re-imagined by Cornejo from the perspective of native cultures, as he was especially impressed by the relationship of native people with the universe and the natural world, and the care and respect they manifest for the earth. His views on the function of art and his position in the face of war correspond to the values he displays in his life and work.

Keywords: dance, Anima Animal, ballet, Urutaú legend, Guaraní culture, libretto Caaporá, Nijinsky

Anima Animal is the artistic project which the Argentinian dancer Herman Cornejo has been working on for some time. It is a trilogy whose first part premiered in Argentina in December 2022 and whose presentation in the United States, the country where he currently resides, is scheduled for 2025. Through this work, initially inspired by a legend of the Guarani culture,[1] Cornejo seeks to illuminate and bring to the stage the spiritual richness of that ancestral world, so that it radiates poetically toward the audience by means of dancing bodies.

Herman Cornejo. Photo: Félix Busso

This ballet dancer, who we proudly introduce to the readers of Critical Stages, was born in 1981 in San Luis, Argentina. At the age of eight he entered the Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colón, and at age 14 he received a scholarship from the American Ballet. Back in Argentina, in 1995, he joined the Ballet Argentino de Julio Boca and at the age of 16 won the gold medal in the VIII International Dance Competition in Moscow, 1997.

In 1999 Herman Cornejo joined the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), where he has been a principal dancer since 2003; in 2021 he was recognized Dancer of the Year by the New York Times.[2] Although Cornejo lives in New York, he constantly returns to Argentina; in the middle of his demanding tours with the ABT, who performed in Shanghai, Beijing and California in November alone, he finds time to undertake the challenges of his new project with great enthusiasm.

From the premiere of Anima Animal. Photo: Carlos Villamayor
A Legendary Beginning

It all began when Herman, in an Argentinian magazine in the 1990s, discovered Caaporá, a ballet libretto that moved him deeply. “After this discovery,” explained the dancer, “I managed to buy the libretto online and it was then that I began with this idea of imagining a new story, closer to the concepts of the original roots and the essence of the native peoples.”

The artist’s enthusiasm for Caaporá was fully justified. The libretto is a project dating back to 1915 which was executed by a renowned Argentine novelist, Ricardo Guiraldes, and the visual artist and historian Alfredo González Garaño. At that time, it was a so-called modern work based on the native legend of the Urutaú bird[3] from the Guarani culture. The authors offered this project to none other than Vaslav Nijinsky, a legend of the dance world who had already been touring in Buenos Aires with Les Ballets Russes.

From the premiere of Anima Animal. Photo: Carlos Villamayor

In 1917, local artists scheduled meetings with Nijinsky, who was very interested in the proposal; even Stravinsky had been considered to compose the music for Caaporá. The project generated great interest in the cultural world of the time; González Garaño’s remarkable pictorial work “devoted to the scenographic illustration of Guiraldes’ scenic poem,” according to the chronicles of the time, was successfully exhibited in Madrid and Buenos Aires. Notwithstanding these favorable circumstances, Caaporá could not be realized, perhaps due, among other factors, to the vicissitudes of Nijinsky’s own life.

Perhaps because it was unfinished, Caaporá has remained latent over time, acquiring an almost legendary aura.  As an incomplete project, it has inspired new projects, various investigations and initiatives, including the contemporary work of Cornejo, who brings Caaporá to the present as a starting point. His aim has been to launch a new project that responds to other cultural and anthropological points of view on native cultures which are far removed from exoticism and the Eurocentric canon.

From the premiere of Anima Animal. Photo: Carlos Villamayor
Imagining a New History

Cornejo conducted a series of inquiries into the Guarani culture; he was impressed by the spiritual beliefs of Guarani people, by the great care and deep respect they show for nature, which in turn opened up new perspectives from which to rethink more spiritually “the difficulties of the present and the imperative need to rethink the relationship between human beings with nature and with ourselves.” In that world of beliefs that inspire the dancer, all human beings “receive at birth an animal soul with which the gods bless life on earth…”[4]

From the premiere of Anima Animal. Photo: Carlos Villamayor

María José Lavandera, who participated in the research which supported the dramaturgical production of the play, explains that embedded in the Guarani worldview, there is a perception of time and death which differs from that of the Western world: “eternity is in front and behind us and in it there is a permanent resurrection of being […]. Beings evolve in this world and are reconciled with what is human.”[5]

Cornejo obtained a scholarship from NYU (New York University) to develop a research-based project entitled Re-imagining Nijinsky, whose previous reference was Caaporá, the ballet mentioned above. Here we return to the Ukrainian-born dancer, not only because he was involved in the unfinished Argentine project of the early twentieth century, but also because he is especially significant to Herman Cornejo himself.

But what is the basis of this dialogue with Nijinsky? What are the risks of re-imagining it today? Herman Cornejo explains that for him, “re-imagining Nijinsky is a metaphor. I take it as putting into action the Nijinsky I have in my head. That’s how I focus on creating this work.” He has also questioned how Nijinsky might react today to his current project, how he would envision the Guarani legend which inspired Caaporá, and how he would use the language of ballet to narrate the Guarani story.

From the premiere of Anima Animal. Photo: Carlos Villamayor

According to Cornejo, Nijinsky, in keeping with the spirit of his time, imagined the native legend from a much more Europeanist perspective.  For his part, the Argentinian dancer, when creating his own version of the legend, did so from the perspective of aboriginal cultures, valuing and strengthening indigenous beliefs, especially those that manifest the connection with the universe and the concern for the care of the earth.

Vaslav (or Vatslav) Nijinsky (as Vayou), one of the greatest dancers of the early 20th century, has been a source of inspiration for Cornejo. Photo: Web/Wikipedia, public domain

From that point of view, Cornejo focused on how to narrate this legendary world through dance. To achieve this objective, Cornejo surrounded himself with a seasoned team of collaborators. He worked alongside choreographer Anabella Tuliano and the contemporary dance group Abracadabra and musicians Noelia Escalzo and Luis Maurette.  Noelia Escalzo is an academic musician who works with rhythms and folkloric sounds of Latin America; Luis Maurette is an electronic music composer and DJ who has generated a bank of sounds of nature and the traditions of the native cultures. 

The ballet Anima Animal articulate a counterpoint of temporalities, perspectives and languages: it brings the ancestral to the present, mixing the traditional and the contemporary, the classical and the experimental. Also contributing to this interesting counterpoint are the heterogeneous formations and experiences of the eminent artists who participated in the creation of Ánima Animal.[6]

From the premiere of Anima Animal. Photo: Carlos Villamayor

Group scenes are predominant in the choreography that culminates in an extraordinary solo by Herman Cornejo. Everything in the staging, the lights, colors, costumes and sounds that enhance the materiality of the dancing bodies tends to highlight the central role of the Earth and the mystery of Nature through which a transcendent vision of the world is manifested.[7]

Throughout the work, Tuliano and Cornejo introduced changes in relation to what is narrated in the legend of Urutaú; depending on their aesthetic-ideological expectations, they invented their own legend, different from the one shown in the Caaporá script.[8]

For Art and Life / Against All Wars

At the present time, Cornejo’s main project consists of providing continuity to Ánima Animal, a proposal that he conceives as a trilogy. In fact, he has already commissioned another choreographer whom he describes as “incredible” for the second part of Ánima; however, the second part will not be staged until 2025, as the first part will be released in the United States in this same year.  For the third part of the trilogy, Cornejo has already begun to consider which choreographer would be best suited to handle the artistic challenge.

According to the author, the purpose of his project is “to bring to light and stage the spiritual essence of these native peoples. I believe that when we leave this world, what remains is the essence of who you were and what you did. The most important thing is the core, the message. That’s the whole thing.” Cornejo recalls a legend whose theme is that all people can be stars, but in order to recreate that light, each person needs to evolve spiritually.

From the premiere of Anima Animal. Photo: Carlos Villamayor

Although Cornejo is not certain that change can be enacted through dance and art, he acknowledges that it is possible to open a communicative space so that those who are willing can be influenced. This creates bonds of understanding and connection to unite people who aspire to similar goals. The works so created sustain the viewers for a lifetime; as time passes, the central themes of the work continue to be deeply meaningful and relevant to their lived experience.

The ensemble of Anima Animal. Photo: Carlos Villamayor

Like his predecessor Nijinsky, whom he admired greatly, Herman Cornejo is strongly opposed to war. “I am against all wars –said Cornejo– I am against responding with war. Human beings are always inclined to destruction, and I say, ‘Enough!’ I express my refusal to engage in or endorse brutality in my day-to-day living experience, I say ‘No!’  to violence. Help those who need it, starting with the one next to you! I endeavor to act with kindness and in that way I hope to encourage others to act in a similar way. This is also what I aim to do through my work.”

Generosity and acceptance mark the relationships that Cornejo maintains with others, with the Other. It could be said, in general terms, that an “ethics of emotion” permeates the life and work of the Argentine artist. The ethical and aesthetic paradigms operate convergently in his artistic work.  From this convergence arises the profound meaning of the work, whose scenic expression does not allow itself to be enclosed in the social conformity of any  discourse.


Endnotes

[1] The Guarani peoples are the inhabitants of the Eastern Region of Paraguay, the central-western part of Brazil, the Northeast of Argentina and scattered nuclei in areas of the Paraguayan and Bolivian Chaco. See: Los pueblos guaraníes en Paraguay – Biblioteca Virtual CLACSO.

[2] In addition to the above, “He has guested for companies including Teatro alla Scala, National Ballet of Japan, Kremlin Ballet, New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, Hamburg Ballet…among others. Cornejo has received distinctions such as a Bessie Award presented by the NY Dance and Performance League, the 2014 Prix Benois de la Danse as Outstanding Male Dancer of the Year, Latin Idol by Hispanic Magazine”. See here.

[3] Many different versions of the legend of the Urutaú can be found in the various regions mentioned in note 1. A possible translation of “Urutaú” would be “ghost bird.”

[4] In Fabiana Scherer (2022). Herman Cornejo. “Me convertí en un guerrero.” Revista La Nación. Edición N° 2779 ,  pp. 2434. Buenos Aires, 23/10.

[5] Quotes from the interview with M. J. Lavandera by Halima Tahan F. on July 17, 2023.

[6] Ánima Animal: Creación y dirección artística: Herman Cornejo / Coreografía: Anabella Tuliano.
Elenco: Herman Cornejo, Grupo Cadabra (Ximena Tamara Pinto, Romina Magliolo, Belén Mazzola, Samanta Vibart, Guido Bonacossa, Julio Bouhier, Diego Gómez, Claudio Rabinovich) y Gema Bueno, Guadalupe Calvo, María del Valle Montes, Lean Bustos, Braian Moyano y Gabriel Núñez del Programa de Formación para Bailarines del TB.
Escenografía e iluminación: Lautaro Graciosi Música: Noelia Escalzo y Luis Maurette/ Diseño de vestuario: Elsa Edith Schenone / Producción: María José Lavandera/ Producción general: Teatro del Bicentenario de San Juan, Argentina. /Fecha de estreno: septiembre de 2022.

[7] A brief speech  about Herman Cornejo and the proyect Anima Animal entitled Dance, Nature and Myth  was presented by Tahan, the author of this note,  at the Symposium on Theatre and Ecology held in Tokyo, September 2023.

[8] In this new proposal, where roles were reversed and other narrative resources were incorporated, it is not the princess who transforms into the bird of legend but the warrior Guyra after having accidentally killed his beloved, the beautiful Ivy. This tragic error (hamartia) and the unbearable pain it causes generate this metamorphosis. 


*Halima Tahan Ferreyra (PhD), critic and writer, is Area Coordinator, Institute of Performing Arts, University of Buenos Aires. She has directed Teatro al Sur, a Latin American Journal and Ediciones Artes del Sur, and is the author of numerous plays, theatrical essays and artistic projects.  Dr. Ferreyra has also served as curator of the Rituals of Passage program at the San Martín, the Theatre of the city of Buenos Aires, and is currently a member of the Editorial Board of Critical Stages and the Executive Committee of the IATC.

Copyright © 2023 Halima Tahan Ferreyra
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