By Lyndsey Winship
The Evening Standard
August 4, 2015
[London, England] – Isaac Hernández is pondering whether he’s ever really been in love. “The more I think about it, the less sure I am of it,” says the 25-year-old Mexican dancer, fresh out of rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet, where he is learning the role of the tragic Montague. “Since I haven’t ended up poisoning myself, I think I haven’t felt what Romeo has felt,” he decides.
Brown-black curls flop into his eyes as he talks and one thing that’s certain is that audiences will soon be falling in love with Hernández, the latest hot young dancer to land in London, and the new lead principal at English National Ballet. Critics have called him “exhilarating”, a “consummate showman” and an audience favourite who is “totally alive to each moment”. He’s one of a wave of Latin American dancers who are making it big in ballet, impressing with their technical prowess and charisma.
The first male Mexican dancer to reach many ballet milestones, Hernández has danced with San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Dutch National Ballet, won prizes in Moscow, Havana and Mississippi and fulfilled a lifelong dream with a guest spot at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. By the age of 24, Hernandez had achieved almost all of the dancing goals he’d set himself, taking lead roles — he particularly loves the romance and technical fireworks of the big classical three-act ballets — and becoming a principal dancer in 2013 (you can see a video online of him being promoted after a performance of Sleeping Beauty). He’d also set up a youth-focused non-profit organisation in Mexico and founded the first free ballet school in the country. “If everything I have done is for myself, and only I experience the benefits, that is a really awful and empty way to live,” he says. Cute, clever and altruistic too. It’s all a bit too good to be true.
But Hernández was not content to sit back and enjoy success, he wanted to be better; he wanted to be the best. And what do you do when you want to be the best in your field? Come to London, of course. Hernández first met ENB director Tamara Rojo as a starstruck 14-year-old, dancing at a gala in Mexico. “Of course I was always dreaming that maybe one day I would be able to dance a full-length ballet in London with her,” he says. Almost a decade later, Hernández came to London to see his little brother Esteban graduate from the Royal Ballet School and bumped into Rojo.
She invited him to perform with her as a guest at the Coliseum in January and it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. “To be able to dance with Tamara …” he starts, a little speechless. “In what reality could I have imagined that? It was impossible! It’s a dream for any dancer to dance in London. In Amsterdam I was well protected, and in San Francisco. They’re companies with a local audience and that creates a very protective atmosphere for the dancers. It was safe, the audience liked me.”
At his first London show he was an unknown. “At the Coliseum, I didn’t feel protected at all,” he says. “It’s a huge stage, a lot of responsibility, the audience didn’t know me. I felt pretty naked basically. I felt very exposed.”
But it was enough to give him a taste for a new challenge. “Personally, I’ve never liked big cities,” he says, “and that is one of the first things I told Tamara. I was very happy in Amsterdam, a small, beautiful city where you can have a very comfortable life. But as soon as I heard myself saying that I thought, I cannot be thinking like that being 25 years old. I want to be able to live every possible experience that I can, while I can,” he says. “At the end of the day that’s all we can take with us, the experiences we’ve lived.”
It’s all a long way from Hernández’s first ballet lessons, aged eight, in the backyard of his home in Guadalajara, where his dad Hector — a former dancer himself — laid thin wooden planks over the slanted ground and erected a makeshift barre for Isaac to learn the basic ballet exercises. Using the windows as a mirror to correct himself, for two years Isaac would practise for three hours at a time. “I’ve always had that in me,” he says. “If I’m going to do something, I want to do it as best as I can.”
As one of 11 children in a crowded house, these lessons became precious father-son time and Hernández senior would tell Isaac stories from his time dancing in New York: about the dancer who could balance on one leg for minutes on end, or of the feeling of flying when leaping through the air in grand allegro steps. Hernández was intoxicated by these things he could barely imagine.
He couldn’t leap through the air himself because there wasn’t space in the small yard. Instead he had to stick to the static barre exercises, which are usually just the beginning of each class. It’s the equivalent of practising writing the alphabet for two years but never forming a sentence. However, when you do start to form words, that handwriting is bound to be beautiful. And so it proved, when some of Hector’s former students clubbed together to help build a studio for Isaac and his unconventional training paid off. “I think the first time I tried pirouettes I did at least four,” he remembers. And from there he’s never looked back.
Hernández started winning local competitions, was offered a scholarship to the Paris Opera Ballet school aged 11 (he took one class there and begged his mum to take him home), and a bidding war broke out between schools when he performed at the Youth American Grand Prix aged 12. He went on to train in Philadelphia and straight into a professional career, which has now led him to London.
He’s only been in London for two days when we meet and how much time he’ll have to explore his new city is moot. Hernández is bedding down in Chelsea but his real home will be ENB’s Kensington studios, where he’ll spend six days a week, pursuing perfection. “I told Tamara when I agreed to come that I wanted them to push me. And Tamara takes that very seriously. That woman is an incredible dancer who pushes you to your best level.”
He’s inspired by being surrounded by his fellow Latin Americans too, he says, talking of Cubans Yonah Acosta (Carlos’s nephew) and Alejandro Virelles, young Mexican Cesar Corrales and Brazilian Junor Souza. “When you are in a class where everybody is so talented, and so able, it pushes you to do more. I’m wondering,” he muses, “how far can we go?”
The proliferation of Latin American men is noticeable in companies around the world, not just this one. Why does Hernández think that’s a trend? “We are people that are passionate,” he says. “And passion is what moves ballet. On stage, we are what we have lived. You have to have lived through bad experiences and good, struggles and happiness, and all of us in Latin America have this.”
There’s an economic imperative too. “Necessity inspires people, of course,” he adds. Dance as a way out, or a step up. “I don’t think it’s precisely a positive thing but it is something that has pushed a lot of dancers in Latin America. It’s pushed me into putting in the extra hours because it is the opportunity to change your life,” he says. “At the end of the day, ballet changed my life.”
Copyright 2015 The Evening Standard
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