Isaac Hernandez’s “Despertares” Brings Ballet to New Heights
On a hot July Sunday in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, young dancers and their families are crowded outside the Teatro de la Ciudad awaiting to take master classes with renowned Mexican dancer, Isaac Hernandez. The excitement is palpable. A proud father captures video of his son on his phone, as he tells the camera about the class he is about to take. Scenes like this may be common in cities like New York or London, where ballet, and the arts in general, have found their stronghold. But for Hernandez, it’s something he has devoted the last decade to forging.
Hernandez, 32, has been a star at both the Dutch National Ballet and English National Ballet and is currently a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. He has been a guest artist with some of ballet’s biggest companies including the Paris Opera Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet, Opera de Roma, and Teatro Colon and in 2018, Hernandez was awarded the Prix Benois de la Danse for “Best Male Dancer.” But beyond his credentials, the heart of Hernandez’s career has been his mission to promote ballet in his native country and create opportunities for young Mexican dancers to develop their talent.
“One of our responsibilities as Mexicans—really, as a society in general—is to work for Mexico to improve and advance without expecting anything in return,” says Hernandez.
The master classes were just one part of “Despertares Impulsa,” a two-day program which also included auditions for the Royal Ballet School (the first time the acclaimed school has come to Mexico) and a youth conference with Hernandez called “Living with Purpose”—all offered free of charge. Despertares Impulsa, now in its third edition, is organized by Hernandez and his family’s production company, Soul Arts Productions. In Mexico City later that week, Hernandez headlined the 9th Despertares gala performance at the National Auditorium featuring a star-studded line up which included his brother, Esteban Hernandez; Misa Kuranaga; Brooklyn Mack; Michaela DePrince; Chyrstyn Fentroy; and Mayara Magri, among others.
“I admire Isaac,” says Lizbeth Delagarza, an 18-year-old ballet student from Monterrey who says she wanted to attend his master class to gain motivation. “He has made the world look up to him. I hope someday I can be a Mexican the world can look up to also.”
Ricardo Bujanda, 25, is a Mexican American from Denver, Colorado who is entering his last year studying at the Escuela Ballet de Monterrey. He notes how he admires Isaac and the work he has done to raise the perception of ballet in the country.
“Isaac represents the Mexican culture abroad and is proud of it,” says Bujanda. “He brings everything he learns back here and it puts it into perspective that we should also do the same as well.”
During an autograph signing in Mexico City, a young boy named Maximiliano Esteban, seven years old, traveled by bus for 15 hours from Chiapas (near the border of Guatemala), to meet Hernandez and hand him a drawing he created. Dressed like a little Basilio from “Don Quixote,” Esteban couldn’t contain his excitement after meeting his idol. “I felt a lot of happiness. My dream is to be a professional ballet dancer like Isaac one day.”
For these young people, Hernandez serves as a cultural icon and inspiration. Parents traveled from all over the country to have their children attend his master classes and audition for the Royal Ballet School. His “Living with Purpose” conference drew 1,200 registrants and the Despertares gala was sold out to a crowd of 10,000.
But to truly appreciate the significance of Hernandez’s impact, one needs to understand the hurdles he had to overcome to make ballet part of the cultural conversation in Mexico.
“When you tell someone you are a dancer in a place like the US or Europe, people may think of qualities like discipline, control, musicality, but it’s not that same mentality here in Mexico,” says Bujanda.
Hernandez has had to contend with several factors: dance being overshadowed by other popular past times such as soccer or boxing; a cultural belief that someone who pursues a career in the arts will have a “starving career,” and furthermore, navigating a society in which the social constructs around masculinity are very pronounced (also known as “machismo”), making it ever the more challenging for males to study ballet.
These are challenges his own father, Hector Hernandez, knows all too well. A dancer himself, Hector pursued ballet against his parents’ wishes and went on to perform with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Harkness Ballet, and Houston Ballet. He began teaching Isaac ballet, along with his ten other children, in their backyard patio, to offer physical education while they were being homeschooled. The children used a railing as a barre and Hector laid down two planks of wood on the patio. To this day, Hector continues to teach at the six free ballet schools he has opened in the state of Jalisco, where he also runs a youth performing troupe, Joven Ballet HH, with his wife Laura serving as executive director. Through these efforts, they aim to make ballet more accessible to those in underprivileged communities.
In this same spirit of giving back, Isaac created Soul Arts Productions in 2014, along with his brother, Esteban, his sister Emilia, and brother-in-law Matthis Loutreuil. Through projects like Despertares, they hope to promote ballet and other creative industries as a means for a better future for Mexico.
Looking ahead, Isaac hopes to turn the activities of Despertares Impulsa (master classes, workshops, free auditions, and conferences) and make them more sustainable throughout the year.
“I’m trying to open a production school in Mexico that can work year-round in all sides of production,” explains Isaac. “If we want Mexico to grow creative industries, we need to professionalize this education as well. I was talking to the Secretary of Culture in the state of Monterrey and she said they have one lighting designer in the whole state that does theatre, dance, and all of their concerts and shows. So, I hope that we can create a program that can work throughout the year in providing master classes, workshops, and education in this sort of craft. I do think for people to go to the theatre, to trust the arts as a way of life, they need to see it as a possibility and the tools need to be there for them to make a proper living. I think there is huge potential in that sense.”
He would also like to create more long-term relationships with prestigious ballet schools around the world, such as the Royal Ballet School, San Francisco Ballet School and English National Ballet School, who have all participated in Despertares Impulsa, to bring their teachers to Mexico for periods of time and provide programs such as student assessments and instructor trainings.
“Because of what Isaac has accomplished, now a parent in Mexico can’t tell their child that it is impossible to become a dancer,” says Emilia. “He’s changed the perception. Now young people can get involved in creative industries and understand qualities like discipline and having a vision.”
Despertares (meaning “Awakenings” in Spanish) is one example of how ballet can be another platform to put Mexico on the world stage. As its namesake, Despertares has awakened Mexican audiences to how ballet can be a catalyst for social change, and all the possibilities that lie within their reach.
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