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Ballet West Academy's New Director on Dream Building During COVID-19

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate is bringing her hard-earned expertise to Ballet West. The former San Francisco Ballet star is taking over all four campuses of The Frederick Quinney Lawson Ballet West Academy as the school's new director.

Cisneros-Legate, whose mother put her in ballet classes in an attempt to help her overcome her shyness, trained at the San Francisco Ballet School and School of American Ballet before joining San Francisco Ballet as a full company member in 1977. She danced with the company for 23 years, breaking barriers as the first Mexican American to become a principal dancer in the U.S., and has graced the cover of Dance Magazine no fewer than three times.

As an educator, Cisneros-Legate has served as ballet coordinator at San Francisco Ballet, principal of Boston Ballet School's North Shore Studio and artistic director of after-school programming at the National Dance Institute (NDI). Dance Teacher spoke with her about her new position, her plans for the academy and leading in the time of COVID-19.


Congratulations on your recent appointment! What does this hiring mean to you?

For me, it's kind of the pinnacle of my after-dancing career. To join a wonderful, large organization with such a fantastic reputation in the industry is really rewarding. To have used all my experience with San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet and NDI—all of that comes together to give me the experience I need for this.

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate demonstrates first arabesque arms, limbs stretching beyond the edge of the photo, as a male and female dancer in rehearsal clothes watch from the back of the studio.

Courtesy Ballet West

What drew you to this particular opportunity?

Ballet West feels like completing a circle. I started at San Francisco Ballet as a student at the end of the Harold Christensen regime. I was hired into the company by Lew Christensen, and Ballet West founder Willam Christensen would come out and visit his brothers often. I had the chance to meet him, and was even able to come to Utah to stage Michael Smuin's The Tempest at one point. It feels like family.

What are your goals for the school?

I'm particularly excited about building up our youth—the future generation. It's important that the base of our company pyramid is broad. These dancers are more than just our future company members, they're our future audience, musicians, donors, staff. There is something for everyone. The things these young dancers learn will give them the ability to focus, to understand spatial awareness, to recognize their own physical capabilities, self-confidence, work ethic and critical thinking. These skills will allow them to become the best workers in any discipline.

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate extends a leg crois\u00e9 front at 90 degrees in center, upstage arm in fifth. Behind her, masked students in pink tights and black leotards watch or imitate. All wear face masks.

Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

What challenges are you anticipating?

The climate of our country is our biggest hurdle. We have students in the studios and they are beautiful and so happy to be back dancing outside of their bedroom, but they are still masked. I can feel their trepidation moving forward into the unknown. Our youth are facing things we have never experienced before. The challenge is keeping them inspired and in the dream so we don't lose dancers, who could have otherwise had wonderful careers, to the pandemic.

You’ve been a trailblazer for women of color in the industry. What advice would you give to the next generation of dancers looking to break barriers?

I feel this generation has an extraordinary opportunity because barriers have been mostly broken down. There may be a few obstacles, but I would challenge this generation to see them not as hurdles to jump over, but opportunities to take hold of. Use who you are as a strength to benefit ballet.

What advice do you have for dance teachers looking to lead in this difficult time?

It is essential you be more sensitive to the youth right now. Have an open door for them so you can stop casualties of the pandemic. I've already had one student quit due to hopelessness. Teach your students that all their dreams can still happen, even if they look a little different than they thought. Help them view this as something empowering, rather than something that will squash them. Ask them to step forward honestly before their concerns overwhelm them.

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