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?<p>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.</p>
Courtesy Ballet West
What drew you to this particular opportunity?<p>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 <em>The</em> <em>Tempest </em>at one point. It feels like family.</p>
What are your goals for the school?<p>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.</p>
Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West
What challenges are you anticipating?<p>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.</p>
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?<p>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.</p>
What advice do you have for dance teachers looking to lead in this difficult time?<p>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.</p>
In March, prior to sheltering in place due to the coronavirus outbreak, my husband and I traveled from New York City to Miami to screen our award-winning documentary, Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back, at the Miami Film Festival.
Our star, Tony Award–nominated dancer and choreographer Maurice Hines joined us in Miami for the festival—stepping and repeating on the opening night red carpet, sharing anecdotes from his illustrious seven-decade career with local tap students, and holding court at a cocktail mixer with lively female fans.
A still from "Bring Them Back"; Hines teaching at University of Hartford
How I Became a Documentary Producer<p>I have fond memories of going on bus trips from Baltimore with my mom to catch Broadway shows. One unforgettable matinee was <em>Sophisticated Ladies</em>, starring Gregory Hines and Judith Jamison. My mom and I left the theater in awe of the dazzling dance numbers and humming tunes from the swinging Duke Ellington songbook, and we caught a glimpse of Gregory, a scarf coolly flung over his shoulder, exiting through the stage door. Eventually, Maurice would replace his brother in <em>Sophisticated Ladies</em>. It seems serendipitous that several decades after seeing this Broadway show, I would write and produce a documentary about Maurice and his family.</p><p>My husband, independent filmmaker John Carluccio, was introduced to the idea of documenting Maurice through a friend of a friend. Maurice was slow to offer full access, but over time, John gained his trust by being patient, persistent and consistent. After the original production team dismantled, John asked me to come on board. Previously, we had produced lifestyle segments together for Brooklyn Independent Television. Working with my spouse is sometimes challenging, but we make a good team.</p><p>Career-wise, I was at a crossroads. For over 25 years, I'd worked in publishing as a lifestyle and entertainment writer and editor for a variety of media companies, including Dance Media. I yearned to switch gears and move in a new direction, and John knew that my perspective as a Black woman knowledgeable about dance and Broadway would be an asset to the film.</p><p>As the film's writer and producer, I keep the storytelling streamlined, objective and culturally rooted, and focused on the project's financial goals. Shifting my perspective helped me to see that as a journalist—guiding a story from inception to completion—I was already a producer.</p>
Hopkins (right) with Hines (center)
Carlos Sanfer, courtesy Hopkins
Telling Maurice's Story<p><em>Maurice Hines:</em> <em>Bring Them Back</em> is an intimate portrait full of song and dance, and heart and soul. The documentary intercuts rare archival footage of Maurice and Gregory—who began performing together at ages 7 and 5 as the Hines Kids and then cemented their stardom as Hines, Hines & Dad, with a Las Vegas residency and their father Maurice Hines Sr. on drums—with scenes of Maurice in the present day.</p><p>We watch the native New Yorker walk down memory lane at the famed Apollo Theater, where he and Gregory performed as kids, and reminisce about tap greats the Nicholas Brothers with modern day tap star Jason Samuels Smith. We also capture poignant moments, like the U.S. Postal Service launch event for the Gregory Hines Black Heritage stamp, where Maurice took the stage with his niece Daria and tearfully confessed how much he misses his brother.</p><p>Although I was familiar with Maurice's work (in 2006 I saw his ambitious Broadway musical <em>Hot Feet</em> set to the music of Earth, Wind & Fire), putting the documentary together gave me greater insight into the life and times of this showbiz survivor. In the '80s, he co-created the innovative dance company Ballet Tap USA, with Mercedes Ellington. And during filming, I watched the surprisingly spry senior hold his own onstage with far younger hoofers, dexterously teach tap students a Bill "Bojangles" Robinson step to the beat of Janet Jackson's "Nasty," and show burgeoning bunheads how to be fierce.</p><p>But beneath his supportive dance teacher demeanor and energetic stage persona, there's a palpable loneliness as he grows older without his brother Gregory, who died of cancer in 2003. Maurice taught Gregory to tap, yet he would often underplay his own accomplishments and gush about how great Gregory was. He didn't hesitate to yell "Cut!" to us if a conversation became too close for comfort. But over time, Maurice opened up and shared his truth—about how being outspoken and openly gay affected his career, and his complicated, often estranged relationship with his brother.</p>
Shooting With the Stars<p>My first official shoot on the documentary was at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) in Los Angeles. Admittedly, I was a little starstruck, perhaps because I grew up watching Allen in <em>Fame</em>. Ms. Allen graciously agreed to be an executive producer on our documentary, and it was touching to watch the fellow Howard University graduate affectionately introduce her students to her dear friend Maurice.</p><p>Other highlights of the nearly three-year production were a thrift store shoot—a shopping passion I share with Maurice, who has a flair for vintage coats—and coordinating the conversation between Maurice and Broadway legend Chita Rivera (they co-starred in <em>Bring Back Birdie</em>) at Dance Theatre of Harlem.</p>
A still from "Bring Them Back"; Hines teaching at DADA
What I'm Taking Away From the Experience<p>Since we wrapped filming, John and I stay in touch with Maurice, now 76. We're proud to be part of his circle of friends and that our soulful story about this trailblazing elder showman has been well received by diverse audiences.</p><p>Writing and producing this documentary has shown me that I enjoy visual storytelling, and that I hope to continue to grow as a film writer and producer to champion underrepresented Black narratives. It has reaffirmed for me that as an African-American woman and storyteller, my voice matters.</p>
Gabe Stone Shayer may be American Ballet Theatre's newest soloist, but he never dreamed he'd be dancing with the company at all. Though he grew up in Philadelphia, his sights were always set on international ventures—especially The Bolshoi Ballet and The Royal Ballet.
Even in his early training, he was learning from Russian educators: Alexander Boitsov at Gwendolyn Bye Dance Center, and Alexei and Natalia Cherov, from the Koresh School of Dance. At age 13, he transferred to The Rock School for Dance Education, where he danced until his acceptance to The Bolshoi Ballet Academy at age 14. At 16, Shayer returned to spend his summer in the States and attended ABT's summer intensive—fully intent on going back to Bolshoi to continue his training in the fall. Four weeks in, he was offered a studio-company contract. "I was so surprised," Shayer says. "Having come of age in Russia, I was very Eurocentric. Of course ABT was on my radar, I just never imagined it was for me."