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Hispanic Heritage

Evelyn Cisneros

Birth: 1959 in Long Beach, California

Occupation: Ballerina.

For nearly a quarter of a century Evelyn Cisneros captivated audiences as the prima ballerina of the prestigious San Francisco Ballet. She gained worldwide acclaim for her dancing which was both dramatically expressive and technically precise. Choreographers clamored to create dances for her. Partners were eager to share the stage with her. Critics were adoring. Fans entranced. Manuel Flores, director of the New Mexico Ballet Theatre told the Albuquerque Journal, "she is a symbol of what a ballerina should be." Her skill combined with her ethereal beauty and onstage charisma propelled her into the ranks of ballet stardom, however she was as famous for her generosity and approachability as she was for her talent. Throughout her busy career she dedicated herself to helping others, from fellow dancers to teenaged girls to people ill with AIDS. Along the way she has become a role model for Hispanics. "Because I am Mexican, I am glad to be a role model to children," she told the Albuquerque Journal. "Just seeing someone who has the same color skin inspires them to a higher level of excellence." It is just such excellence that has been the hallmark of Cisneros's distinguished career.

Began Dancing to Overcome Shyness

Evelyn Cisneros was born in 1959 and raised in Huntington Beach, California. Her grandparents were migrant workers from Mexico and her parents were very involved with the local Hispanic community. As children she and her brother attended a Spanish-speaking church and were taught to be proud of their heritage. However, Cisneros was crippled by shyness. "I found that shyness was keeping me bound and captive in its own box," she said in a convocation speech she gave at Mills College of Oakland, California. At the age of four, she was made to join a children's choir during a Christmas recital. As she sang she slowly lifted the hem of her dress so that by the end of the song it was completely over her head, safely hiding her from public view. Telling the story at Mills College she recalled, "I suppose that was the first time I upstaged anyone."

Her shyness continued to plague her until, at the age of seven, her mother Esther took action. Cisneros told the students at Mills, "one day my mother took me to buy a pair of tights, a leotard and ballet slippers, shortly after that I found myself in ballet class. At first I was so frightened and would feign stomach aches, headaches, any illness to keep me from this alien atmosphere, but my mother and I had a deal that I would stick with it for one year and if I still didn't want to go, I could quit." Instead, she fell in love with ballet.

Cisneros was a natural. Her mother recalled to the San Francisco Chronicle, "her ballet teacher said, 'I've been searching for 35 years, and I have finally gotten my ballerina.' She was 9." The only Mexican American in her class, Cisneros was very dedicated, juggling ballet lessons with an active school schedule that included playing on the softball, volleyball, basketball, and track teams. At the age of 13, it became too much and she had to choose between sports and ballet. "After discussing the situation with my parents I knew I had to try to be a ballerina," she said at Mills. "There was this fire inside my heart that burned with the desire — the need — to dance." The decision made, Cisneros pursued ballet with incredible conviction. She skipped lunch so that she could leave school early. By mid-afternoon she was traveling the hour and a half ride to a ballet studio in North Hollywood. After a few hours of rehearsal, she returned home to do her homework and sleep. This went on five days a week, every week. On the weekends she spent entire days rehearsing. During the summers she trained with two of the country's most esteemed dance academies, the San Francisco Ballet School and the School of American Ballet.

Debuted with the San Francisco Ballet

Cisneros's dedication paid off at the age of 15 when she was offered an apprenticeship at the San Francisco Ballet. After finishing high school she accepted the position and arrived in San Francisco on February 1, 1976. Two days later she was onstage. A dancer had been injured and Cisneros was asked to step in. She learned the dance in five hours. She wrote on Evelyn Cisneros's Web Page, "I was terrified, but I knew that this was my big opportunity and that if I proved that I was capable of learning a ballet and performing it well in that short amount of time, that I could make myself invaluable to the company."

Michael Smuin, the San Francisco Ballet's artistic director and choreographer, took the shy Cisneros under his wing and became her mentor. "Michael made me what I am," Cisneros told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999. "He created so many roles for me. He gave me the chance to become the dancer I have become. I adored him." The adoration was mutual. In the same San Francisco Chronicle article, Smuin said, "I can tell you honestly that there were times when I was choreographing when it was Evelyn who showed me, in the way she could move, the direction a dance could take." Cisneros proved herself to be a dramatic dancer and a wonderful actress. She was the perfect vehicle for Smuin's highly theatrical choreography. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "the two flourished side by side."

Cisneros soon became the company's favorite dancer. Dance Magazine wrote, "Most of all, there is the audience, whom Cisneros has transported to many a ballet dreamworld with her dancing, her sheer physical beauty, and her ability to project emotions across the footlights." However it was more than the audience that fell sway to her charms. Cisneros was universally loved by fellow dancers, choreographers, board members, and community leaders. "She's extremely generous," Anthony Randazzo, a regular dance partner of Cisneros told Dance Magazine. "She's very inclusive. She really dances with me, looks into my eyes, responds to me. She doesn't say, 'This is the way I see it, and you're my partner and you better just follow my lead.' She makes me part of the whole dance." In the same article, Cisneros's husband, San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Stephen Legate added, "She is always there for the audience. She has such a warm and wonderful heart that it can't help but come through."

Improved Reputation While Adapting to Change

Throughout her career Cisneros has directed that warmth and kindness towards those less fortunate, particularly Hispanic girls. She has volunteered at both Girls, Inc. and Latinas y Que. "Just from watching her with the girls, you can see how she engages them," a fellow volunteer told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's not about doing her duty; it's because she genuinely cares about her community." Cisneros also reached out to Hispanic people suffering from AIDS when she joined the board of Project Open Hand in the 1980s. The organization delivers meals to people ill with AIDS and before Cisneros came on board they were having trouble gaining access to the Hispanic community. The former director of Project Open Hand told the San Francisco Chronicle, "When she delivered food, it went beyond nutrition. She radiated joy and brought a smile to people's faces."

In 1985 changes took place at the San Francisco Ballet that rocked the company and culminated in the replacement of Smuin as artistic director as well as the firing of several dancers. Newspapers were filled with stories about backstage bickering and new director Helgi Tomasson faced an uphill battle to keep the company going. Though she mourned the loss of Smuin, Cisneros remained above the fray. "One should not have to take sides," she told the San Francisco Chronicle. She concluded, "I have just tried to stay true to the dance." Though many believe that Tomasson purposefully snubbed her — she was cut from opening nights and not cast in roles that had been created for her — Cisneros did stay true to the dance and to the new director. Soon, Tomasson, like everyone else who knew her, was enchanted. "Evelyn has such a warm, beautiful smile," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "You can't help but notice her right away, the moment she comes onstage. She has real charisma, a real gift not many people have." She and Tomasson went on to enjoy a prolific relationship and he created several roles for her.

Under the second director of her career, Cisneros began to embrace modern dance. Dance Magazine wrote, "One reason San Francisco Ballet has distinguished itself in recent years as a ballet company that can do modern — without looking like a ballet company doing modern — is its most distinguished classical ballerina; Cisneros has become its elemental, essential modern dancer." In that same article Tomasson said, "The contemporary work has been really good for her. It shows a side of her that she has great strength in and has been extremely musical in." In 1995 choreographer Val Caniparoli created Lambarena for her, a cutting-edge mix of African dance and classical ballet. It became one of her favorite pieces to perform. She has also worked with modern dance master Mark Morris and has performed at Massachusetts's famed modern dance festival, Jacob's Pillow.

Retired From the Stage But Not Dance

In 1999, at the age of 40, Cisneros retired from the San Francisco Ballet. "I want to have a family and that is the most important thing to me right now," she told the San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco Ballet's Charles McNeal echoed the sentiments of many when he told the San Francisco Chronicle, "it's the end of an era. I don't know of any other artist like her. She's been an icon of this institution: gracious, committed, honest. The beauty and talent you see onstage is exactly who she is." At her final performance the mayor of San Francisco introduced her and a tribute video was shown. She was honored with standing ovations and many tears were shed. The dance critic for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of her final performance, "She was elegant, sensual, firmly in control yet somehow impetuous. She seemed to be telling us she was fine, that we will be fine, even as she danced away from us."

Following her retirement, Cisneros and Legate had a boy named Ethan. She also began teaching. "I've always been interested in working with children," she told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's something that I enjoy doing, and I want to give back to the community for getting behind me and supporting my work and my time here." However, she also felt a commitment to ballet. As she told the Albuquerque Journal, "My greatest fear is that the art of ballet will disappear in our country. Our response as artists who have devoted their lives to perfecting the art form is to pass it on to the next generation." To pursue both of these objectives, in 2002 Cisneros became the ballet education coordinator for the San Francisco Ballet. She also took on a monthly ballet help column for Dance Magazine. Meanwhile, Cisneros has hinted that she may yet pursue modern dance like ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov who began a brilliant career in modern dance at the age of 50. Whether she does or not, one thing is sure, Cisneros has enjoyed a satisfying career. "I have had such a great time," she told the San Francisco Chronicle. "And I am just so grateful that I have been able to do so much more than I ever dreamed I could do, that I have had such joy. That is the one thing I hope people go away with: the joy I have tried to share with the audience."

Personal Information

Born in 1959 in Long Beach, CA; married David McNaughton (divorced); married Stephen Legate, 1996; children: Ethan. Memberships: Advisory board member, Smuin Ballets/SF, San Francisco, CA; board member, Project Open Hand, San Francisco, CA; spokesperson, Fifth Annual Chicano/Latino Youth Leadership Conference, California State University, 1988. Addresses: Office — San Francisco Ballet, 455 Franklin St., San Francisco, CA, 94102.

Awards

Selected: Annual Cultural Award, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, 1985; Outstanding Member of the Hispanic Community, National Council of America, 1987; Isadora Duncan Performer's Award, Bay Area Dance Coalition, 1989; "100 Most Influential Hispanics," Hispanic Business, 1992; Cyril Magnin Award, Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, The Business Arts Council, San Francisco, CA, 1999; Isadora Duncan Awards, Ensemble Performance (with Stephen Legate), 2000; honorary doctorate, Mills College, Oakland, CA; honorary doctorate, California State University at Monterey Bay.

CAREER

San Francisco Ballet, Ballerina, 1976-1999; San Francisco Ballet, Ballet Education Coordinator, 2002-. Guest Dancer, appearances include: Monterrey, Mexico, 1991; Madrid, Spain, 1990; International Ballet Festival with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1990; International Ballet Festival, Havana, Cuba, 1984, 1988.

Further Readings

Periodicals

  • Albuquerque Journal, Albuquerque, NM, July 22, 2001, p. F5.
  • Dance Magazine, April 1997, p. 60.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, May 1, 1998, p. C4; January 24, 1999, p. 26; May 5, 1999, p. A1; May 7, 1999, p. A22; May 11, 1999, p. B1; June 9, 2002, p. 45.

Online

  • "Evelyn Cisneros," Performing Arts Video, www.pav.org/evelyn.htm (March 25, 2003).
  • "Evelyn Cisneros - Mills College Convocation" Voice of Dance, www.voiceofdance.org/Insights/vcol.e.cisneros.html (March 25, 2003).

Source Citation

Contemporary Hispanic Biography. Vol. 3. Gale, 2003.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2004.

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