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First Hispanic prima ballerina recalls obstacles she overcame

Evelyn Cisneros, NDI New Mexico's artistic director, teaches an advanced-level class of ballerinas, Friday, August 26, 2016. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Evelyn Cisneros, NDI New Mexico’s artistic director, teaches an advanced-level class of ballerinas, Friday, August 26, 2016. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Evelyn Cisneros still moves with the willowed grace of a prima ballerina.

A copy of Edgar Degas’ famous “Little Dancer” sculpture sits on her desk. The magazine covers and photographs of a 23-year career frame her National Dance Institute office like rock posters.

The artistic director of New Mexico NDI since 2013, Cisneros was a principal dancer for the San Francisco Ballet, taking lead roles in “Swan Lake,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” and countless others. World-renowned choreographers penned ballets for her.

She performed at the White House.

She danced in Carlos Santana’s “Supernatural” DVD.

She was the first Hispanic prima ballerina in the U.S.

To reach that artistic pinnacle, she battled obstacles that would have shattered less determined dancers. She overcame physical problems as well as prejudice. A ballet master forced her to paint her skin to look as pale as the other dancers.

NDI Director Russell Baker once lived in the Bay Area and regularly attended Cisneros’ performances.

“If you went to the San Francisco Ballet, you hoped Evelyn would dance the lead role,” he said. “She was beloved.”

Today she leads young dancers in New Mexico’s mushrooming NDI program. Cisneros and her family arrived in New Mexico just three years ago, but she says she already feels at home.

Taking the first step

Cisneros grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., the schoolgirl too shy to raise her hand in class. Her mother thought taking ballet would help and took her to a strip-mall studio.

“At first, I didn’t like it,” Cisneros said. “I had a different teacher every week. We agreed I would do it for a year.”

Then the right teacher, Phyllis Cyr, appeared. Cisneros was just 7½.

“She influenced me in the joy of moving to music,” Cisneros said.

Her parents took her to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform “Swan Lake” when she was 10.

“I told my mother I would be happy just to be one of the girls in the back. I was smitten.”

From then on, Cisneros focused on ballet like a life raft. Soon she was demonstrating moves to the younger dancers for cash.

“I didn’t know I had everything it took to be a professional dancer, but I knew I wanted to try.”

Cisneros was a pigeon-toed swan. Her left hip was too tight and her left foot was pigeon-toed — potential career-enders because ballet is grounded in outward rotation. She overcame what could have become a disability through a brutal work ethic.

In high school, she took seven classes in a row without a lunch break so she could attend ballet class. At 14, she won a scholarship to study with the San Francisco Ballet. She also danced on weekends with a small company, still managing to maintain a 3.86 grade point average. She never went on a date.

Her parents instilled that drive for excellence.

“My grandparents all emigrated from Mexico,” she said. “We were always told and expected to act as role models for the country of Mexico. I think it served us so well. I was always so sensitive, especially to the little ones who were brown like me.”

Evelyn Cisneros in “Confidencias” at the San Francisco Ballet. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Evelyn Cisneros in “Confidencias” at the San Francisco Ballet.

Building a career

The ballet made her an apprentice at 16. She finished high school early, then moved eight hours away from home to San Francisco.

The company placed her in a residential house that included two meals a day. She lived on $200 a month, plus $5 for every dance. She first danced to a highly complex George Balanchine piece. The choreographer is considered the founder of American ballet.

“I remember kneeling down on the bathroom floor and saying, ‘Oh, Lord, please let me do this’,” she said. “I had just turned 17.”

When Cisneros was still in the corps, the ballet master told her to lighten her dark skin with makeup. She painted her neck, her chest, her arms and her face – every inch of exposed skin.

“It was what I had to do,” she said quietly. “I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to look like everybody else.’ It made me more determined to not to be in the corps. He humiliated me in front of the whole company. I thought, ‘OK, you will not make me cry and you will not make me quit.’ ”

All demands to lighten her skin dissolved once she rose to principal.

Co-artistic director Michael Smuin, who worked on Broadway and choreographed the cantina scene in the original “Star Wars,” began creating dances for her.

“He became my mentor, and I became his muse,” Cisneros said.

“I went out with George (Lucas) once,” she added. “He was so shy.”

She tap-danced to Stravinsky at the White House after being introduced by Gene Kelly and Beverly Sills. Ronald and Nancy Reagan sat in the front row.

“He was lovely,” Cisneros said of the late president. “He was warm, he was friendly. He was so engaged because his son Ronnie danced at the Joffrey.”

Former San Francisco principal dancer Anthony Randazzo was Cisneros’ partner for 10 years.

“We could take a lot of risks together because there was trust,” he said in a telephone interview from Boston, where he works as the Boston Ballet master. “We wouldn’t let each other down. She translated across the orchestra pit. I think people felt they knew her.”

Cisneros tried to move to other companies at least three times, but after each interview, the competing company withdrew her contract. She discovered later the San Francisco board had told the director he could not lose her.

Evelyn Cisneros leads dancers at NDI New Mexico. Cisneros was principal ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Evelyn Cisneros leads dancers at NDI New Mexico. Cisneros was principal ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Life after performing

In 1996, she married fellow principal dancer Stephen Legate and wanted children. The doctors told her to gain weight, eat fat and stop exercising, all anathema to a professional dancer. In 1999, she decided to spend a year saying goodbye to all her favorite roles.

She and Legate moved to Boston, where Cisneros led the Boston Ballet school from 32 to 360 students.

But they both longed to move West.

Today the prima ballerina oversees all of NDI’s after-school programming and teaches ballet. The nonprofit offers free dance lessons to nearly 9,500 students across the state through the Hiland Theater, the Santa Fe Dance Barns and the public schools.

The family (she now has two children) moved to Albuquerque in 2013. A trip to Alamogordo cemented a familial link, because her mother was born there. Cisneros found the house where her mother had grown up.

“I came here and I went, ‘Oh my God, I feel at home’,” she said.

“It’s a tough career, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I had my feet on my faith.”

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