After twenty years with San Francisco Ballet, Evelyn Cisneros is still the company's most distinguished classical ballerina and its elemental, essential modern dancer.
It was the wedding day of San Francisco Ballet principal Joanna Berman and, she says, "everything was going wrong. I couldn't find my veil, so I was grabbing things to make one. I was looking in a mirror at the veil and said to Evelyn, `Do I look like a Gypsy?' She said, `Yeah, you look like a Gypsy.' Then I said, `But I don't want to look like a Gypsy!' and she said, `No, you don't look like a Gypsy.'"
Actually, Berman dreamed this exchange between herself and fellow SFB ballerina Evelyn Cisneros; but Berman says her dream "captures Evelyn so perfectly, because she wants people to feel good about themselves, and she's a very encouraging peer, and that's not that common. This company is filled with really good people, and mostly everybody supports each other, but she's the one who sets the example. She's really selfless."
Cisneros, who began her twenty-first home season with SFB this February, has probably entered the dreams of many--the thousands of children who have performed with or have seen her; her partners, who echo Berman's praise; and the choreographers to whom she has played muse, including Lew Christensen, Michael Smuin, Helgi Tomasson, Mark Morris, James Kudelka, and Val Caniparoli. There is also the occasional interviewer, who can find that leaving Cisneros is like a rude awakening.
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. In Tomasson's 1988 Swan Lake, created on her, she is convincing as both the tormented Odette and the diabolical Odile. She did not mark her emotions when an injury forced her to mark a rehearsal of La Sylphide in 1994; her face and body became consumed with pathos as the Sylph succumbed to the poisonous shawl.
Fine as her acting is, Cisneros is first and foremost a versatile dancer. Her fleet feet and crystalline articulation make her an ideal vehicle for Morris's detailed choreography. Her ability to contract in the best Graham fashion made for a heart-wrenching portrayal of a woman reliving her past in Redha's 1993 La Pavane Rouge. And in Caniparoli's 1995 Lambarena, her mastery of his complex vocabulary made this hybrid of African dance and classical ballet seem a natural way of moving. One reason SFB 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. "The contemporary work has been really good for her," says artistic director Tomasson. "It shows a side of her that she has great strength in and has been extremely musical in." This month she is featured in Lila York's new ballet about Latin American guerrillas, El Grito, which premieres at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.
Although spellbinding onstage, Cisneros possesses a humility that makes her approachable offstage--especially by children. "They're like precious, little, pure gems," says the ballerina, who is planning a family with her new husband, SFB principal Stephen Legate. "Everything is new and interesting to them. They aren't jaded; they have built no emotional shell around themselves. They don't play games. They don't have those facilities that we learn, unfortunately, as we grow up, to protect ourselves emotionally and physically."
When performing Nutcracker, Cisneros sees the children as more than decor. "I've done thousands of performances of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the children are what make it fresh and alive," she says. "There are times when I'll look right into their eyes, and they're looking at me but they haven't realized yet that I'm looking at them. All of a sudden I see them get it, and this big smile happens on their faces, and it's so precious, because maybe they'll remember that moment, maybe that will spark some light in them. And that's what they do for me, so to give that back to them is just a reflection of what I'm getting from them. It refreshes my memory of what dance is, of what inspired me when I first started taking classes--the whole magic of it and the beauty." Cisneros herself started taking ballet at age seven, to break out of a stifling shyness. These days, when she signs a photograph for a child, she inscribes it, "May all your dreams come true."
Nothing exemplifies her profound connection with children better than the way her life intersected with a pair of sisters one Christmas. Relating the story today, she is still moved: "I was in Detroit doing Nutcracker. The children had all asked me for shoes. It was the last day I was there, and a little girl came up to my dressing room and said, `Do you have any shoes?' And I said, `I really don't have anything left.' `Oh, but it's for my sister! Don't you have anything?' I had these deshanked shoes that I use for warming up. I said, `Well, you can have these.' I signed them and gave them to her. She came up to me a year later and said she wanted to have the other shoe signed because the shoe that I had signed she gave to her sister, and that night her sister was hit and killed by a drunk driver. She said it had meant so much to her, and to her sister, this shoe, and that it made her so happy right before she lost her life ... I started crying. I said, `I'm so sorry, I don't know what to say.' And she said, `That's all right, I cried a lot the first year too, but this made her so happy.'
"It made it so clear to me that what we do is so temporary, as life is, and that what you give to these children is only a moment out of your life, and it could be their last moment, it could be your last moment, it could be something that really affects them for the rest of their life, and that's a responsibility you can't take lightly. Thank God I gave her the shoes, because it would have been so easy to say `No, I'm sorry, I just don't have anything.'"
It would have been easy, but it would not have been Evelyn Cisneros.
"She's extremely generous," says SFB principal Anthony Randazzo, Cisneros's partner in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and other ballets. "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."
"Just watching her work rubs off on other dancers, because she's there one hundred percent," says Caniparoli, who has danced with Cisneros, created Lambarena on her, and is using her in a new work this season. "She's very giving to a choreographer or partner." Legate adds, "She is always there for the audience. She has such a warm and wonderful heart that it can't help but come through."
Cisneros doesn't claim to be perfect and has a healthy attitude about mistakes. "One of my favorite things is falling," she says. "There was one season where I fell in every single program. I became known as the mop--`Oh, she's down again!'" She admits it can be humiliating to fall. But, she says, "The physical humor is funny to me." It's also funny to others. "I love it when she falls," says Caniparoli. "She has a great sense of humor about it. She's the only person I know that gets more applause from falling, because she gets up with a big grin on her face." Adds Cisneros, "We were taping Val's Lambarena, and the first time I came out to do my variation my foot fell out, and I fell flat on my side. Val loves showing that wherever he goes to stage the ballet. Those things are funny, and you have to live for those moments too, when you're not perfect, and you make a complete goof of yourself. It jars you back to the reality that you're a real person."
Not surprisingly, the San Francisco audience has developed a special love for its star ballerina. "One time I sprained my ankle," Cisneros recalls, "and I was out for three months, the most I've ever missed." (She has led a remarkably injury-free career, perhaps because of stamina she built up participating on the school softball, volleyball, basketball, and track teams before dropping sports to focus on ballet at age thirteen.) "I missed all of Nutcracker, and the first rep program we had was Symphony in C, and I was doing the first movement principal. I came onto the stage, and they started applauding. I thought, Oh, that is so nice, and I thought, Thank you for recognizing me and that I'm back. It was so heartwarming. I feel a responsibility to the audience here, because the kind of warmth and generosity that I feel from them you don't get all the time. They are faithful to me, and I appreciate that."
One reason Cisneros so engages an audience is the humanity she brings to her roles. She does not just dance a part; she becomes it. "You can't find the line that separates the dancer from the dance," says Legate. When Randazzo was injured last October in Orange County, Legate got a chance to find out for himself. Tomasson asked him to partner Cisneros in Swan Lake. While they were touched by the decision, the two were also surprised. Tomasson has not always been so considerate of Cisneros when it comes to casting.
In 1994, she was not among the four ballerinas he chose to dance his new Romeo and Juliet, and even the casual audience observer could see that the veteran was getting short shrift in casting that season. He has taken her out of many of the opening nights she used to perform, including Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Cisneros was not cast in Tomasson's Valses Poeticos when it was performed in New York City, even though he had created it on her and Randazzo.
SFB insiders suggest that Tomasson has never forgiven her for being the product of another era. The protegee of his predecessor, Michael Smuin, she was already a star when Tomasson took over in 1985. He insists that in his casting he has simply tried to spread the wealth around: "Before I came here, the emphasis of the company seemed to be very much focused on her, which was good for her. But I have tried to also bring other dancers forth, and I think it's been very good for the company as a whole, and it is good for dancers to be challenged by others and learn from others."
Cisneros has always enjoyed a strong relationship with the SFB board. Chairperson Chris Hellman and board members Lucy Jewett and Barbara Engman threw her a gala last season to celebrate her twentieth anniversary. "It was kind of overwhelming," Cisneros says. "Full of love and appreciation for what I've done--which I've loved doing, so it doesn't seem like it's been like a job or anything special that I've done."
It is hard to imagine how she'll cope with life after performing--Cisneros says she'll dance for three or four more years--but she says she'll be fine. "My expectations of this career when I first started have been tripled. I feel like I have this chest full of all these treasures: [Smuin's] Romeo and Juliet, in which I had five different Romeos; Swan Lake with Tony and with my husband, Stephen; Sleeping Beauty with Tony and Serge Lavoie and Bruce Sansom....
"I feel so grateful for what I have achieved, and what I have danced, that I don't think I'll be bitter about retiring. I look forward to when I can look back and say, that was great, that was wonderful, I loved doing that. Yes, there are days when you can hardly walk, because you're so stiff or sore. And there are the disappointments of being taken out of roles. But the rewards to me so outweigh the negative aspects. I choose to see it for the beauty and the joy it's given me. And it can continue to give me that joy and beauty from watching it. I will probably miss the performing aspect of it, but ..." She pauses for a long time, trying to imagine retirement. "But I've had it for a long time, and I feel completely fulfilled."
Paul Ben-Itzak is news editor of Dance Magazine.