Flying High

San Francisco Ballet’s Isaac Hernández soars with confidence and exuberance.
Published in the August/September 2009 issue.

Isaac Hernández found himself onstage at San Francisco Ballet’s opening gala last January partnering Tina LeBlanc in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Although Hernández was merely a member of the corps, LeBlanc had requested him as a partner. The partnering was serviceable, but Hernández’s aerial trajectory was astonishing. Critics left talking about him.


Hernández, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, is pursuing his career at warp speed. He joined SFB only last summer. True, he spent his share of evenings in the corps this past season, but he also performed major roles. You couldn’t miss his neo-Bolshoi male duet in Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, or his man in violet twisting exuberantly in the air in Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons. Hernández musters an impressive jump, high-velocity turns, a tapered line and a kind of self-deprecating confidence. For a debut season with a professional company, no dancer could ask for more.


And he has already made a favorable impression on the company’s artistic staff. “Isaac is a product of good training, and he comes across in class as poised and dedicated,” says Ballet Master Ricardo Bustamante. “He’s a good fit for SFB’s diverse repertoire.”


Hernández’s gifts had already gained attention in the ballet world. It was his  father, Hector (a former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem), who introduced him to ballet at age 9 via lessons in the family’s backyard. Three years later, Isaac enrolled at Philadelphia’s The Rock School and attracted global attention in 2006 when he won both the gold medal (junior division) and the Ballet International Award at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi.


Life on the competition circuit treated Hernández well. He thrived in the environment. “I was at that point when I needed the challenge, the pressure to become better,” he says. “The recognition of my work kept me going. Of course, some dancers are not made for this.”


The experience generated nibbles from major companies, and a personal crisis, too. “I had a big breakdown at 16,” Hernández recalls. “I asked myself, What would be the right move? I was technically ready for a professional contract, but could I handle the company work? My whole life had always been about personal training, and I wanted to take advantage of that as long as possible. I thought that once you get into a company, it’s never the same. There are so many things you need to worry about.”


ABT II offered a compromise. Hernández praises the company and its director. “Wes Chapman had a lot to teach me and he didn’t hold back in his criticism.” Yet Hernández knew he needed to take the next step. He flew out to San Francisco, took one class with SFB and came away deeply impressed. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson was also impressed: He hired Hernández then and there.


 And at the moment, SFB presents Hernández with the ideal career situation. “Ricardo’s class has a great atmosphere,” he says. And there’s the repertoire, of course. Hernández’s wish list for 2010 includes Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and new ballets by Wheeldon and Yuri Possokhov.


Ambitious? Maybe. But given the events of the past year, realistic, too. “Helgi gives me opportunities,” says Hernández. “He puts me out there.”

Allan Ulrich is a San Francisco dance critic.