Catching Up with Isaac Hernández: The Driven English National Ballet Star Always Keeps His Long-Term Goals in Mind

Hernández and Tamara Rojo rehearsing the Black Swan pas de deux. Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris.

At 25, Isaac Hernández is entering his prime, and he knows it. This eternally restless dancer, already a veteran of two companies, recently found a home at a third, English National Ballet. There, he has been paired with the eminent ballerinas Tamara Rojo (his boss) and Alina Cojocaru. His has been an impressive ascent for a young man who began his training in the backyard of his house in Guadalajara, standing at a homemade barre alongside 10 brothers and sisters. The Hernández clan's instructor was their father, Hector Hernández, a former dancer for Dance Theatre of Harlem, Houston Ballet and Harkness Ballet. (Isaac's brother Esteban is a dancer at San Francisco Ballet.) But even now, Isaac wants more. Not satisfied to focus solely on his career, Hernández has launched an initiative in Mexico geared toward creating opportunities for young dancers, including a tuition-free ballet school. Pointe caught up with him recently when he was in New York City.

Why did you decide to join English National Ballet?

Artistic director Tamara Rojo brought me in as a guest in December 2014 to dance with Erina Takahashi in Swan Lake. Then she invited me on tour with the company. I didn't know until I looked at the schedule that I would be dancing with Tamara. After the first couple of performances, I told her I wanted to stay. It's the first time I've been in a company that has so many full-length ballets. And I get to dance with Alina Cojocaru and Tamara.

Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris

What is Tamara Rojo like, as a director and as a partner?

I enjoy working for her because I like the vision she has for the company. She's a very driven director. But I get two versions of Tamara because when we are working in the studio, it is like the relationship I have with any other partner. She's very friendly and happy and we work well together. She takes risks and I like that. I like dancers who are unpredictable, who give in to the moment. That is the whole point of dancing for me.

You're part of a new generation of dancers who want more freedom to direct their careers.

It's important to be in a place where the director has your best interest at heart. Many now understand that what's best for the dancers is also good for the company. It's convenient for them to have happy dancers. I feel that Tamara is giving me the opportunity to be the best dancer I can be.

Do you think you'll stay at ENB?

I told Tamara, I cannot say how long I will stay, but I know I will stay as long as I'm happy and continue to feel myself improving and going somewhere. I can't imagine a better atmosphere to develop in. At the end of the day, I'm not doing anyone any favors, just as no one is doing me any favors. I'm offering them my best years.

Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris

You joined San Francisco Ballet at age 18. What was your experience there like?

It opened a whole different world for me. I was learning 27 ballets in one season. But the rehearsal process was not always enough for me to feel comfortable with what I was doing. I was doing things okay, but they could have been much better with more preparation. I got to do my first full-length there, Balanchine's Coppélia. I had an amazing time, and I realized then that I really loved the acting and the storytelling.

Why did you go to Dutch National Ballet?

I took class with the company and realized that it would be the perfect place for me to learn. I looked at the rep for the next few years, and it was amazing: Don Q, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, all the full-lengths I wanted to do. And I would have the time to prepare them. I had an amazing partner there, Jurgita Dronina. That was the first time I found that sort of trust with a partner.

So why did you leave?

I've always had an idea of what I wanted to accomplish in my career, and I believe that the only way to accomplish it is to experience different things. That has made me a very diverse dancer.

Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris

You've started a nonprofit organization in Mexico for young dancers. What is the idea behind it?

What I know is ballet, and that it has the power to change your life. I come from a very poor family with 11 children, and I've had an incredible life because of ballet. We wanted to develop an outreach program like the ones they have here in America. We proposed our idea to the state government of Jalisco, where I'm from, and we opened the first free ballet school in the country. We wanted to do it in a state that had a lot of youth violence and other issues. It's been a year, and we already have 300 students. I do fundraising everywhere I go. We've also developed another project, a bus with a screen that we take to public spaces in low-income neighborhoods, creating ballet evenings for families who have never seen one.

Do you have interests outside of ballet?

I read a lot. I play tennis, I play golf and I read.

Do you have advice for young dancers?

Be prepared when opportunity comes. It's easy to get settled and comfortable in a company. But never forget what you want to be. I love the passage in Charlie Chaplin's biography where he says that, even when he was working in a small theater in the middle of nowhere, he always felt like he would accomplish what he wanted. And I think that has been present in my mind, the feeling of knowing what I want to be. I've had high expectations for myself.

How do you define success?

For me success has been the happiness I have felt in my career, at every moment. There are a lot of unhappy dancers doing a profession in which it doesn't make sense to be unhappy. They feel they've missed their opportunity or don't get the opportunities they deserve. But when you let go of everybody else's problems and everybody else's idea of what your career should be and truly dance and enjoy the moment, things happen.

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