Listen to interviews with Isaac Hernández and one thing becomes resoundingly clear: He is on a mission to normalize ballet in his native Mexico. As a lead principal of the English National Ballet and the first Mexican recipient of the coveted Benois de la Danse (deemed the Academy Awards of ballet), he has made tremendous strides towards this goal. His successful gala Despertares ("Awakenings"), which he created with his brother, San Francisco Ballet principal Esteban Hernández, brought people in droves to Mexico City's National Auditorium to watch some of the world's top dancers perform. Now he's bringing ballet to the small screen in a three-episode miniseries on Netflix entitled "Alguien Tiene Que Morir" ("Someone Has to Die") premiering on October 16. (Be advised that the show contains mature content that may not be appropriate for younger viewers.)
Set in 1950s Spain, the story begins with a young man, summoned by his parents, returning home from Mexico to meet the fiancée they have chosen for him. However, people are surprised when he is accompanied by Lázaro, a mysterious ballet dancer, played by Hernández. This throws everyone for a loop in the conservative, traditional society where appearances and family ties are everything.
During a recent visit to Moscow, Hernández spoke with Pointe by phone about the series, his future acting plans and his efforts to make ballet more accessible.
Bringing Ballet to the Masses
Hernández invited the show's director and creator, Manolo Caro, to a performance of Despertares a few years ago. The experience opened up Caro's curiosity about the careers of professional dancers and Hernández's work promoting ballet in Mexico. While ENB was on tour in Chicago performing Akram Khan's Giselle last year, Hernández received a call from Caro informing him that he had been working on a new script. He thought it would be interesting if the character of Lázaro was a dancer and the show could explore the negative perceptions towards artists, particularly dancers, during the 1950s.
"I thought this was a great opportunity to bring ballet to a platform like Netflix that provides us with an audience of millions of people," recalled Hernández. "I read the script and I liked Lázaro a lot. He reminded me of my younger self and I felt a lot of empathy for him."
Hernández hadn't taken any formal acting lessons and was surprised that the cast would include some of the hottest stars in the Latin entertainment industry, including Carmen Maura, Cecilia Suárez, Ester Expósito and Alejandro Speitzer. He found that acting has a lot of parallels to how he approaches dancing.
"I got the script months in advance and had two weeks of rehearsals when I arrived in Madrid, so that made a huge difference," said Hernández. "I prepared as best as possible by reading the script over and over again. I learned that you are basically 'dancing' with the other actor; you are receiving from them and then reacting. That's actually the way I like to dance."
When it came to the dancing scenes, Caro gave Hernández artistic freedom to incorporate ballet throughout the story. They went so far as to research ballet magazines from the 1950s to replicate the outfits that dancers were wearing at the time and even found old-fashioned ballet slippers. Hernández wanted to feature some of the most emblematic dance scenes he saw in movies or as a young kid. Ballet fans will be able to enjoy snippets from classics like Don Quixote, Carmen and Le Jeune homme et la mort.
Hernández with co-star Alejandro Speitzer in a scene from "Alguien Tiene Que Morir"("Someone Has to Die")
Making Ballet Relevant
Hernández is excited to see the audience's reaction. "I can't imagine the amount of people that will watch this project," he said. "It will allow people to see a different version of a ballet dancer and also raise important questions in this macho culture we still have in Mexico. I want them to see that ballet is a profession and a dignified way to make a living."
While "Alguien Tiene Que Morir" is Hernández's TV debut, he also has a movie in the works (with more dancing!) called El Rey de Todo el Mundo ("The King of the Whole World"). The film is tentatively set to premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2021 and is directed by esteemed Spanish director Carlos Saura.
Hernández hopes to dive further into acting in the future.
"I think this is an opportunity to make ballet more accessible. I found myself lucky that I like interpreting ballet in a more cinematic way," said Hernández.
He acknowledges that the ballet world is in a challenging place right now due to the coronavirus pandemic, but offers a message of hope, particularly for young dancers.
"Don't give up. The future of ballet will depend on you," said Hernández. "It is up to us to keep this passion alive and continue to find new ways to make ballet an essential part of the cultural life anywhere in the world."