An Evening of Stars: Inside Isaac Hernández's Gala in Mexico

Esteban and Isaac Hernández in rehearsal. "Sometimes I question whether I'm pushing myself too much," says Isaac (right), who spends much of his free time fundraising, planning the gala and making weekend trips to Mexico. "But I'm young and ambitious, and I must use that while my body still allows me to." Photo by Santiago Barreiro, Courtesy Soul Arts Productions.

Most people associate ballet with opera houses, not rock-concert venues. But on a summer night in August, almost 10,000 people packed Mexico City's National Auditorium to experience Despertares, an international gala featuring some of the dance world's biggest stars. Despertares (which means "awakenings" in Spanish) is the passion project of Mexican dancer Isaac Hernández, a lead principal at English National Ballet. Together with his brother, San Francisco Ballet soloist Esteban Hernández, they hope to develop new audiences in their home country. The gala is their fifth, and part of a larger initiative that includes outreach projects and a free ballet school for underprivileged children.

The National Auditorium in Mexico City. Photo Courtesy Soul Arts Productions.


Despertares grew out of Isaac's desire to awaken the interest of dance in Mexico, which both he and Esteban left at an early age due to a lack of professional opportunities. But he initially faced resistance from producers. "They told me that this would not work in Mexico, that people didn't care enough about ballet," he says. "So we decided to do it ourselves."

Isaac, Esteban and their sister Emilia and brother-in-law formed their own production company, and took the two brothers' success story to the press. (Their father, former Dance Theatre of Harlem, Houston Ballet and Harkness Ballet dancer Hector Hernández, gave all 11 siblings ballet lessons at a barre in their backyard.) "When people saw the possibilities of social movement that the arts brought me, and the structure it brought my life, they started paying attention," says Isaac. With the help of sponsors, the family opened a free ballet school in Tlajomulco de Zúñiga; it now has 700 children on its waiting list. "We saw how every year, audiences were growing."

Eventually they secured enough funding for Despertares—and Isaac wanted it to be different. "We made tickets as affordable as possible so that people from all backgrounds can see it," he says. The type of venue was also deliberate. "Those I want to reach never get close to an opera house, so I chose a venue where they could see anything, like Madonna or AC/DC. Most who come are seeing dance for the first time."

This year's gala featured stars from major companies all over the world, in pieces ranging from classical to contemporary to comedic. "That way people had a fair chance to decide if they like dance as a form of entertainment," says Isaac. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at this influential gala.

American Ballet Theatre principal Jeffrey Cirio and New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette rehearse Balanchine's "Rubies" pas de deux. Photo by Santiago Barreiro, Courtesy Soul Arts Productions.

"I walked away from Despertares with a renewed sense of gratitude and perspective, after getting to know so many kind, hard-working artists who've dedicated their lives to this craft, as I have." —Lauren Lovette


Cirio with a young fan at an autograph-signing event. Photo by Joel Hernández, Courtesy Soul Arts Productions.


Isaac and Boston Ballet principal Misa Kuranaga rehearse the Black Swan pas de deux. In addition to classical pas de deux, Isaac programmed newer works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, William Forsythe, Akram Khan and Benjamin Millepied, and featured tap star Savion Glover. Photo by Santiago Barreiro, Courtesy Soul Arts Production.

"We must influence, we must create opportunities, we must create." —Isaac Hernández


Esteban and Maria Kochetkova in the pas de deux from The Talisman. Photo by Santiago Barreiro, Courtesy Soul Arts Production.


Tamara Rojo performs Carmen.Photo by Santiago Barreiro, Courtesy Soul Arts Production.


Isaac thanks the cast after the curtain comes down.Photo by Joel Hernández, Courtesy Soul Arts Production.

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