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Leading Ballet Hispanico in America Today
Episode 44

Leading Ballet Hispanico in America Today

CI to Eye with Eduardo Vilaro

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and Eduardo talk about how the company’s emphasis on Latinx culture manifests throughout the organization—from what’s on stage to the staff and board. They also discuss the politics of being a Latinx dance company in America today.

Erik Gensler: Tell me about your history as a dancer.

Eduardo Vilaro: I came to the United States with, my family in 1969 from Cuba and the only thing that connected me to my heritage was music. And so Cuban music, Cuban dancing. So there was a lot of connecting to community dances, traditional festivities, all that good stuff. And so I was always hooked on movement and music. First of all as a Cuban male dancing was not an option. So that was the start of my Billy Elliot years. Hiding it from the family, I would take this Capoeira class, which is a Brazilian martial arts, and next door at the Sigma Sound Studios on 50-something Street, there was Boom ballet class. So I started taking ballet class. So that happened and then I just started getting really good. Got a scholarship to the Ailey School, started dancing at the Martha Graham school also. And finally auditioned for a program at Adelphi University that was a very well known. A dance program started by Ruth St. Denis, a modern dance pioneer. And got in, free ride. So then I was like hey mom and dad- guess who’s going to college for free? And my mom was fine with it. My dad was another story.

Erik Gensler: Let’s talk about Ballet Histrongico, the company’s mission, your role and the company’s evolution.

Eduardo Vilaro: The company was founded in 1970 by Tina Ramirez and she wanted to give voice to the Latino artist. And when I talk about this it’s so funny because I always say, she wanted to give voice at a time where we were just given roles of the maid, the crook, and I’m like wait a minute. That’s still happening. Sorry. She started to build this company out of the necessity, to shine a light on diversity and the need for Latino and Latina artists who have their own, rightful place in any kind of arts field. She started with about a handful of young ladies. They were not trained. She trained them. She was a Flamingo dancer so she used that first as a jumping off point for training the company. They got so good, they began dancing in festivals, in street fairs, in the theaters, and boom. Ballet Histrongico was born. So I like to always say that Ballet Histrongico was born a company and an education organization at the same time. She was giving that access to those young ladies these were kids that were from marginalized neighborhoods. I mean you hear them, how this took them out of drug-infested. I mean at that time, New York City was a very different place. When I was growing up it was still a different place and she gave a lot to these young ladies. The company, I am the second generation, like in terms of decades. So ’70s to the ’80s, I came in around 1985. the second generation, by the time we were there, it was a company that was already doing works that were beyond the genre Flamingo. We were a neoclassical company. Neoclassical ballet company. And we were doing works by esteemed choreographers and we were one of the first companies at the Joyce Theater. We started touring. I was there at the heyday of the glory of the touring years for dance companies, which was the ’80s and the ’90s and the ’70s. It started petering at the end of the early ’90s but still we were doing it. So the company grew and then in ’95 I left. I was very interested in going back to school so I went to Chicago, and did a master’s program there. And then when I finished I realized there was a hole in that community. There was no Latino organization of note. In Chicago. So I started my own organization called Luna Negra Dance Theater, which was like Ballet Histrongico but reflecting today’s Latino- what it meant to be Latino in a contemporary context. Ballet Histrongico stayed on the same track and there was a lot of movement. In our world and our social side. So I started creating works that were much more contemporary, and reflected a lot of what I thought was necessary for my generation and also the future generation, what was going on. It was exciting. It was a young organization. It built quickly to prominence. We started touring international and national and then Tina decided to step down and I got a call. And then I got here in 2009.

Erik Gensler: You had sorta this startup mentality in Chicago where you got to test out your ideas and lead a company with a similar mission before you came here.

Eduardo Vilaro: It was a rude awakening. As an artist you think I’m just gonna start making work. And you start making work and then the work calls for the attention of a side of you that you’ve never knew either existed, or was dormant and you have to initiate that conversation with yourself and say move. So I put together a board. I got my 501(c)(3) status, I just started developing that 501(c)(3) model by myself. And it was really exciting because I made a lot of mistakes (laughs) and that helped me learn.

Erik Gensler: That’s how you learn.

Eduardo Vilaro: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Eduardo Vilaro: The need for diversity was so all of a sudden ramped up, we were being sought after. And that was really great. So then I was hired to be the artistic director at Ballet Histrongico in 2009.

Erik Gensler: I’d like to talk about this larger cultural moment that we’re in. Leading a Latinx dance company in this political environment. I’m curious of your thoughts around that.

Eduardo Vilaro: I have many thoughts around that. The first is that we need to be in the front line of this army against this kind of horrible hateful rhetoric and we have the privilege and the ability to do this in such a wonderful, beautiful way that invites people in to see themselves reflected in another culture. And then hopefully start a dialogue that is something different, that changes that bad rhetoric into something like I didn’t know that, or that’s how I feel also. I know it sounds kind of cliché but when you can turn the mirror on someone and see each other reflected at something. So I think that Ballet Histrongico, and I work for Ballet Histrongico to be a leader in this dialogue, in this fight for diversity and inclusion. Even it’s hard for me as an immigrant who came to this country and really fought as much as anybody else did and I went through the citizenship. I had to do my studying. I did it all and work and succeed to feel that I am not in the place I thought I would be right now. That something, the rug has been pulled from under me and this is not right. So I wanna try to reverse this as much as possible as a Latino, as a gay man, as a father who wants to see his child in a world where he doesn’t have to be afraid of being who he is. So it is really important for us, and I lead the organization this way and I have other leaders. I mean my team is an incredible team. They are very much sensitive and aware of the need that we provide or what we provide for different communities.

Erik Gensler: I read that you said in an interview that as artists we don’t make political statements. First of all we’re in dance. The body is politicized.

Eduardo Vilaro: Right. And so in the context I said that is, naturally because of our bodies what we look like, who we are, we are politicized already. And so it is actually another layer that yes we make political statements because we are the canvas for the voices of these choreographers. And if they choose to make a statement then awesome. We’re not only making that statement for that but we’re already stating a fact. And making that statement for the need for a different way of looking at things.

Erik Gensler: You said in an interview all the arts are under attack right now and the importance of diversity of other voices have never been more important.

Eduardo Vilaro: We have an administration that wants to remove funding, at a point where funding was already low. The way this country thinks about arts is a very elitist mentality. Sure it’s great that we have donors and that we can have that and it allows for a certain flexibility in this kind of model. And I’m talking about the 501(c)(3) model. But yet what it relieves the government on is the response, the cultural responsibility. So right now we’re dealing with this lack of cultural responsibility from our government. And that is terrifying because culture’s what glues us together. And you wonder what is anyone thinking. And they’re just not because they are thinking meeting their needs and whether it’s religious or political. I think that what the arts certainly offered to me and continued to offer to the world is collaboration, is coming together and finding different ways of expressing, of finding voice, of finding identity. And it’s so important for our young people today, while technology, I love and is a beautiful thing, there are also trap doors that may not allow you to fully express yourself as an individual, right. And so what the arts do is it removes you from reality. It allows you to wallow in the abstract. It allows you to play in the fields of imagination and creativity and oh my God do we need creativity always. I truly am an advocate of arts education, and what I mean arts education, I don’t mean any kind of special way that we have to look at dance and change it. No. I mean taking children to performances, allowing them to talk about the work, giving them access to dance classes, music classes, singing classes, art classes. Oh for goodness sakes, needlepoint which is an art in itself. Dexterity and fingers and the use. Those are all necessities and the arts, oh my God. They open those worlds up in both a very tactical way and also a very abstract way.

Erik Gensler: European countries have cultural ministers and they have funding. Our institutions are so dramatically underfunded and to use the lack of funding as a threat makes this even worse.

Eduardo Vilaro: It’s a threat. And we’ve been threatened. But see this is the amazing thing about the arts. It is that flower that grows in amongst the rubble. No matter what an artist will say (laughs). Forget you.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Eduardo Vilaro: I’m gonna make my art. Whether it’s in the streets, whether it’s in the subway, I’m gonna keep going. And somehow or other that makes other artists flourish. There is a connection that we forget that arts, the artists have to build these beautiful worlds of work.

Erik Gensler: You are the administrative head of the company as well as the artistic head?

Eduardo Vilaro: (laughs) Yes.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. You laugh. Is that-

Eduardo Vilaro: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Why did you laugh?

Eduardo Vilaro: Because I always think of that. I’m just- I’m the head right now. And I’m an artist which means I’m an entrepreneur, right. I laugh because I’m trying to say how do you wanna explain this.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. And I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive and I think that’s the tension right?

Eduardo Vilaro: Great. I think that’s exactly right.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Eduardo Vilaro: I don’t think this is mutually exclusive. So in order to walk into this question that’s a great way to phrase it. So thank you very much. I’m gonna use that from now on.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Eduardo Vilaro: It’s not mutually exclusive.

Erik Gensler: The question is, lots of arts organizations have someone who is the artistic head and someone to run the administration, there are pros and cons to both, ’cause it’s about time. That’s just a large responsibility with limited time and lots to do.

Eduardo Vilaro: It’s a lot. Two things. One, I’m an immigrant so there is this mentality of push through, excel, find ways of making it work. Which is, pros and cons. Sometimes makes you forget that you need to take care of yourself (laughs) and all that good stuff. I don’t think I’m at that point but, there’s a drive that keeps you going. I don’t think anyone’s asking Elon Musk, these CEO’s, “So why’d you do that line over there on that car, or what made you put that together?” I’m not getting down on this question or on you. It’s just an interesting thing that I think we need to switch on our minds about artists. That we can be CEO’s. We are CEO’s of the work that we do and how we look at things. One of the things that really works in my case is the fact that it is a cultural-specific organization. And I can give both the administrative and the artistic teams the vision. So I’m constantly pouring vision into both sides so that there is a cohesion. So that works here, putting a great team together is very important. Learning how to delegate well also very important. Still working on that one. But that has been important and the team members have to of course drink the Kool-Aid and understand where this is going. I have a family. So I’ve learned that it’s all about really good planning.

Eduardo Vilaro: I have now artists that were working in my team and now they are part of administration. I think that when you bring people into the fold that have artistic tendencies, it’s so much richer. It also creates a very interesting work dynamic, that is something like any work dynamic. You have to mitigate, you have to nourish, and you have to make sure you have your eyes on. It’s vision. I mean that artistic vision and where it’s going and how it grows and what it means. All of that is so and that’s what happens sometimes with a bifurcated kind of leadership. The two don’t meet sometimes. Because it’s like okay you go play with your toys in that sandbox and I’m gonna be over here in the studio. Avery old, it’s 15th, 16th century in the dance world of the dance master, the ballet master, is out just doing that. And then, supported by the dowager or whatever, the person, the donor. And that grew into the model that we have right now.

Erik Gensler: We’re talking about administrative staff and your emphasis on Latinx culture and how you’ve manifested that throughout your admin staff, your board. Pretty much when it comes to hiring staff and dancers and recruiting board. I’m curious by having an organization that’s rooted in that next culture, how that manifests.

Eduardo Vilaro: I think it manifests itself naturally. The people who are attracted to this mission are also looking to find their piece of identity and connect. I have a very diverse staff and I have members who have been with me for over 15 years that are not Latino, Latinx. They’re Midwest, south. Ican be very hard on my own community because sometimes we also have our border, our own walls that we put up. Like I can’t tell you how the first year that I was at Ballet Histrongico. I had to write a Huffington Post article on why I don’t think that all my dancers should be strongish. Because I had the public say why aren’t your dancers all strongish? What does that mean first of all right? So I had to go through that process and I did it by writing an article and I said, “Here’s why they’re not.” Because strongish to you means something, but Latino, Latinx is something totally different and we look like everybody else in this world. White, black, brown, Asian, indigenous. So when I’m going to represent my culture I’m gonna do it in a way that brings everyone to the table. Not just here’s what the stereotype might look like and that’s what you wanna see. And that’s also for the art that we do. I make sure that the work that we do is reflective of the voices of the artists and not just the iconic representations. So to take it back to the administration, I think it’s a really wonderful opportunity for us to welcome part of what’s happened. We’ve let people grow from where they’ve started, either from an artist or from a junior position that they understand that they can grow into the organization. That’s very important as well.

Erik Gensler: What about your board?

Eduardo Vilaro: I have a very, gratefully, a very diverse board. We have quite a few Latino businessmen, Latina women in the in different fields. When you have a board and you wanna have a diverse board, you have to prepare yourself for that. I have a wonderful chairperson who understands that not everyone will meet their give-get for the year but they will give in another way that’s beneficial. So understanding that it’s a double edged sword because you have to get to your numbers, but at the same time you have to understand that not everyone, especially in our communities, has the capacity. But you need the experience, their leadership. They might have reached leadership in a certain area that’s very different. So I guess what I’m saying is that not everything leads to the dollar. And we have to understand how to work the model around that.

Erik Gensler: When you have the dominate culture being white, that influences us in so many ways of what our expectations are. And when you do push for diversity you have to sometimes change what your overall goals are ’cause it’s not gonna be exactly. To your point about the give-get.

Eduardo Vilaro: That’s exactly right.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. You have to rethink what your expectations are and be okay with it being different than what you think the status quo wants or should be or what a board should look like.

Eduardo Vilaro: Well the status quo wants you to fit into something. And you have to understand that if you’re going to be diverse you can’t fit into anything. There are no boxes. There are no holes. You have to be open and respectful and there within lies the rub. And one of the things that we don’t do enough and why this conversation continues to be difficult to have the whole race conversation is that we need to learn how to not be ourselves how we’ve been taught to be. We need to be uncomfortable, be surprised, and allow the expectations to go. We don’t wanna be challenged. Especially in America. Not even I. I mean, there’s a certain degree of privilege that I have having had grown up in here, trying to fit in to the dominate culture. And be accepted by the dominate culture. I have those same expectations. And so learning how to remove yourself from is the only way to get to the point of diversity and having the race conversation. And the gender conversation as well.

Erik Gensler: Well and you bring that up. Let’s talk about gender. You look on stage and you see all these women being celebrated but the truth of the matter is the other side of the curtain, it’s dominated by men. Choreographers, male directors.

Eduardo Vilaro: So I’m going to shock you right now. Or maybe not. But there are a lot of directors running ballet companies. If you go to Dance USA and look at those statistics, there are more female artistic directors than there are male directors Where we lack is the- in the major organizations. In the major ballet companies. That’s where we have – the hole. Large ballet companies who are having difficulties right now are not thinking we should hire someone who is female, of color and reflects our city. That’s an issue. Right?

Erik Gensler: It’s not just dance. It’s muses. It’s orchestras.

Eduardo Vilaro: Right. It’s everything

Erik Gensler: It’s theaters.

Eduardo Vilaro: Outside of dance yes we need more female leaders. I think also where we lack is choreographic leaders and I think now we’re getting better. And we’re looking for ways, but it’s so very interesting that we always, everybody always turns to the large ballet organizations.

Erik Gensler: But they’re the ones who get the most air time. They’re the ones that have the biggest audiences. They’re the ones that are setting the example.

Eduardo Vilaro: Right but there are other companies that have been doing this work and there are wonderful companies that are led by women.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. I’ve had some of them on the podcast. Gina Gibney, Sharon Luckman, , Jude Jamison,

Eduardo Vilaro: Yeah Kansas City Ballet is lead by a fabulous woman. We can go down in Europe also. So I think where where we’re at right now is to get more choreographic voices out there, leading the discussion. I think where we really lack is voices of color.

Erik Gensler: We should have all representations. My Asian brothers and sisters, my African American brothers and sisters, everyone should be at the table having that discussion because then what happens is those taste makers that have been there forever, change. And the way we look at what is being presented changes as well.

Eduardo Vilaro: And as with everything there’s always that pocket. I don’t know if it’s all male. I couldn’t tell you that, but I know that there’s always that main group.

Erik Gensler: We operate in this culture and I think we need to try harder to break it. I do think dance is among the art forms is doing better, particularly with female leadership.

Eduardo Vilaro: Absolutely. I think we’ve always done. I mean our mother Graham (laughs). Our pioneers were woman. Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan, it’s no joke.

Erik Gensler: The founder of Ballet Histrongico.

Eduardo Vilaro: The founder, Tina Ramirez.

Erik Gensler: Speaking of all of those iconic people, so many icons of dance have died recently most recently Arthur Mitchell, Paul Taylor. Some of their companies live on, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts about where the dance world is going with these 20th century icons who are no longer with us.

Eduardo Vilaro: These icons left a legacy for us. I am of the mind that they left it for us for us to go our own ways and to flourish in the ways we feel and not to hold tight to what they did. All of these people who have gone on were such mavericks because they went against the grain. And so I just am always wanting to celebrate them by also continuing that legacy. Not so much the genre, the style, the look. Our audiences tend to lock in and say that’s what it always should look like. And this is how it should be. Or that the critics say yes but it’s not like this. And I think that that is a fallacy in that’s where we are with the old masters and dying opera and dying this. Because we don’t allow for more innovation from where we came from. We get stuck. Rightr now I wanna see the voices of diversity that come through. The acceptance that Eurocentric structures of art aren’t the only thing out there and that’s still a struggle.

Erik Gensler: We’re at this crazy cultural moment as horrible as this last two years has been, and this interview’s not about me, but it’s made me think it’s made me truly understand what America is, what it’s always been. And I think we as liberals want the best and I think we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking America is different or further along than it really is. And when you really start looking at who has the power, who has the ins, who controls the institutions, even arts organizations. Our arts organizations are, corporate models and they rely on wealthy people to keep us going.

Eduardo Vilaro: Yeah that’s the point I made earlier. These are models that need to be challenged. But we can’t challenge it because we have the larger model, saying well we’re not going to support work, your artistic work. You’ve got to find that support. And so then it leads us into another kind of corporate model to fish into. It’s really, really difficult to break through.

Erik Gensler: So we’ve come to your final question.

Eduardo Vilaro: Oh my goodness. I feel like I might win something.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. (laughs)

Eduardo Vilaro: Like it’s the final question.

Erik Gensler: Phone a friend.

Eduardo Vilaro: World peace.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) We’ve solved all the world’s problems.

Eduardo Vilaro: Right.

Erik Gensler: No we call this your CI to Eye moment and the question is if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of a thousand arts organizations what advice would you provide to help them improve their businesses?

Eduardo Vilaro: To think community. To think beyond the model of the art and think about your community and how you gather your community around you. And it’s concentric right? There is the community you build, the community in the staff so they are a vital sounding board and there’s give and take there. You have to listen as community. You must share. You have to allow for ideas. And that leads you into the larger community and how that art form is being given, is serving, is taking also and how you’re allowing those voices to come in. And I could tell you many different ways but that’s the general idea. I think we forget that we are not here just to be ivory towers. We are here to give this form over to the people, not take it away from them or exclude them because they can’t pay for the tickets or because their child can afford this class and this other child can’t. So I think that that is my one big thing. When I think about my leadership at Ballet Histrongico. I am for my community.

Erik Gensler: That’s amazing. Thank you.

About Our Guests
Eduardo Vilaro
Eduardo Vilaro
Artistic Director & CEO, Ballet Hispanico

Eduardo Vilaro is the Artistic Director and CEO of Ballet Hispánico. He’s led the organization since 2009 but first joined the company as a dancer in 1985.

Read more

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