Isaac Hernández on the power of dance
From his backyard to the Bolshoi: the Mexico-born lead principal for the English National Ballet talks dreaming big, democratising the arts and his perspectives on the future.
‘Discovering ballet was a moment of freedom. It started occupying my mind, heart and emotions… I kept chasing that feeling.’
As the lead principal of the English National Ballet, Isaac Hernández is in the business of fairy tales – whether that’s playing Romeo in Nureyev’s Romeo & Juliet or starring as the protagonist in his very own rags-to-riches story, learning ballet as an eight-year-old boy in his backyard in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Personal achievements aside, he’s representative of a new generation of stars using their status to uplift others, by helping young people in Mexico realise their dreams of a career in the arts through programmes like Despertares, the international dance gala he co-founded with his brother and sister.
We caught up with Isaac after the COS AW20 campaign shoot, to hear his incredible journey and find out what the future holds for ballet’s biggest breakout star.
ON HIS CHILDHOOD
‘I started dancing in the backyard of my house with my siblings, with our father as our teacher. I always knew I wanted to be a dancer. I saw it as a real chance not only to create opportunities for myself and for my family, but I also realised that it was a very rare thing to be doing in Mexico, where ballet and art have always been something that you do for a little while, but then you go out and find a “real” job. We have a very famous saying in Mexico: “If you are an artist, you are not only wasting your time, but you are also going to starve.” I immediately wanted to change that perception. I wanted people to know that you can live a dignified life through the arts and that it is worth giving your time to something that makes you happy and that you are passionate about.
‘Training with my father allowed me the freedom to learn without any boundaries and discover things for myself. Some of my favourite moments as a dancer are from that time. I did my first big ballet trick – a triple tour en l’air, where you jump and you turn three times before you land – and I remember my dad running out to my mother and anyone else he could find and saying, “You have to see what he just did!”’
ON CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
‘When I started, there were no role models for young dancers. It was very hard for people back then in Guadalajara to imagine an eight-year-old boy wanting to be a professional ballet dancer. You hardly knew what a dancer looked like, let alone what the role of a male dancer was in the ballet. I think the biggest change that has happened since I started out is that parents in Mexico have seen a story of success, and now they feel that if their children want to dedicate their lives to something like this, then there is a chance for them.’
ON HIS ACCOMPLISHMENTS
‘Winning the Benois de la Danse prize changed a lot, not just for me, but for my country. It was a gift for all the work I had been doing, since the time in my backyard to that moment on stage at the Bolshoi. As an individual, the most satisfaction I have experienced is when I return to Mexico to do a project like Despertares, and see thousands of people from different social classes, backgrounds and ages come to see the performances. We’ve managed to create more equal opportunities for dancers – whether that’s access to scholarships abroad or to professional training from a younger age.’
‘Discovering ballet was a moment of freedom. I’d never felt that in anything else that I did before. At first, I saw ballet as a way to test the limits of my body: to jump higher, do more turns, get stronger. It wasn’t until a few years later I really fell in love with it as an art form. It started occupying a space in my mind, heart and emotions that I could only access when I was on a stage performing. I kept chasing that feeling of freedom at any chance I could get.’
ON OVERCOMING CHALLENGES
‘When I was 15 years old, I had an injury and was told I wouldn’t be able to dance again. I felt a lot of the frustration and depression that comes with being told you can’t do what makes you happy and what gives you your identity. I wanted to finish my career on my own terms, not based on what the doctors told me, so I worked my way back to fitness. I have a very particular way of seeing challenges and overcoming them. I’ve developed strength because I have lived through difficult times.’
ON WORKING HARD
‘For me, the main ingredient to a successful career is the need and want to learn more. As young people, we are always hoping for something extraordinary to happen, to be successful out of nowhere and to not have to work anymore! That is not the best approach. It is the joy of the daily work, and of overcoming everyday obstacles that make life worth it at the end of the day. That’s what gives me motivation.’
‘You can live a dignified life through the arts, doing something that makes you happy and that you are passionate about.’
‘When I did the Protect the Oceans Greenpeace campaign in the Bermuda Triangle, I thought we were going to find plastic floating here and there, but it was incredibly devastating to see how, in some of the most secluded and protected natural reserves in the area, the plastic was visible everywhere. It was an eye-opening experience and it turned out to have a positive change and impact for me personally as well. There is a lot of work that needs to be done everywhere, from fashion to the food industry. We need to think of better ways to consume – and it’s not just the responsibility of big industries and companies. We all have to re-programme ourselves and be more conscious about our daily efforts on an individual level too.’
ON THE FUTURE
‘I am a very hopeful person, and I believe in change. I want ballet to continue being part of our daily cultural life in Mexico. It’s up to us to adapt, or to overcome fear or uncertainty. It really comes down to people holding on to their passion and having that sort of fire alive for when challenges do happen.
‘We should always be looking for new perspectives and different ways of seeing. Being open to constant change, both in our personal lives and in society, is fundamental to arriving at a better future. I feel like if more people share that willingness for continued transformation, then we might arrive at a future that is better than what we know now and be able to make it a reality.’
Isaac Hernández (@chapulo7) wears the Autumn/Winter collection for COS. Photography by Jack Davison. Styling by Clare Richardson.
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