#PersonOfChange: An Interview with Ballet Hispánico’s Eduardo Vilaro

I feel we no longer have the privilege as artists to perpetuate the stereotypes of the past.

A Latina-founded organization that has served all communities since its inception will be celebrating 50 years in 2020, and Artistic Director and CEO of Ballet Hispánico Eduardo Vilaro (He/Him/His/Él) intends to position the organization as a beacon of diversity and a place of inspiration for the Latinx community and beyond. A New Yorker of Cuban heritage, he believes this difficult political climate is the right time to create bold and inspiring work.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I emigrated from Havana, Cuba to the United States, and our music and dance was what kept a lifeline to my heritage. I became quickly enamored by the music as it led us to dance and celebrate. I was also immediately attracted to the glitz and glamour of the Latina vocalists my mom would listen to at home. I like to say that was the seed of the artistic part of my soul, but I really knew I was destined to be an artist after I received the role of Linus in an eight-grade production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Linus had to sing and dance with his blanket. I was hooked immediately.

When was the first time you saw yourself represented on stage or film?

It was West Side Story, and I was immediately drawn to the character of Anita. It was a revelation for me and at that time and for that musical, it was the closest thing to a strong brown, powerful and female heroine I had ever seen on television. As we know, there was little representation at that time beyond the stereotyped roles usually portrayed. But Anita and the electrifying performance of Rita Moreno opened a new perspective for me and urged me to push through and make a statement of my own. That is the power of representation and highlights the need for diversity in all aspects of our world. Seeing the unapologetic strength of Anita gave me a model to set my standards against and ultimately was part of urging me to develop my own voice and follow my dream.

How has Ballet Hispánico changed since you took over?

At its core, Ballet Hispánico has not changed. We are still the dynamic organization built for giving access to the arts for our community and as a platform to celebrate cultural diversity and inclusion. I think what has changed is the “how.” It was important for me to bring new ways of developing cultural dialogue through the way we work and train our young people. That means looking at culture through a very contemporary lens and finding ways of entering into different dialogues with our audiences. As the Artistic Director & CEO, I feel it is my duty to immerse all aspects of the organization with the vision. So I am tirelessly looking for ways for people to commune and discover the multiple aspects of the Hispanic diaspora, as well as understand the intersections of other cultures within that diaspora.

How is that done? Well, I feel we no longer have the privilege as artists to perpetuate the stereotypes of the past. The art must reflect the current environment in an authentic way through the voices of the creators. The work we do today on stage is less derivative of past iconic cultural representations and invites the audience to reflect on the culture instead of boxing it in.

At Ballet Hispánico, our backbone is education. With a school of dance that trains over 800 racially diverse young people and a community arts program that serves over 13,000 students in schools in the New York metropolitan area, we strive to bring art and culture in an authentic way that leads the young mind to participate in the discussion rather than imitate and repeat the cultural icons of the past.

What can we look forward to in this 2018–19 season?

This season is exciting as we continue the exploration of our Latinx worlds by looking at an iconic representation, CARMEN during our Apollo season in December and exploring the intersection of our diaspora with the Asian diaspora with two new works from choreographers Bennyroyce Royon and Edwaard Liang.

Bennyroyce is a Filipino-American choreographer who is developing a work titled Homebound and is working with themes of cultural identity, gender, and the yearning for connection. Edwaard Liang, is exploring ideas of migration from his Chinese diaspora and the sea of emotions brought on by immigration, identity, and the ghosts of a former life.

What piece of advice can you share with a Latinx artist trying to build a career in today’s political climate?

I think the only advice I can give is that who you are as a person of color is a powerful tool and not a disadvantage. Anyone building a career as an artist in any environment must find their personal strength and perseverance. For me, it has always been who I am, where I came from, and how I got here.

What is the most challenging part of running Ballet Hispánico? Most rewarding?

The most challenging part of running Ballet Hispánico is finding the resources to continue and expand on all the wonderful programs we have and those that we want to create. By resources, I don’t only mean the funds that it takes to run the company but also the right people, friends, and allies. The more you do the more you need, and there is still so much to do. But as with all challenges there are opportunities, and those lie in the relationships we build along the way.

To learn more about Ballet Hispánico and Eduardo Vilaro visit ballethispanico.org

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