Photos by Rachel Neville
As artistic director and CEO, Eduardo Vilaro has taken Ballet Hispánico to new heights in Westchester County and beyond.
For Eduardo Vilaro, Ballet Hispánico is much more than one of the country’s most renowned Latinx dance organizations. “To me, right now, Ballet Hispánico is a movement, and it is a movement of voice,” explains Vilaro. “It is a movement for voices that have been silenced, or unheard, or unseen, to be put on the national landscape.”
Vilaro himself was one such individual who ascended largely thanks to the arts. The 57-year-old was born in Cuba but settled in the Bronx in 1968: “At that time, the Bronx was a harsh place, and here we were, an immigrant family trying to get through it and become Americans,” recalls Vilaro. After playing Linus in a school production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Vilaro had an epiphany. “It really was a moment I realized that this is a way I can connect to this new world I am in,” he shares. “Dance saved me. It took me out of the Bronx. That is the power of the arts and why I am such a proponent of arts education.”
Soon, Vilaro was making a name for himself, dancing with the Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham dance companies before taking a fateful class at Ballet Hispánico in 1985. He was soon a professional dancer for the company and later a choreographer. In 1999, he used his life savings to found the Luna Negra Dance Center. “In 10 years, I turned that company into a $1.1 million organization,” he says.
Vilaro also received plenty of accolades for his work at Ballet Hispánico, where he was named artistic director in 2009. He received the Ruth Page Award for choreography in 2001 and was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame in 2016. In 2020, he was included in City & State Magazine’s inaugural Power of Diversity: Latin 100 list and the next year was recognized with a Compassionate Leaders Award. But for Vilaro, it was during the early days of pandemic that he feels his company truly shined.
“The pandemic was really a moment where I said, ‘We are the arts, and we need to connect to our audience.’ “So, we built a virtual platform at Ballet Hispánico. Every day we had something. You could take a class; you could do meditation; you could see a show and then have a panel of Latinx artists talking about the work. It was also a moment for us to show the importance of a 50-year-old Latinx dance organization. Our audience on social media tripled. We were underfunded for many years, yet the vibrancy of what we offered communities was so powerful. We empowered young people everywhere we went and continue to do so, because that is really my mantra.”
As for funding, Ballet Hispánico is now in a far better place, thanks to a $10 million gift from philanthropist and novelist MacKenzie Scott in June 2021. “I think that for a kid who came up from the Bronx, an immigrant, to hear you are valued and you are seen is so powerful,” says Vilaro. “This is the biggest gift Ballet Hispánico has ever received, and it is because of the work we have done together here as a team.”
Since then, Vilaro helped found the BAAND Together Dance Festival, which comprised a series of free shows at Lincoln Center. “It was at the time that Omicron was not out yet, during the summer, and we did all these performances for free for all of New York,” says Vilaro. “It was packed every night. It had been years since companies came together and performed together, so this was the variety of dance in New York and how amazing it is.”
Ballet Hispánico also continued work through their Community Arts Partnership, which is “a partnership where the community tells us what they need; we say what we can bring, and then we develop a residency,” says Vilaro. Ballet Hispánico holds local performances while working to ensure that anyone who can’t afford a ticket has access to one. “We were able to secure 100 tickets for five dollars each, and they sold out primarily to migrant workers,” says Vilaro. “We go into schools; we go into lunchrooms; we go into jails. For Ballet Hispánico, this is coming back home to the original grassroots mission because Tina Ramirez, the founder, also did that. They performed at Rikers [Island correctional facility]. So it’s really about reinvesting in that original vision and expanding it.”
Due to all this work, Forbes in October featured Vilaro in its “For(bes) the Culture” feature, which recognized 50 standout individuals lifting up Black and Brown communities. Ahead, Vilaro says he would like Ballet Hispánico to enhance partnerships with artists and learning centers. “We also created a full-length ballet for the New York City Center, created by a Latina choreographer, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, about Evita Peron’s rise and fall,” says Vilaro. “This small Latin dance company is now doing work at the level of the New York City Ballet. That is everything for me, and that is the future, but we want to make sure that we still serve the community at a grassroots level because we don’t want to forget where we came from.”
“What I love about dance is that it makes you percolate on certain images and certain themes, and I think that is a way to really nurture dialogue.”
For Vilaro, much of this progress boils down to the immense power of the arts. “I think the arts gave us an opportunity to open a new way of dialoguing about all of our issues as humans,” says Vilaro. “It opens the mind and gives you an opportunity to think. What I love about dance is that it makes you percolate on certain images and certain themes, and I think that is a way to really nurture dialogue about race, culture, music, and the legacies we live with on a daily basis.”