Two powerful women intertwine at different times; the dancer Elisa Carrillo and the painter Frida Kahlo have something in common: their deep love for Mexico and their roots.
For decades, Londres Street, close to the center of Coyoacan, has been the home of the famous Blue House (La Casa Azul). The Blue House was the home of Frida Kahlo and currently guards her treasures. Among those inked walls, crossed by the indigo color, Elisa Carrillo shared her childhood dreams with her mother. Her life would later find ways to connect itself to the painter, even by other means of art.
Elisa was born in the State of Mexico in 1980, the Carrillo Cabrera family resided a few minutes away from the central square of Texcoco until she was 5 years old. Elisa is originally from Mexico; however, her dance dream began when she moved to the capital of the country.
In the first act of the world premiere that the dancer starred in Mexico, a girl named Lisa found a brush which then became the door to the magical world of Frida Kahlo. Since she first discovered her story, the painter has remained present as an example of the struggle in the pursuit of her dreams. The plot is not a coincidence, Elisa and her mother regularly visited The Blue House, they saw the paintings, explored the rooms and carefully read her letters. Her mother remembers Elisa seating on her lap as she told her time and time again about how Frida overcame her struggles through great effort and despite the pain, as well as about how she managed to consolidate her art.
From a private academy to specialized schools of Fine Arts, there are few accounts of Elisa’s beginnings. However, there are some details about her which keep coming up: her discipline, her aptitudes, her ideal physiognomy and even the quality of her interpretations in which she won several competitions with her impeccable technique. Nevertheless, Elisa’s dreams grew larger, when, at age 16, London actually knocked on her door after winning a national contest in which she earned a scholarship to the English National Ballet School, in London, England.
Elisa moved, but took her roots with her. She considers these roots to be the foundations of her strength. As it is, one can even read the following quote on her webpage: “When I go out on stage the one dancing is Mexico” — like a mantra which is also repeated in an interview — “I represent my country, you carry it in your blood, in your way of being, in everything. I say that Mexico is the one dancing because I love my country, I have its roots, it is ingrained in my soul, what a country stands for and I am proud to be Mexican “.
The bond which Elisa embodies for the artistic world has also materialized. In 2011, the Bicentennial Mexiquense Cultural Center, the largest cultural venue in the State of Mexico, was inaugurated. A complex which purpose was to strengthen the cultural circuit in the entire eastern area of the state of Mexico, as well acting as a non-explicit center of political power. This center is the only place with the necessary infrastructure to function as alternate headquarters for the State of Mexico Symphony Orchestra, founded by Enrique Batiz in 1971 who so far, also acted as its conductor. Given these facts, everything pointed to the concert hall bearing his name.
In August of that year, when the applause of the gala function ceased, the officials in turn made the unveiling to formally inaugurate the venue. However, the letters of the plaque gave an unexpected turn regarding speculations. From that moment on, it officially became Concert Hall Elisa Carrillo. With only 30 years of age, the most important theater of the place where she was born was named after her. Indeed, it is true that it is not blue and she does not live there, however, year after year Elisa returns and shares her passion on stage. She might not live there, but she has made it her home.
In the pamphlet of the ballet Infinita Frida, the summary of the second act reads as follows: “Lisa grows, the wings of destiny take her to the world of art (…) she tries to understand the meaning of life and she finds herself increasingly trapped between her own colors.”
Since 2009, Elisa’s career has been on the rise. After graduating from the English National Ballet School in London, she was awarded a contract in Stuttgart, Germany. From a practitioner she was promoted to soloist. She could have very well stayed there, given that she already had a safe place; nevertheless, she decided — together with her husband — to accept the invitation to join the Berlin Ballet instead, even when that meant having to forge new opportunities. The dancer arrived at the Berlin Staatsballet in 2007 and it was clear by then that she knew of the power of change, which she emphasized more than ten years later in Vanguardia, a Mexican media; “…changes always bring something good; when someone is new, you have to fight again”. This conviction was that which catapulted her career.
An ambitious dance project was launched in Berlin, the reinterpreted story of Snow White together with a promising choreography as well as costumes designed by controversial fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier. This moment, in 2009, is the constant in almost all media regarding Elisa, and quite rightly so, considering she herself recognizes it as the watershed of her career. Although all the women of the company auditioned, Elisa was the one to obtain the leading role. Posters in which a poisoned sleeping girl showed her naked torso were placed all over Berlin. The expectation was fulfilled and after the premiere, Elisa woke up as the new star of the Berlin Opera and the eyes of Mexico also settled on her. Just one year later, in 2010, she was promoted to first dancer, and from then on, used this role to exploit her talent and the best years of her career.
Since then, Elisa Carrillo became a must know name in the world of dance and has performed pieces of directors and choreographers from the most prestigious companies, from George Balanchine, Mauro Bigonzetti, Nacho Duato, Sasha Waltz, or Yuri Smekalov. The latter, incidentally, acted as her accomplice for a project involving Mexican culture.
The story of Frida found her once again — or it was she who found it — in 2013, when the opportunity to stage an original ballet to premiere in Mexico presented itself. Her friend, choreographer Yuri Smekalov had wanted to create something made especially for her, an original piece. The opportunity was there, although they only had a couple of months to create absolutely everything which was needed for something in which the preparation takes at least a year. This is how Infinita Frida came to life. The two-act ballet has two main characters: Frida Kahlo and a girl named Lisa. More than a story, it is a tribute. It seems as if it were Elisa’s personal story transformed into dance. Both characters have a deep love for their roots and move by the power of their convictions, transforming the world by sharing their art.
Art is also Sowing
The Orlando Ballet School, in the United States, has had a new member since 2016. His name is Israel Zavaleta; he is 20 years old and also comes from the State of Mexico, Texcoco. His parents run a dance academy and he has had a taste for art since childhood.
Israel was the beneficiary of one of the scholarships awarded by the Elisa Carrillo Foundation for a year. He was only 15 years old and, by then, Elisa was already one of his dance role models. When asked about why he admires her, he emphatically states; because “she fought.”
From the United States, the ballet dancer talks about his efforts to build his career, and about “how difficult it is to shine outside Mexico and have opportunities given to you.” The road has not been easy, but he perseveres. At some point, a doctor made him question whether he was going to be able to make it given that his feet were not ideal for ballet, and quotes what he was told word-by-word; “sometimes dreams are not fulfilled and ballet is not for everyone.” Despite the pain he felt as an artist, Israel decided that this would not be his case.
He talks about each stage in the building of his career. His strength emerges from a family which drives him, from the roots he protects, and the courage he sees in his heroes. He treasures the brief talks in which Elisa encouraged him to keep going in his memory, “Elisa was brave to move to Germany,” — Israel showed his bravery by moving to the United States. Elisa is currently the first dancer in Berlin and Israel seeks to be first dancer in one of the main cities in the United States. Elisa took the example of other artists — including Frida — to overcome her struggles, as is Israel with contemporary dancers. The two have built their careers based on great effort and they both have an unconditional love for dance.
Other Ways to Create Dance
Since February of this year Elisa is officially co-director of the National Dance Company of Mexico. She entered this position together with a small group of women who have been in charge, however, her prominent international projection is hardly comparable to that of her predecessors, which is precisely what she seeks to exploit.
Elisa is still the first dancer in Berlin and is now striving to help Mexican dancers have the same experience. Her co-direction moves away from the administrative, her role is that of artistic consultancy: programming, auditions, dancers and guest teachers. Elisa states that she is “the bridge which connects the company with the outsider,” her goal is that of raising the level of the company with a strategy which includes, above all, the motivation of dancers and teachers when working with other creators around the world. She emphasizes that a dancer cannot always dance the same things, they need to change the repertoire and nurture different styles, both contemporary and classic, as well as to ensure that large companies are complemented with both styles, her example acting as living proof of it. This composition promotes the development of dancers, contributes to innovation and acts as a means to approach new audiences.
The Elisa Carrillo Foundation gives out a dozen scholarships annually to young people seeking to develop their dancing skills, and a larger scholarship to one young artist selected from an audition which Elisa personally attends to each year. The requirement for being awarded these scholarships is, above all, that young people maintain a good academic performance and attend dance classes in a timely manner. The person selected for the other scholarship has the opportunity to study abroad. This grant seeks to promote artistic careers, but also to make art a constant in social development.
Elisa Carrillo has become a connection between Mexico and the dance world abroad. She knows that dancing is not the only way of performing dance.
An Artist with Power
It is 10 o’clock at night in Berlin; Elisa Carrillo is at home after a long day of rehearsals and just enough time to be with Mikhail, her husband, and Maya, their daughter and adoration. She answers the phone with kindness and with the energy of someone who is just starting the day. More rehearsals at sunrise as well as an evening show await her, but that does not limit her attention to whoever has asked for an interview.
After an hour of transatlantic conversation I ask her about her entry in 2018 on Forbes list as one of the fifty most powerful women in Mexico. The tone of her voice is brought back to live by wondering about the criteria needed in order to be on a list which defines wonderful women. “It is a responsibility, because it means that people realize that culture moves and transforms.” She talks about the importance of having Mexico know the power of dance, arts and culture. Furthermore, it is something that any human being can aspire to.
Her mother confirms it when talking about the responsibility that Elisa feels, for her “to perform and promote dance is her reason for living.” A good reason why, since 2010, she has been an Ambassador of Mexican Culture. Elisa is not just an artist but a woman with power.
She does not know how far her art, her projects or her efforts will go, or the ways in which her example may inspire others, but her name is heard in the field of culture in Mexico and abroad. Elisa is the first Mexican dancer to receive the Alma de la Danza award in Russia, the most important recognition of choreographic in the country, a country in which tradition and dance projection cannot be ignored. When facing challenges, Elisa always remembers what her mother told her; “remember Frida, she was an example of overcoming hardships; she who through art, reached the heart of the world.”
Perhaps the way to summarize Elisa before the world is using the moment just before this interview started. At ten o’clock, and not a minute later, she sends a text message which reads; “I am ready.”