Meet the first Fil-Am male principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre
The ballet world seemed to move slowly because the dance itself is leisurely in pace, dreamy in its measured steps.
But there was nothing by the book about Jeffrey Cirio’s promotion from soloist to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in less than a year, the announcement a welcome surprise to many. “Well, that was fast,” noted Pointe Magazine, a publication devoted exclusively to ballet.
Jeffrey himself was “very surprised” at the quickness of it all. He joined ABT in August 2015 and earned his promotion on July 1, 2016.
‘Dancing is a freeing experience,’ says Fil-Am Jeffrey Cirio. Francisco Estevez Photography/The FilAm
“I was, wait what? It sort of just happened, but still shocking,” he said when interviewed by The FilAm. “I wasn’t expecting anything. There were people ahead of me.”
The comparison to fellow FilAm Stella Abrera may seem improper but couldn’t be helped. It took more than a dozen years before Stella made the leap from soloist to principal dancer of ABT, the country’s national ballet company. Jeffrey’s promotion, by industry standard, was of breakneck speed.
“We had an end-of-the-year meeting where it was announced. When Kevin announced it, he was very relaxed, very nonchalant. At the moment I was very shocked. There was a picture of me where I covered my face,” he recalled, laughter in his voice. Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director, also declared during the meeting the promotion of corps member Blaine Hoven to soloist.
As a matter of fact, things seem to be happening too fast, too soon for 25-year-old Jeffrey, who went to ballet school at age 9. Even the fabled Billy Elliot, who inspired many young boys to try ballet and not be shy about it, began at 11.
Jeffrey’s inspiration was his sister Lia, who is five years older and is currently a principal dancer at Boston Ballet.
“There’s always been ballet since I was born. I was surrounded by it, but didn’t think anything of it,” he said.
When Lia was 14, the Cirio family moved to a small town, Carlisle, Pa., home of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB) so Lia could receive more formal training. It was there that he was drawn to “something different” other than soccer, baseball and basketball. He asked his mother, Mimi Snyder, if he could try ballet just like Lia. Mimi was nothing short of encouraging.
For the Cirio siblings — Lia, Jeffrey and Gabriel — who were all home-schooled, ballet class was where they made friends.
“There were eight boys in my class. I have all these friends doing ballet together,” he said.
It was not weird for a boy being seen in sheer leotards. Jeffrey said he did not experience any kind of bullying. Carlisle is a known ‘ballet town,’ and many of its young kids grow up learning ballet and appreciating what it does to the body and to one’s self-esteem. As he got older and became a professional dancer, he said, he was regarded with awe for his skill, some calling him an “artist.”
He studied at CPYB for four years, training privately with internationally known choreographers Laszlo Berdo, and later Magaly Suarez. He joined Boston Ballet at age 15, a professional dancer by this time. He and Lia were in the same company. After a year in Boston, he decided to train some more at the Orlando Ballet School, where he studied under Peter Stark and Olivier Munoz. He represented the Orlando Ballet at the 5th Seoul International Dance Competition, where he won a silver medal.
From then on, it’s been one award after another: “Best Male Dancer” at the 2006 American Ballet Competition; the Mary Day Award for Artistry at the 2009 Youth America Grand Prix; gold medal at the 2009 World Ballet Competition; gold medal at the 2009 Helsinki International Ballet Competition, becoming the first American to do so; an award from the 2011 Boomerang Fund for Artists. ??
He returned to Boston in 2009, more confident of his techniques and movements, more willing to explore a variety of styles, and more assured that dance is truly what he wants to do in life.
“I don’t think I can live without it, dancing socially or ballet or contemporary. I’ve always felt a sense of freedom where you can just go on stage and just dance with your heart. It’s a freeing experience,” pondered Jeffrey.
At ABT, he has danced with Stella Abrera and Misty Copeland, herself celebrated for breaking the barrier for African Americans in the ballet world. The recent promotion of Stella and Misty to principal dancers did not escape the attention of The New York Times, which noted how the ABT has “now become a handsome example of racial diversity.”
“I have danced with Stella side by side, but we’ve never danced as partners,” he said. “She’s such a humble, amazing woman, so nice on and off the dance floor. It’s great to be around her.”
He was “privileged and honored” to be Misty partner in “Sleeping Beauty” and the three-act “Le Corsaire.”
“Misty is nothing but nice to me,” he said. “I love dancing with her, I love her energy.”
Jeffrey won praise at his debut performance from NYT dance critic Alastair Macaulay who hailed him a “marvelous newcomer” excellent in both acting and dancing.
His father, Ardel Cirio, was born in Subic Bay. Ardel’s father was in the US Navy and wanted his three sons to become Americans. The family moved around a lot, first to Japan, then California, until they settled in a naval base in New Jersey. Ardel met Mimi at a dance party in the 1970s. The family made a home in Philadelphia where Ardel now runs a chiropractor clinic in Newtown Square which Mimi manages.
It was dance, Jeffrey pointed out, that brought his parents together.
“Mom and dad were amazing dancers; they’re pretty awesome, my mom will deny it. They did the hustle, the disco, no ballet at all,” he said. “We sort of just picked it up.”
Jeffrey said, “When I tell people I’m a dancer, the reaction is ‘holy crap, you’re an artist!’ I’m just very grateful to be (a dancer) but also to have had very supportive parents,” he said. —The Fil-Am