American Ballet Theatre principal Jeffrey Cirio is a smart dancer

jeffrey Cirio (with photographer Erin Baiano and Kirsten Evans holding the reflector)

Jeffrey Cirio is smart. Okay, all dancers are smart, but Jeff has that special sort of active mind. It’s the kind of smart where when you are talking to him, you can sense wheels turning behind his eyes between each word.

He’s an innovator, with a unique voice and a determination to share it. Outside the amphitheater in Vail, he fills Kirsten Evans in on company transitions, Cirio Collective, and Jeffrey’s upcoming guest contract with the English National Ballet.

Kirsten: Two years ago, you left your principal contract with Boston Ballet to join American Ballet Theater (ABT). What drove you to make this change?

Jeffrey: I always wanted to do something else. At Boston Ballet, I felt like I was in a box. I was too comfortable. So I decided to just take a chance and auditioned at ABT and sent my stuff in to San Francisco Ballet. ABT was the first to respond. Kevin [McKenzie, Artistic Director, ABT] offered me a soloist contract.

I knew that coming from Boston and going to a bigger company like ABT, that I would have to take a step down. So there was this juggling of whether I wanted to take that step down or just stay in my comfortable place and keep doing what I was doing. I am a person who always does well when I’m pushed to the limit. I felt like if I did take a step, there was no wrong in it. It would just be an experience and if I didn’t like it, I could go back to my comfortable place in Boston.

I also felt like I needed more inspiration from different dancers. Being at the top in Boston, everyone was sort of looking at me and I was about to turn 25. I didn’t want to be the top dog at 25. So I took the chance.

K: How was the transition?

J: It was fairly easy, actually. I knew a lot of people in ABT, so that helped. The lifestyle of New York kind of came in a week after. I never knew I was going to live in New York.

Company life was slow in the beginning, but stepping down a rank, I knew that was going to happen. It wasn’t until the MET season of my first year that I felt like I was getting to do more. Then I was given the opportunity to do La Fille later that season, and that when I started to feel like, “Okay, maybe they do like me.”

K: And throughout all of that transition, you’ve been coming to Vail. How did you get involved with the festival?

J: Damian [Woetzel] asked Misa Kuranaga [my colleague at the time in Boston Ballet], to see if I would be interested in performing at the festival. I had always wanted to come.

My first year I danced not with Misa but with Masha [Maria Kochetkova from San Francisco Ballet]. We did Don Quixote pas de deux the opening night of the festival. So that was my first experience in Vail- in and out.

Progressively throughout the years, I have performed more and more here. My second year I started doing the International Evenings. Last year was my first time in the NOW: Premieres program.

K: How do you feel that your growing experience at the festival has affected you as a dancer?

J: I’ve always enjoyed coming because first of all, you get to see all these different dancers from their respective companies and dance with all of these people you never thought you would dance with. This year I am dancing with Melissa Toogood, who is a modern dancer, and we wouldn’t overlap in our careers without the festival. It’s always a learning experience here. Damian and Heather are very enthusiastic and helpful. Most of the years I’ve done a Bournonville piece or a Balanchine piece, something I might not get to do at ABT. So coming to Vail, and doing Tchaikovsky pas de deux for the first time, dancing with Tiler Peck is…

K: …a dream come true.

J: Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s always inspiring coming away from it all. And also I’m in shape for my season. [laughs]

K: That’s a nice bonus, ha. But you came to the festival in shape, because you were just working on your project, Cirio Collective. Can you tell me a bit about that?

J: Cirio Collective started three years ago. It was an idea that my sister, Lia, an I had. We’ve always wanted to have a project or a school or something where we could employ our friends and have fun and work during the summer so we could stay in shape.

We built it before I did my World Premiere at Boston Ballet. It all came to fruition in a matter of a few months. We had two residencies, Vineyard Arts Project and one was the Cape Cod Dance Festival, where we performed that first summer. We’ve been going back to those places for three years now. This past year we performed in two shows at the Ballet Festival at the Joyce [Theater].

It’s just been constantly growing from the start. We built it off of collaboration, and we like to collaborate with our friends and anyone who’s interested.

K: How many dancers are there in the group?

J: Right now it’s 10 dancers and 2 musicians.

K: Oh, nice. What kind of musicians?

J: A violist and violinist. We do a lot of stuff with sound mixing and a pedal board.

K: Is it all your choreography?

J: Mostly mine, but we’ve commissioned two pieces, one by Paulo Arrais, who’s a principal at Boston Ballet, and the other by  Greg Dolbashian, who is a New York-based contemporary choreographer.

K: What was it like performing at The Joyce?

J: It was very exciting. It was a very stressful year, but I would definitely do it all over again. It was a year full of managing finances and paperwork, finding a lighting designer, finding a stage manager, and then making a full program. It was super cool, but stressful.

K: When did you start working with the dancers?

J: Our season with Cirio Collective is usually just in the summer, but I knew with The Joyce [performance] we would need to start before that. Our second season we only had four days to create something for the Cape Cod Dance Festival, and it was crazy. So I told myself I would never do that again. So I just started in January of this new year. Or was it November? Maybe we started in Novemember…

K: Because December is just a blur!

J: December is a blur. My dancers in Boston are doing Nutcracker, I’m doing Nutcracker. I went out to Oslo to work with Whitney [Jensen], and we made a solo.

K: So it kinda of came together piece by piece?

J: Piece by piece and then the two weeks before The Joyce [performance] we put it all together.

K: Okay so, you have any budget, any dancers, all of the time in the world: what is your dream project?

J: My dream project is definitely to have my own festival. It would definitely be Cirio Collective-based, so dance-based, but also we’ve always had this dream of bringing bigger and smaller name artists together. Visual artist, musicians, painters, bringing them together in something they would never do and just curating that. Just have all of these creative artists come together. That’s my dream.

[At this point, I thank Jeff for taking the time to chat with me, and turn off my recorder. Then Jeff casually mentions being in London next year. I gasp and press record.]

K: What’s up next, Jeffrey Cirio?

J: First I’ll do Mexico City, for the festival there. I’ll do Rubies with Lauren Lovette. Then I’ll go to Montreal to work with two Olympic ice skaters on movement quality for a week. After that, I fly out to London, where I will be doing a dual guest contract with English National Ballet. So I’ll be there for four months, from August to January 1. Then it’s back to ABT.

K: What’s on the season at English National Ballet?

J: Akram Kahn’s Giselle, [Kenneth] MacMillan’s Song of Earth, [August] Bournonville’s La Sylphide, The Nutcracker, and [Rudolph] Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Looking forward to following along! Thank you so much, Jeff!