American Stars Gala’s Lia Cirio: Born to be a ballerina

American Stars Gala’s Lia Cirio: Born to be a ballerina

I have to dance – and will – as long as I am able.
— Lia Cirio

Lia Cirio, the Filipino-American principal dancer of Boston Ballet, will visit the Philippines for the first time to perform in Ballet Manila’s American Stars Gala. Photo by Rachel Neville

Boston Ballet principal dancer Lia Cirio’s future career seems to have been preordained very early on. “When I was born, the doctor who delivered me told my parents they had a dancer on their hands because I jumped around so much. My parents also tell me that when I spoke some of my first words, I spoke about ballet,” Lia laughingly relates.

The ballerina is one of the featured performers in Ballet Manila’s American Stars Gala slated on July 7, along with Boston Ballet principal Junxiong Zhao, Houston Ballet principal dancers Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews, Ballet Manila resident guest principal artists Katherine Barkman and Joseph Phillips, and Boston Ballet soloist Hannah Bettes.

Born to a Filipino father and an American mother, Lia is also taking the opportunity to get to know her Philippine roots a little better in what will be her first visit to the country.

Lia was enrolled in assorted ballet lessons as a young girl, but after taking on the role of Clara in The Nutcracker at the age of 12, she knew dancing was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. After training with the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, she tried out for a spot with the Boston Ballet and was immediately invited to join its second company. She was just 16.

Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde (center) meets Boston Ballet principal dancers Lia Cirio (left) and Ashley Ellis on a visit to the company last April.

She was promoted to Boston Ballet’s corps de ballet in 2004, to second soloist in 2006, and to soloist in 2007. From 2008-2009, she toured with the Trey McIntyre Project, performing throughout the United States and in other countries. She returned to Boston Ballet for its 2009-2010 season, and was named its principal dancer in 2010.

In this interview with, Lia talks about her ties to the Philippines, her beginnings in dance, the challenges of being a ballerina of color, her pet project with her brother who is also a ballet dancer, and how she’s using social media – particularly Instagram – to promote her art.

Can you tell us about your Filipino roots? Where were you born and raised?

My father was born in the Philippines in Subic Bay. My grandfather joined the U.S. Navy and when my father was three years old, they moved to the U.S. However, being in the Navy, they were stationed all over the U.S., as well as the world. They were stationed back in the Philippines for a few years as well.  My father was naturalized as a U.S. citizen at the age of 12. My mother is American and was born outside of Philadelphia, where she met my father (my grandfather was stationed at the Naval Base in Philadelphia).  My father was preparing for chiropractic school, they married, and moved to Atlanta so that he could attend Life University. I was born outside of Atlanta, but we moved back to the Philadelphia area before I was two. This is where I spent most of my childhood.

What aspects of Filipino culture did you become familiar with?

Growing up, we spent holidays with my Filipino family, so we became familiar with the food and celebrations of the Filipino culture. However, when I was about 14, we moved so that I could study ballet seriously. I was immersed in ballet and had less time to learn about my culture. This is the reason I am so excited to visit.

I have never been to the Philippines.  I am looking forward to seeing where my father spent some of his childhood. He still has family there, so I am hoping they will be able to attend the show. I know that Filipinos love dance, so I know that performing for them will be rewarding.

What or who inspired you to seriously pursue ballet as a profession? Were your parents receptive to your chosen career path?

My parents tell me that when I spoke some of my first words, I spoke about ballet. In fact, when I was born, the doctor who delivered me told my parents they had a dancer on their hands because I jumped around so much. My parents knew very little about ballet, so I attended a small little tap/jazz/ballet studio in our neighborhood. I then went to a school that only taught ballet. I was still only dancing recreationally, a few times a week, but I played the role of Clara in The Nutcracker at around 12 years old. 

I told my parents I wanted to dance professionally, and they told me that I would have to work very hard to accomplish that, as I really was not on that kind of a professional track. We moved to a school that is lovingly referred to as ballet boot camp – Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet – when I was 14.  My parents have always been supportive of anything we choose to do. I did have some early inspirations in ballet – they were Maria Tallchief, Margaret Tracey, and Darcey Bussell.

Knowing the importance of social media these days, Lia Cirio has an Instagram account where she gets to share various aspects of her life as a ballerina.

What do you enjoy most about being with the Boston Ballet?

I was hired at Boston Ballet when I was 16 years old, so this company is really more like family to me. That is first and foremost. We care about each other and, like family, we sometimes get angry with each other, but in the end we want the best. Additionally, I love that Mikko Nissinen, our artistic director, has chosen to push his dancers to be able to dance not only classical ballets, but neoclassical and contemporary works, as well. We have an eclectic repertory and this is what makes the company both exciting and versatile.  For these things, I am very grateful.

What is your favorite ballet and character to perform? How do you put a fresh take on something you’ve done many times before?

There are so many ballets that I love. One of my favorites is La Bayadere, in which I have danced the role of Nikiya. This is a role I have danced several times and I love her character. She is moral and strong, and she loves deeply.  I also loved dancing the role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, which I have also danced several times. When I first danced Aurora, I was younger and afraid to tackle the role. This last time I danced it, I was confident and it felt so amazing to "conquer" it. 

I also really love dancing Balanchine ballets, and there are so many of them that it would be hard to talk about all of them – Diamonds, Chaconne, Prodigal Son, Symphony in C, the list goes on. And then, there are contemporary works. Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor, Jorma Elo – we are blessed to work with all of these choreographers at Boston Ballet. Putting a fresh take on roles I have danced before is never difficult.  There is never perfection in ballet, and there is always something to improve, so I do not have a problem revisiting roles.

There’s been a widening acceptance for dancers of all colors in classical ballet. Do you feel this shift in a field that is very traditional, based on your own experiences? I still believe there is resistance with what I call the "old regime." I have faced this obstacle in casting, whether I am too dark, too wide-shouldered, etc. I believe as we go forward and there is a change in company directors and repetiteurs, we will see a more holistic attitude toward dancers of color.

What role do you think can you play or are you playing in the thrust towards diversity?

As a young dancer, my parents told me that I would have to work hard, and be a positive role model for others of color in this profession. I think my role is to do just that. Be a positive role model and help others to see that anything is possible with hard work and a good attitude.

What advice can you give to young dancers who want to nurture a fruitful career in ballet?
Find a school and a group of teachers you can trust.  Listen to every correction that is given (not just your corrections, but everyone's) and take every class you can. Do not compare yourself to other dancers. My mother used to say, "Do not look to the left or to the right." Concentrate on improving yourself every single day.

Lia Cirio was named by the digital media company Refinery29 as one of the top professional dancers' Instagrams to follow.

You and your brother Jeffrey started a dance initiative called the Cirio Collective. How are you able to handle this responsibility given your respective positions in Boston Ballet and American Ballet Theatre?

Because Cirio Collective is a summer venture, we are able to do our respective jobs and keep the Collective going. We have a wonderful manager, Brad Schlagheck, who is also one of our dancers. We all work together throughout the year to plan and develop what's next for the Collective. We would like the Collective to remain a summer venture, but we would like to expand our venues and opportunities. This year, we have a wonderful female choreographer, Andi Schermoly, coming to choreograph for us, along with a piece that Jeff will create. 

Ultimately, what’s your goal for the Cirio Collective?

Jeff and I are committed to making the Collective be a haven for choreographers, musicians, and dancers who want to create without being afraid.  Several of our dancers have begun choreographing, and we are excited about the future of our small company.

What’s your life like outside of ballet?

Outside of ballet, I have a very normal life. I own a condo and have two cats.  Managing Cirio Collective takes up time, and I am going to college (at a slow pace). I have friends both inside and outside of the ballet, and enjoy time with them, along with my family. I try to go to see Jeff perform in NYC when I can, and I have a younger brother, Gabriel, who is currently studying in China.  When he is home, I try to get home to visit him and my parents as well.

How do your studies in organizational communication and management fit in into your already busy schedule, and why is it important for you to do this?

I am able to take classes through the internet with Northeastern University because the ballet has an agreement with them. So, I fit in one class at a time each semester. I would really like to work in some capacity of arts management when I finish dancing, so it is important to lay the groundwork for my next career.

You’re studying the social media aspect of ballet companies. What are the key lessons you've learned or observed in this area so far and how are you applying this in your own career?

We have to face the fact that social media is probably here to stay. It is important that companies think of creative ways to keep audience members engaged and buying tickets. Additionally, I do think that personal promotion is important, although I also think it can be overdone.Dancers must carefully balance how they present themselves to the outside world. Does their social media reflect well on their company? Is their social media acceptable for younger dancers to see? These are very important factors. 

I was recently named by Refinery29 as one of the top professional dancers' Instagrams to follow, chosen for my Instagram captions. The ballet career is intense, so I like to sometimes share funny and comical situations. Social media has certainly helped Cirio Collective, as we do not have the budget for much advertising. By using social media, we have been able to garner donations and even offers of other venues.

Have you tried choreography? If not, is it something you would like to explore later on? 

I have not explored choreography. However, next year, Boston Ballet will be hosting an evening of women choreographers from the company. I will be taking part in this event. I am very excited at this prospect, and I have a fairly clear idea of the piece I want to present. I will admit that I am somewhat nervous to be compared to my brother, but although we love a lot of the same things, I think my piece will be different from him, distinct in its own way.

What is it about ballet that makes all the effort worth it, considering it also means dealing with pain constantly, long hours and a relatively short career span?

It might be trite, but Balanchine was once quoted as saying, "I don't want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance." Really, that sums it up perfectly. I have to dance – and will – as long as I am able.

Dancing in Boston Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty: Aurora is one of Lia’s favorite roles. Photo by Lisa Voll

Choreography in Focus: Imperial by George Birkadze

Choreography in Focus: Imperial by George Birkadze

This Month in BM History: June 1997

This Month in BM History: June 1997