Hernan Justo talks 20 years at Carolina Ballet Theatre and his love of ballet

Hernan Justo has served as Carolina Ballet Theatre’s Artistic Director since 2000. He is involved in all aspects of the company; from teaching classes, coaching, teaching afterschool dance and outreach classes to creating original works.

© Nathan Gray/Staff, TALK Greenville Hernan Justo is the artistic director of the Carolina Ballet Theatre.

He began dancing in 1974 at the Instituto Superior de Arte Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He joined the ballet Estable del Teatro Colón in 1982 and was then invited to perform with the Ballet del Teatro Argentino de la Plata two years later. In 1988, his career took him to the Ballet de Santiago, Chile, where he performed ballets by John Cranko, Ben Stevenson, Ronald Hynd and Andree Prokovski among others.

After three years, Hernan joined the Ballet Clásico de Cámara in Caracas, Venezuela, under the direction of Nina Novak, formerly prima ballerina of Les Ballet Russe de Montecarlo. In 1992, Justo participated in the XV International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, one of the most prestigious and rigorous competitions in professional ballet, in which he and his partner won the “Best Couple” award. Justo was later featured in two gala performances, dancing Black Swan Pas de Deux. He has also won the distinction of “Best Classical Interpretation” at the Prix Volinine in Paris, France, in 1993.

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Justo became a principal dancer with the North Carolina Dance Theatre (today called Charlotte Ballet) in 1994 under the artistic direction of the late Salvatore Aiello, with whom Hernan performed many of his ballets such as Clowns and Other, The Nutcracker, Coppelia, Turn of the Screw and Rite of Spring. Later, under the artistic direction of the renowned Jean Pierre Bonnefoux, Patricia McBride and Jerri Kumery, all artists affiliated with New York City ballet, Hernan added to his repertoire several Balanchine masterpieces for which he was critically acclaimed by Dance Magazine and The New York Times.

Meticulous goals, no promise of glory: How ballet changed four lives in the Upstate

In 2000, he was invited to become Artistic Director of Carolina Ballet Theatre by its founder Barbara Selvy. For CBT Hernan has created over 70 choreographic pieces which several are full-length ballets. Like Arabian Nights, Jungle Book, Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Nutcracker, Jolly Roger among others and contemporary works like Arriving in Indigo City, Tangofusion, A Tango for Angelina, Ghosts, Pulling the Strings, and Preludes for a Farewell. Hernan is married to Anita Pacylowski and they raised three children; Martin (30), Sofia (20), Nicolas (17).

© Clifford Pate Anita Pacylowski-Justo, Hernan Justo at the Carolina Ballet Theatre’s 50th Anniversary event.

Talk Greenville: How did you get into dancing in the beginning?

Hernan Justo: In 4th grade, I started to get in trouble in school. My mom got me into some extracurricular activities. I tried sports, drama, visual arts, but nothing worked. Until one day, we went to the movies to watch “Singing in the Rain” with Gene Kelly, and I loved the dance numbers. I danced all the way home and all my problems at schools disappeared

TG: What is one thing you wish everyone knew about being a professional dancer?

HJ: Every profession requires certain qualities to do it. To be a dancer, you can’t be selfish. It requires a great deal of generosity. We must and will perform under any circumstance. We give everything for our audience, we give everything for this career, and we ask very little in return. We just want to dance. Our mission is to entertain our community.

TG: What is the hardest part about dancing?

HJ: Training your body for very sophisticated movements. This is not running with a ball in your hands. This is turning, jumping, and beating your legs in a fraction of second, traveling though space and then doing it again but backwards. Everything needs to follow the beat of the music while simultaneously playing a character that may be the opposite of who you really are. We must conceal the effort and occasional pains that we physically experience on stage at that precise moment.

TG: What is one thing that you feel is most important when teaching ballet?

HJ: Being another link in this beautiful tradition. Ballet is passed from generation to generation, and it is an honor have time in this constantly evolving tradition to do my part to keep ballet alive. From the classical repertoire to my own choreography. Also, to be a part of the evolution of the method of dance. Everything I learned from others plus what I experimented with myself is passed to the new generations and they will also add their own experience. It is a fantastic honor to be a part of it.

TG: What is the biggest difference between teaching others and dancing yourself?

HJ: Teaching is a second opportunity for you. In my case, I particularly love when one of my dancers performs a role that I did in my years as a dancer and theirs is better. It’s the feeling that I have another opportunity to dance that role in new way. After 30 years of dancing, I was able to do what I always wanted to do, which is directing and teaching and producing shows.

TG: Your wife, Anita Pacylowski, is also a professional dancer. How did you meet?

HJ: We were both hired at Charlotte Ballet (formerly North Carolina Dance Theatre) as principal dancers in 1994. After a year working together, we started dating. In 1998 I proposed on stage in front of 2000 people and we were married in 2000 and now have 3 children.

TG: How would your children describe you?

HJ: Martin, who is 30, would probably describe me as workaholic. My daughter, Sofia, 20, would describe me as the guy that has all the answers. My youngest, Nicolas, 17, would describe me as a soccer fan who knows very little about soccer.

TG: This year is the 50th anniversary of CBT. How have things changed since the beginning?

HJ: We do things with more efficiency. We accomplish things faster, better, and with less effort. After being the artistic director for 20 years, I look back and remember how hard we worked. Also, technology has changed so many aspects of this business.

TG: What has stayed the same?

HJ: In the world of ballet, we always say ballet is the ugly sister of the arts. We are the ones who get pushed aside. Ballet is very hard to produce. It requires costumes, special floors, lights, scenery, and a considerable amount of people on the stage. Ballet is also expensive and is a hard sell, but ballet is just as beautiful and needs to be funded just as much. We only find out how useful it is the day we don’t have it anymore and it is too late.

TG: What do you feel is the greatest accomplishment of CBT?

HJ: The number of artists that come out of this company today dancing internationally or teaching or choreographing. And those who are not in this business any longer always tell me how much ballet helped them accomplish their goals in their new professions. CBT has also brought many international and recognizable artists to Greenville.

TG: What do you do when you’re not dancing or teaching dance?

HJ: Watching soccer on TV or watching my son play soccer for his high school or CESA. I also like to read great artist biographies and watch movies.

TG: Are you a big reader? What’s your favorite type of book?

HJ: Yes, normally I read two books at the same time. One for study, ballet methods or ballet history, and the other one is pleasure. My favorite writers are Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Oscar Wilde. I confess that I read less now because I used to read while taking public transportation. Since living in America, I drive everywhere so I must make time to read.

TG: What’s the best advice you ever got?

HJ: It was a dedication in a book by a dance teacher. He gave it to me on the opening night of his show. It said that the artist chose the path of stones and not the path of flowers and that it was our mission to turn those stones into flowers.

TG: What’s your favorite dessert and where can we get it?

HJ: I love Creme Brulé. There are some places here in Greenville that make it well.

TG: Where would we find you on a Friday night?

HJ: Working with the dancers most likely.

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Hernan Justo talks 20 years at Carolina Ballet Theatre and his love of ballet

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