Neoclassical ballet

Jeffrey Cirio: the adventurous artist returns to the Boston Ballet

Superhuman. From another world. Next level. Even words like these don’t encompass Jeffrey Cirio’s performance in the title role of Akram Khan. Creature, which had its US premiere with the English National Ballet in February. In one of the most pivotal roles of his career, Cirio portrays a creature undergoing a military experiment at a desolate Arctic research station. He is subjected to various mental and physical tests to monitor his adaptability to extreme cold, isolation, and homesickness, qualities essential to humanity’s eventual colonization of earth and beyond.

As an angsty creature, Cirio pushed the boundaries of ballet, perhaps even dance as an art form. His slightest movement – the tremor of his fingers, a backbend, a crawl, a breath – took the audience on a journey with him. In the nearly two hours that Cirio was on stage, you experienced every feeling and emotion with him, from freezing cold and despair to heartache and love.

With Stina Quagebeur in Creature. Photo by Ambra Vernuccio, courtesy ENB.

“He’s extremely good as a mover,” says Khan. “But it’s more his state of mind – what he wants from the dance and where he wants to get himself. A lot of dancers just want to dance. They just want to stay on the surface of the body. There’s a rare handful who is willing to step into characters not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically, and that’s what Creature demanded.

Cirio, who turns 31 this month, has achieved No. 1 in three world-renowned companies: Boston Ballet, American Ballet Theater and English National Ballet. But despite his credits, Cirio isn’t one to settle down. “I’m such a stubborn person on the inside,” he explains. “When I’m interested in something, I have to do it as best I can. I just want to keep learning and being better for myself, not for anyone else. It’s an endless process.

Khan calls Cirio a “rare beast” who can move fluidly between classical, neoclassical and contemporary repertoire. Whether he’s playing a fiery Basilio or a heartbroken Siegfried, or interpreting an abstract work by Balanchine, Forsythe or Kylián, Cirio brings pure artistry to his roles, not just dazzling technique. “Jeff is a magnificent dancer of extraordinary versatility,” says ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo. “He has performed with the company in a wide range of roles, from Creature to Abdur in my Raymonde. It’s a joy to see what he brings to both the studio and the stage with each role he takes on.

Like Abdur Rahman in Tamara Rojo Raymonde. Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy ENB.

After joining the body of Boston Ballet in 2009, Cirio rose through the ranks and was promoted to principal in 2012, at just 21 years old. Eager to keep growing, he joined ABT in 2015 as a soloist and was promoted to principal the following year. While at ABT, Rojo invited him to join ENB, and he moved across the Atlantic in 2018 to join the company as Senior Manager.

When the dance world came to a standstill during the COVID pandemic, Cirio was finally able to take a step back from his hectic career and reflect on what mattered most to him. “Being away from my family in the United States through the isolation process really made me miss home, and I felt like I was being called back,” he says. This month, Cirio returns to where it all began, performing with Boston as a guest artist in MINDscape and Swan Lakethen join full-time as manager from the 2022-2023 season.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Cirio started ballet at age 9 after seeing her older sister, Lia, take lessons at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. His innate talent was evident from the start. “He started learning so quickly and catching up on his technique within weeks,” recalls Lia, herself director of Boston Ballet. “There was almost something magical or spiritual about his approach to art.”

It was during these early years that Cirio also began taking hip hop lessons with CPYB classmate Brian Scott Bagley. Cirio credits the freestyle fundamentals he learned from hip hop as one of his biggest influences in mastering versatility, which later served him well when he took on contemporary work. It also helped him develop a love for improvisation, something he still enjoys as a way to explore new ways of moving.

Cirio eventually started competing, but in his typical form he never chased after medals. One of Lia’s favorite early memories is of her brother at the United States International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2006. Jeff says he came to the competition thinking, “I probably won’t pass not the first round.

“He told me he wanted to participate just to see Daniil Simkin dance,” laughs Lia. “Later, I got a call from my mom, and she said, ‘Jeff got the bronze medal!’ Cirio and Simkin, who is now director of the Staatsballett Berlin, eventually became close during their time at ABT and have remained friends ever since.

In Manon with the English National Ballet. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, courtesy ENB.

Cirio then became an intern at the Boston Ballet School and, at age 15, was invited by Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen to join Boston Ballet II for the 2007-08 season. For someone who has maintained such a rapid trajectory throughout his career, it’s hard to imagine that when Cirio joined the junior company he felt unprepared for the demands of professional life. He calls it a “light bulb situation.”

“Having already had my older sister in the company, I was well aware of the professionalism required and the difficulty of the task”, recalls Cirio. “I knew I wasn’t there mentally yet. I didn’t want to learn choreography or do corps de ballet work when I knew I still had to progress in my technique and maturity.

This realization led Cirio to enroll at the Orlando Ballet School, where he honed his skills under the guidance of Peter Stark and Olivier Munoz. He also won more medals along the way, winning silver at the Seoul International Ballet Competition and becoming the first American to win gold at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. A more mature and experienced Cirio returned to Boston in 2009. “It’s the ‘wow’ factor. His dancing is contagious,” says Nissinen, whom Cirio has often referred to as the “father of ballet.”

During her first stay in Boston, Cirio also began to choreograph, creating works such as Trialfor Boston [email protected] series, and fremd, which premiered during the company’s 2014-15 season at the Boston Opera. He counts Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo as one of his early inspirations that opened his eyes to contemporary work. In the summer of 2015, he and Lia launched Cirio Collective, a troupe of artists who come together out of season to create new contemporary work and perform. Having other creative interests outside of dance, such as music, deejaying, and fashion, provides additional inspiration for her choreography.

“I love different genres of music, especially house, and the technique and difficulty of making everything seamless when deejaying is closely tied to how dance works,” Cirio says. “I’m interested in many things, and the connections I make through these other hobbies may ultimately help me when I work with Cirio Collective or Boston Ballet in the future.”

Cirio and Misa Kuranaga in Rudolf Nureyev Don Quixote (after Petipa) at the Boston Ballet. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet.

It’s easy to envy Cirio’s talent and success, but anyone who meets him soon realizes he’s got his feet on the ground. “He’s such a positive person, and other people in the room can feed off of that,” says former ABT colleague and current Cirio Collective artist Blaine Hoven of the team’s personality. Cirio. “He surrounds himself with people who aren’t toxic,” adds Lia. “I think he attracts like-minded people to him who want to grow with him.”

As grounded and balanced as he is, one thing that isn’t lost on Cirio is the impact he could have on budding dancers. Being Filipino American, he admires artists like Khan, who is of Bangladeshi descent, and hopes his own success will inspire other dancers from underrepresented communities.

“As an Asian man, seeing someone like Akram being at the top of his game and taking me under his wing makes me so grateful,” says Cirio. “I hope I can be someone to look up to for the next generation too. It doesn’t matter what race or skin color you are. You can be where I am too.

Upon returning to the United States, Cirio already had her eyes set on new goals, including shadowing Nissinen on aspects of management and learning the business side of a ballet organization. He also has a list of dream choreographers to work with, including Crystal Pite. “I really liked the contemporary choreographers who are coming out at the moment. I would also like to continue working with Akram. And now that he’s settled into a new home base, he’s excited to prepare for another major milestone: marriage. He and junior ENB soloist Anjuli Hudson got engaged in February.

“Jeff made good choices,” Nissinen said. “He wanted to learn and experience things in New York and London. Now he has made the choice to come back to Boston and I am happy that the circle is complete.