Young La Jolla dancer earns acceptance to The Juilliard


By Will Bowen

Cleo Person was born with an undeniable gift for movement. At age 16, as you watch her dance, you wonder where the talent comes from and why it is that some people are blessed with it.

Cleo has worked hard to cultivate her gift. She is on her way to school by 6 a.m. and does not return home until 5 or 6 p.m., after several hours of daily dance practice. And every summer, she enrolls in dance programs at prestigious schools across the country.

But also apparent is the support, encouragement, and sometimes gentle prodding, she gets from her parents, who have been instrumental in her development as a dancer.

A straight “A” student, Cleo is graduating from high school a year early and heading to The Juilliard School in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City to pursue a BFA in dance.

“At my interview at Juilliard, they asked me why I wanted to be a dancer. I said ‘I can’t stop moving, so I need to.’ ”

Cleo started her dance training at age 4 at the dance academy at The Children’s School in La Jolla under Lorna Diamond. Today she is a student at The San Diego School of the Creative & Performing Arts (SCPA) in Paradise Hills.

“The life of a dancer is daily dealing with your body,” Cleo said. “All the little aches, pains, and pulls ... the blisters and the bleeding toes. “

Cleo’s father, James, is the CEO of CDG, a cellular phone entity that looks after Qualcomm technology. The son of a Naval officer, James said he grew up on a farm in Mississippi. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering under the ROTC program at MIT, he put in stint in the Navy as a gunnery officer, before returning to USC for a master’s degree in business administration.

Cleo’s mom, Suzanne, was born in Spain, went to high school in Puerto Rico, and lived in South America before graduating from MIT, also with a degree in engineering. Her family traveled extensively, she said, because her father worked for Phillips Petroleum, helping to develop plastic.

“Since both my wife and I are engineers, dance was not something that we naturally knew,” James said. “But we have tried to learn and to support Cleo, and encourage her to take opportunities when they arose. We pushed her a little to move out of her comfort zone.”

Suzanne has put her engineering career on hold to help support the demands on a dancer-in-training. “If you could just see Cleo dance, you would know why I am content with my current station in life as her driver.”

To get into The Juilliard, Cleo had to fly to New York for five days of auditions. Fifty-three students started the audition, 43 were cut after Day 1 of ballet practice. Three of the 10 left were cut after Day 2 of modern dance. Seven gave a prepared solo performance after which five were cut. Cleo and another girl went through oral interviews. A month later, Cleo was notified that she would join the 26 other students chosen for next year’s program.

“I love both ballet and modern dance,” Cleo said. “I am interested in visceral movement — all the possibilities of movement that show the human essence.

“I am not really nervous during a dance performance. I get that out of the way by being nervous all through rehearsals. In the wings, before the show, I will meditate on what I can bring to the dance. I want to convey the feeling ... the struggle ... I want to find a way to give my whole self ... to have an outpouring of my soul so I can share the dance and its meaning with the audience.”

Cleo, seems as wise as she is creative.

“I think that the No. 1 problem facing my generation is apathy. The No. 2 problem is self-centeredness. Most young people have difficulty thinking about more than themselves, they have difficulty caring about the rest of the world.

“I want to help change this. I think that dance can help change the world. I am still finding out how.”

If you go

What: She Cleo perform in”Passion & Pathos” dance concert

When: 7 p.m. Friday, April 27 and Saturday, April 28

Where: Florence Johnson Grand Theater, San Diego School of the Performing & Creative Arts, 2525 Dusk Ave. in Paradise Hills

Tickets: $5

Contact: (619) 475-8556