There isn’t much adorning the walls of the tiny office occupied by Lourdes Lopez, the new artistic director of Miami City Ballet: printouts of two photos of her with her husband and two daughters, still in New York, and a handful of picture postcards of artistic mentor George Balanchine.
The big corner office that belonged to founding artistic director Edward Villella sits empty, cleared of the awards, framed photos (several of him with U.S. presidents) and other trappings of his 26-year tenure.
“It’s not like I spend a lot of time here,” Lopez says with a shrug. The only photo of her as a dancer, propped on a stack of books, shows her at age 11, in leotard and tights, outside a Coral Gables ballet studio a few years before she left her childhood home in Miami for New York.
Forty-three years later, Lopez is back, summoned sooner than planned after Villella’s sudden departure over Labor Day weekend, and she has not had a moment to stop. The troupe, which opens its season Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, was in the middle of rehearsals when she arrived.
“It was sink or swim,” she says. “But starting like this removed me worrying if I was doing a good job or not. There was no time for it. I think it’s much better for me. Sometimes if you think too much, you’re not doing what comes naturally.”
Some aspects of the job, such as coaching the company’s Balanchine ballets — many of which she danced during her 24 years with New York City Ballet — come naturally to Lopez. But the former executive director of Morphoses, a small contemporary troupe in New York, has never had to juggle the myriad demands of heading a major classical company. They range from planning new ballets years in advance to fine-tuning steps at daily rehearsals, from stroking potential donors to listening to 11-year-olds in the company’s school who are upset that they’re not being allowed to use pointe shoes yet.
“I promised them I’d take another look,” Lopez sighs as she rushes from a photo shoot to change for rehearsal. She has been staying with friends and family as she looks for an apartment, and the night before, stomach pains (stress-related, she thinks) landed her in the emergency room.
Despite the yearlong turmoil surrounding Villella’s departure, the dancers seem mostly at ease, immersed in their routine. Two of the ballets they’ll perform Friday, Balanchine’s masterpiece Apollo and Paul Taylor’s taut, sexy tango work Piazzolla Caldera, are relatively familiar. It’s been 12 years since they’ve done the third, renowned British choreographer Frederick Ashton’s technically difficult but lyrical and light-hearted Les Patineurs (The Skating Party).
In morning class, they cut loose with head-kicking leaps, whirling turns and triumphant poses. While they mourn Villella’s departure, they seem reassured by Lopez’s leadership.
“There’s so many layers of emotion,” says principal dancer Patricia Delgado, who graduated from MCB’s school into the company in 1999. “I have my career because of Edward. I never thought I’d dance for anyone else. But Lourdes has been very sensitive and professional about keeping us moving forward.
“Change is inevitable. We all love to dance too much, love this place too much and love Edward too much to let it all dwindle away.”
Skyler Lubin, 20, who came to study at MCB at 16 in part because of Villella, says she was devastated by his departure. “He was like a light for me in dance,” she says. “But Lourdes is amazing. She’s given me encouragement and made me feel safe. So I’m excited.”
Principal dancer Reyneris Reyes says he still feels sad and confused by the changes. “I hope it was for the best for the company and for the community,” he says. “But I feel good with Lourdes. She’s really confident and secure. For an artistic director, this is a major thing, to be confident of where you want to go.”
Lopez, who was at NYCB when its legendary founder Balanchine died in 1983, says she has tried to be sensitive to the dancers’ concerns.
“Dancers just want to dance and be nurtured and encouraged,” she says. “I said to them that the greatest gift I can give you is for you to be able to just walk into this building knowing all you have to worry about is dancing — not budgets, not drama, but your jump and your role that night.”
When she teaches company class, a crucial foundation for the dancers’ technique and style, she has zeroed in on precision and details — shaping the upper body or cleaning up specific steps, for example — where Villella tended to focus on broader qualities like energy, rhythm and musicality.
“I see it as an opportunity to fix things so they don’t have to worry about it onstage,” she says.
The dancers have noticed the difference.
“She’s clearly paying attention to people’s strengths and weaknesses,” says principal dancer Tricia Albertson. Corps dancer Neil Marshall says Lopez has challenged the troupe: “I think she’s ambitious for the company and the dancers.”
As she coaches Delgado and young Brazilian dancer Renan Cerdeiro in Apollo, Lopez makes some technical corrections, but mostly talks about the ballet’s back story about a young god discovering his inspiration and power. “He’s searching — he’s still looking for his father,” she tells Cerdeiro.
“Renan is just prodigious,” she says later. “He absorbs things and takes them further.”
She speaks in a mix of Spanish and English as she rehearses Venezuelan Mary Carmen Catoya and Cuban Carlos Guerra in the same ballet. As she adjusts Catoya in a precarious arch atop Guerra’s shoulders, the shy dancer, who has struggled since a serious foot injury two years ago, breaks into a radiant smile.
This season’s programming, which includes Balanchine’s Apollo and Duo Concertant, the Symphonic Dances Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky created for MCB last spring and a new work from young British choreographer Liam Scarlett, were set when Lopez arrived. But next year she plans a new work on each of the troupe’s four programs.
On her wish list are Polyphonia by Christopher Wheeldon, the choreographer with whom she launched Morphoses; a work by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato that she describes as “lush, mellow, romantic,” and West Side Story Suite, drawn from Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the famous Broadway musical and film, which would require some dancers to sing. She’d like to do Don Quixote, which MCB has danced before, but using the costumes and sets Santo Loquasto created for American Ballet Theater and pairing guest stars with MCB’s principals, partnerships she believes would enrich the Miami dancers.
She also has broader though not fully defined plans with bigger implications for the troupe. She wants to turn Morphoses into a creative arm of MCB, inviting guest choreographers and the troupe’s dancers to make pieces, possibly staging them at nontraditional venues like museums or malls or at the troupe’s in-house studio series Open Barre. And she wants to incorporate more choreographers, including major ballet modernists such as William Forsythe and Jiri Kylian, into the troupe’s repertoire.
“Miami City Ballet really functions as a very traditional — and I mean that with full respect — dance company,” she says. “What it doesn’t have is a choreographic arm.”
But she insists she won’t take the troupe too far from its classical base of Balanchine and Robbins and modern dance masters such as Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp.
“We’re not going to do Pina Bausch,” she says, referring to the experimental German choreographer. “The foundation of Miami City Ballet’s repertoire will not change. I’m bringing in other choreographers that are very similar, that will complement those. … I strongly believe the more information you have, the more accomplished you are as an artist.”
A changed city
She is still groping to understand a city that changed enormously while she was away.
“Miami is on the brink of this huge cultural explosion,” she says. “I want Miami City Ballet to ride that momentum, and to initiate it if possible. … I think the city is ready to embrace a ballet company and ready to embrace the arts.”
Many would say that explosion is well underway. And the ballet has been struggling to win the city’s embrace since its inception.
The perennially cash-strapped company recently received $3 million in new donations, but much more will be needed to realize Lopez’s vision. And the new artistic director, who signed a 44-month contract, is aware of the potential pitfalls. She’s already gotten some pushback over whether the adventurous pieces she thinks would play well in Miami will work in more conservative West Palm Beach.
“They can run to the end of my contract and say we’re no longer in need of you,” she says, shrugging. “I hope they don’t judge me on whether I’m able to raise gazillions of dollars. I hope what they’ll see is it’s not just Miami City Ballet I’m trying to move forward.”