International Ballet Festival of Miami turns 20

Ana Elisa of Mexico’s Compañía Nacional de Danza will perform at the International Ballet Festival of Miami
Ana Elisa of Mexico’s Compañía Nacional de Danza will perform at the International Ballet Festival of Miami Courtesy Compañía Nacional de Danza

A ballet dancer’s stamina can be measured in a few minutes of high leaps and multiple pirouettes. But an artistic director, to make a mark, must endure years of jumping over organizational hurdles and staying focused throughout turns of taste. The International Ballet Festival of Miami, which celebrates its 20th anniversary over the next two weeks, has shown staying power of both kinds.

Festival founder and director Pedro Pablo Peña emphasizes the daunting nature of his enterprise. "Fulfilling my dream of bringing ballet from all over the world to Miami has been a task worthy of Don Quixote," he says in Spanish. "It’s taken quite a bit of inspired madness."

In the early 1990s, Peña, who had already started Creation Art Center and the Miami Hispanic Ballet, saw a need to give local audiences more opportunities to enjoy what he deemed to be the most splendid type of classical dance, with colorful and vigorous samplings of traditional repertory. Of course, Miami City Ballet had already been founded in 1985, but under Edward Villella, an apostle of George Balanchine, it emphasized a more streamlined neoclassical aesthetic.

The training and performances Peña experienced in his native Cuba has given him an affinity for a style of ballet that infuses the rigors of the Russian school with Latin exuberance. That often calls for a technique that comes on like gangbusters: always teasing out one more turn, longer balances, and rapid fire accents. This approach energizes traditional choreography and maintains the viability of old masters such as Petipa.

Peña’s taste has shaped the programming of the Miami festival. Grand pas de deux from the likes of Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, and Don Quixote rule at the festival’s showcase galas. These shows can run as long as three or four hours, and length has not always meant strength. Yet, glowing performances can emerge from the parade of classical standards, as well as opportunities to discover the likes of Tamara Rojo -- a 1998 participant who became an internationally renowned ballerina and is now director of the English National Ballet. Edgier dances do pop up, and contemporary performances and a showcase of medalists from the Youth America Grand Prix (the competition featured in the documentary First Position) have more recently spiced up the mix. A film series and workshops with visiting artists have also filled out the Festival’s offerings.

Throughout the years, Peña has remained steadfast in wanting to fulfill his artistic vision. "I started out from zero," he says. "But I’ve managed to build an event that people eagerly await. I’m amazed at all the figures from ballet who have come to Miami because of the festival."

Peña, who now heads the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center in Little Havana, has help from Colombian-born co-director Eriberto Jiménez. Other associates serve as what Peña calls his "eyes in Europe" to help choose performers for the festival and recipients of the "A Life for Dance" and "Criticism and Culture" awards. This year those recognitions will go respectively to Azari Plisetsky, a globe-trotting master teacher with Bolshoi Ballet roots, and Swiss journalist and historian Jean Pierre Pastori.

"Naturally, some parts of the preparations have become smoother, but the economic struggles never go away," says Peña. "When the curtain comes down on the festival’s last evening, sometimes I think that’s it for me -- that I couldn’t possibly put myself through this another year. But if I don’t, who will? "

In fact, only catastrophes have derailed the festival. Peña was in the middle of an interview when someone came in to interrupt the journalist talking to him with news of the 9-11 attacks. "I had to slump away, materials under my arm, feeling the weight of the world," the director recalls.

In 2004, concerns about oncoming Hurricane Jeanne also kept the lights off. But even under these dire circumstances, Peña managed to stage an abbreviated event later on. Economic hits, such as the recent loss of long-time sponsor American Airlines, have also posed serious threats. How does the festival weather these storms?

"By working magic," Peña declares. "I insist on keeping ticket prices reasonable. So, we scramble to seek out smaller sources of funding, negotiate postponed payments with agencies -- it’s not easy!"

Peña, who expects total attendance this year to be around 8,000, operates with an average budget of $125,000. With such limited funds, he cannot afford to bring large ensembles or ballet’s biggest stars. But Peña banks on the warmth of Miami audiences to draw artists to his roster.

"Ballet fans here are enthusiastic and knowledgeable," he contends. "The dancers tell me that’s a major reason why they want to keep coming back."

Peña’s opinion is confirmed by Laura Morelos, a former dancer who is the director of Mexico’s Compañía Nacional de Danza. She was a frequent guest at the festival, dancing in pas de deux as Juliet, Carmen, and Odette from Swan Lake -- the latter earning her a standing ovation in a post-9-11 assertion of art over terror. For Morelos, much of the value of this international gathering comes from the camaraderie.

"It was very enriching to have conversations in dressing rooms about our challenges and the ways we overcame them," she says in Spanish. "We were able to learn what was happening all over Europe and South America."

Now Morelos is bringing a new generation of dancers from her company to experience the 20th edition of the festival. Ana Elisa Mena and Rodrigo Ortega will perform the Black Swan Pas de Deux and Bournonville’s Flower Festival at Genzano, highlighting their skills in different styles.

That continuity validates all the effort for Peña, who sees the festival through the eyes of a grateful immigrant.

"My biggest satisfaction has been to achieve in this country what I could never have done in mine," he says.

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What: International Ballet Festival of Miami

When: Sept. 1 to 13

Where: Various venues across Miami-Dade County

Info: For a full schedule of events and locations, go to www.internationalballetfestival.org or call (305) 549-7711.