Miami City Ballet makes a splash in Lincoln Center debut

Mimi City Ballet dancer Nathalia Arja and members of the company dancing “Serenade” at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch theater on Wednesday
Mimi City Ballet dancer Nathalia Arja and members of the company dancing “Serenade” at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch theater on Wednesday

Miami City Ballet has danced in Paris, at Washington’s Kennedy Center, and, yes, in Manhattan before. But to walk across the vast plaza of New York’s world-renowned Lincoln Center, past the famous fountain unfurling in the sunset, and see “Miami City Ballet” emblazoned above the entrance to the center’s David H. Koch Theater is a thrill unlike anything else in the arts world.

“Yeah Miami!!” beamed Sue Kronick, the company’s chairwoman, striding across the theater lobby Wednesday evening, joining other Miami supporters gathered for the opening night of a slate of MCB performances here that runs through Sunday. They included founder Toby Ansin, the arts patron who launched the company with founding artistic director Edward Villella, glowing at the company’s passage “from Lincoln Road to Lincoln Center” — from the Miami Beach storefront where the then 17-member troupe started in 1985 to the center of the dance world.

Miami City Ballet’s rousingly successful 2009 Manhattan debut at New York’s City Center, the theater where New York City Ballet and dance legend Villella started out, was a milestone for the Miami troupe. The Lincoln Center shows, at the grand theater built to be the home of NYCB, are a new marker for the Miami company and for current artistic director Lourdes Lopez, the Miami-raised ballerina who danced with NYCB at this theater for 24 years.

“We loved Edward; he was a game-changer,” said Margaret Selby, who represents major dance troupes and choreographers for Colombia Artist Management. “But this is a different game.”

Beverly D’Anne, a former American Ballet Theatre ballerina who ran the dance program for the New York City Council on the Arts, was also eager to see the new MCB.

“I saw Miami City Ballet under Eddie,” said D’Anne. “It was terrific, beautiful. Now I’m anxious to see it under Lourdes.”

Wednesday evening featured a reception and fundraising gala for the Joyce Theater Foundation, the nonprofit behind one of New York’s leading dance venues, which is presenting MCB here. The combination of an important arts organization and a company that hasn’t performed in New York in six years brought out an influential crowd of arts patrons, critics, booking agents and other tastemakers and movers and shakers who crowded chattering on the mezzanine before the show.

On hand were NYCB artistic director Peter Martins and two of ballet’s most renowned choreographers: NYCB’s Justin Peck, whose ballet Heatscape MCB performs Friday; and ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky, whose Symphonic Dances, another MCB commission, was featured Wednesday. Philanthropic luminaries included Sarah Arison, the heiress who heads Miami’s Arison Arts Foundation, who was honored at the gala, and New York’s Agnes Gund. Less glittery but just as key for MCB was Bill Lockwood, a longtime former programmer for Lincoln Center who books Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre. There was excitement over the arrival of New York Times fashion columnist Bill Cunningham. But more important to MCB was the paper’s powerful dance critic Alastair Macaulay, whose enthusiastic reviews of MCB’s performances in South Florida have whetted this city’s interest.

“The New York dance world is very curious about what’s going on in Miami,” said Pia Catton, covering the event for the Wall Street Journal.

“There is such a buzz,” said former dancer Alexander Dube. “Lourdes is beloved here.”

The artistic significance of this theater gave the company’s debut here an emotional and artistic meaning far beyond the venue’s prestige. As the curtain rose on Serenade, the first piece Balanchine made in America, with the ranks of Miami dancers lifting their palms high toward the audience filling the theater’s golden tiers, they seemed to be saluting Balanchine, the audience and the honor of taking their place in ballet history.

“When I heard “onstage for Serenade” for rehearsal I burst into tears,” Lopez, whose first New York performance was in that ballet, told radio station WNYC on Thursday. “It wasn’t nerves. It was about bringing these dancers to my home.”

Her dancers were thrilled. “It’s a gift to dance on the stage where Edward danced, where Lourdes danced, where Balanchine created all these works we do now,” MCB principal dancer Patricia Delgado said last week. “There’s a feeling of the ghosts of the past who help you do what you do.”

When MCB performed at City Center, dancer Jeanette Delgado gave a star-making performance in Balanchine’s Square Dance. On Wednesday young Brazilian soloist Nathalia Arja had a similar kind of breakout moment. She was the electrifying center of Serenade and the fierce “war girl” in Ratmansky’s grand, dramatic Symphonic Dances, earning particularly warm applause.

On the plaza afterward three students from MCB’s school: Margarita Armas, 15; Leah McFadden, 18; and Gabriella Bandera, 19; snapped photos in front of the theater, laughing and shivering in the cold night air. They were brimming with excitement at the show and the prospect of joining the company in Bourrée Fantasque on Friday night.

“Oh my gosh, it was so good,” said McFadden, who is from a small town in Michigan.

“This is crazy,” said the Miami-raised Armas, who has studied at MCB since she was 7. “I’m so honored to even perform with the company.”

Bandera, from Brazil, was particularly inspired by Arja.

“She came to the U.S. at the same age as me, and now she’s a big star,” Bandera said. “I want to be like her.”