Miami City Ballet’s debut at Lincoln Center was a triumph on every level, with enthusiastic ovations from a seasoned dance audience Wednesday and Thursday nights and a glowing review from New York Times lead dance critic Alastair Macaulay.
For a dance company, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Yet Miami City Ballet has been here before. It had an enthusiastically received, sold-out run in Paris in 2011. It received rave reviews and standing ovations for its Manhattan debut at New York’s City Center in 2009. The pattern goes all the way back to 1995, when MCB burst onto the national scene at the Kennedy Center in Washington, just nine years after it first stepped on stage in Miami (followed by more successful outings there in 2000 and 2003).
Each time the troupe returned home glowing with achievement and hoping that out-of-town affirmation would translate to more love from South Florida — bigger audiences and donations, more respect and attention. Each time success on the road seemed to have little practical effect at home.
But Lincoln Center could be different. Dancing at City Center, which was the original home of New York City Ballet and where MCB founding artistic director Edward Villella was a star, was hugely meaningful to the troupe artistically. But that theater is significant primarily to dance insiders. There is no more famous venue than Lincoln Center, or the David H. Koch Theater, where MCB performed there — which New Yorkers know better by its original name of the New York State Theater. It was built for legendary NYCB choreographer George Balanchine as his troupe became the emblematic American and New York ballet company; to most, this is “Balanchine’s house” and NYCB’s true home.
For current artistic director Lourdes Lopez, who left Miami at 14 to study at NYCB’s school and danced in the company for 24 years, rising to principal dancer, to go from being one of many on the Koch stage to presenting her own troupe has to be a profoundly meaningful moment.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how all of this happened,” she said in a speech Wednesday.
This week also promises to be transformative for MCB’s dancers. The Koch theater stage is bigger than those at the venues where they dance in South Florida; dancer Patricia Delgado said that in rehearsal the company had to figure out how to take up more space with the same steps.
“It feels a lot bigger than Miami,” MCB apprentice Alaina Anderson, who performed Thursday evening, said at intermission. “My heart was racing.”
Indeed, the physical stretch pales next to the artistic expansion required. “To perform … on that stage — I don’t have words,” soloist Nathalia Arja said last week. She didn’t need to speak — the intensity she brought to several leading roles the first two nights, amplifying her already sparkling dancing, exemplified the whole company’s performance. They danced with a projection, heat and energy that lit up the theater.
And they did it their way. Miami’s distinctive style was a draw for Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce Theater, which presented MCB in New York.
“To me the dancers are refreshing, they have a different kind of energy,” Shelton said. “They look like they love what they’re doing.”
Shelton’s evaluation seemed borne out by the reaction in New York.
“It’s not [New York] City Ballet — it’s Miami City Ballet,” choreographer Sean Curran, head of the dance department at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, said Thursday. “They have an accent. It’s like seeing Balanchine through a different lens. It was thrilling.”
The company’s many Latino and Latin American dancers, who seem so normal in South Florida, were also striking to New Yorkers.
“It’s refreshing to see the ethnicity,” dancer Donald Shorter said Thursday. “That’s Miami onstage.”
MCB’s choreographic profile is also different this time from in 2009. Then it focused on the Balanchine heritage so central to Villella and the company under him, with five out of six pieces by that great choreographer. This time the Miami company did just two Balanchine works, Symphony in Three Movements and Bouree Fantasque in their two regular programs (plus Serenade on Wednesday, a perk for attendees of a Joyce fundraiser). Instead, the program emphasized commissioned pieces that famous choreographers made for MCB: Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphonic Dances, Justin Peck’s Heatscape, and Liam Scarlett’s Viscera.
Taking a big unwieldy entity like a ballet company on the road is an expensive proposition that usually requires extra fundraising. That was not the case this time, since the Joyce was presenting MCB, underwriting costs (including artistically crucial live music from the NYCB orchestra) in exchange for ticket revenue and having the Miami troupe as the sexy centerpiece of its annual fundraising gala Wednesday. But the attitude on the part of the company’s leadership toward touring, and its potential to boost MCB’s status, also seems different now. At the end of Villella’s tenure, tense clashes with some board members and donors led to deep financial stresses and an attitude that put solvency over artistic achievement. The company returned from Paris to find itself in the red.
Now board members seem deeply appreciative of the value of visiting New York.
“It’s an important affirmation of the value of the company,” says MCB board member Charles Adelman, a retired New York attorney and longtime dance lover who is on the Joyce board and is an NYCB supporter. “It has great symbolic and practical importance. Even in its home it’s important for [MCB] to have national recognition.”
MCB executive director Michael Scolamiero said he hopes Lincoln Center success will lure new donors who could underwrite visits to Europe, where the company hasn’t returned since its Paris triumph, and Latin America, where its Miami brand and Latin American dancers would presumably make it a natural draw.
“The potential is there as the community’s confidence in what we’re doing continues to grow,” Scolamiero says. He points to the San Francisco Ballet, the leading American ballet company after NYCB and American Ballet Theater, whose board decided the cost of touring was worth the boost in reputation.
“The [San Francisco] board committed to underwrite the deficit — they saw [touring] as integral to establish San Francisco Ballet as a company that rivaled any company in the world,” Scolamiero says. “You don’t get there by staying in California.”
This week in New York marked the end of MCB’s 30th season, which together with the departure of longtime leading dancers, feels like a key turning point from the Villella to the Lopez era. Some remarked that it was a pity that Villella, who left in 2012 after a controversial and acrimonious season, was not on hand to witness this new achievement of the company he built. But there was also a sense that change was inevitable.
“My deepest wish is that Edward could see this,” Nicolle Ugarriza, a former publicist for MCB who traveled from Miami for the shows, said Wednesday. “But companies have a certain trajectory, and their path takes them on certain milestones. Now the company has really arrived.”