Performing Arts

Miami City Ballet opens a new season

NEW DAY: Miami City Ballet dancers in their daily morning class in preparation for the new season.
NEW DAY: Miami City Ballet dancers in their daily morning class in preparation for the new season. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The Miami City Ballet opens its 29th season in October with Romeo and Juliet, a hit for the troupe in spring 2011. And throughout the season, many dancers and ballets seen in previous years will be on stage.

But in myriad ways, some visible to the balletgoer and many more behind the scenes, the company has been transformed. Artistic director Lourdes Lopez has asserted her vision with increasing authority since she took over from founder Edward Villella two years ago.

The most obvious changes are in the company leadership and staff. There has been an almost complete turnover — from a new board president and new executive director to new teachers at the company school. The board has become better organized and more functional, with a more clearly defined and helpful relationship with the company.

“I think Lourdes is gaining confidence,” says new executive director Michael Scolamiero, who held the same position at Pennsylvania Ballet for 17 years before moving to Miami in July. “She’s arriving at an identity for the company.”

Sweeping changes at an artistic institution mean far more than new marketing strategies; they lead to differences in aesthetic, in character, in identity. For Miami City Ballet, the changes point toward a repertory and style that are more mixed, more contemporary, and more similar to those of other U.S. ballet troupes; a more corporate organizational culture; and a new emphasis on community relationships.

How those shifts will ultimately affect the company’s artistic profile — the way it dances, and its place in the dance world and in Miami’s cultural landscape — remains to be seen.

In a recent interview at the troupe’s Miami Beach headquarters, Lopez said she wanted to focus on new ballets — such as Heatscape, commissioned from New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck and a version of Carmen by British dancemaker Richard Alston, both slated for this season.

“I wanted to change the repertory, introduce new works, both existing and continuing what Edward was doing, which is commissioning work that is new and exciting,” Lopez said. “Last year was a step in that direction, and certainly this year is as well.”

The casual, mom-and-pop shop atmosphere the troupe had under Villella and his wife, Linda Villella, who founded and headed the company’s school, has been replaced with a more businesslike approach.

“The ballet and the school are becoming more institutionalized,” says former MCB school principal and head teacher Carter Alexander, who left last summer. “There will be wonderful things that come out of that, and there will be these wonderful things that get lost.”

New board president Sue Kronick says the changes are inevitable, and will ultimately be positive. “There are transitions in any business,” says Kronick. “Some are messy, and some are good. The question is what is it that breeds success?”

Organizationally and financially, Miami’s best-known performing arts group seems on steadier ground. According to company officials, the budget is $16 million this year, the company’s largest ever (the budget had twice topped out at just under $15 million). Debt of $3.5 million when Villella left in fall 2012 is down to $1.9 million. A $5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for the troupe’s endowment, paid out in yearly installments, has brought that fund from almost nothing to $3 million.

At the end of July, the company had sold about 28,000 seats and $1.9 million worth of subscriptions, matching numbers at the end of the two previous seasons; it expects to exceed them this fall, partly through new marketing efforts like a “choose your own seat” plan.

Many central staffers from the Villella era, as well as some from the transitional period when Lopez started, are gone. Scolamiero replaced Daniel Hagerty, a Kennedy Center fundraising executive brought in with Lopez who left in April, citing personal reasons — primarily the desire to be with his partner, a ballet dancer who could not find work in South Florida. Phillip Neal, a former New York City Ballet principal close to Villella who had been coaching ballets and fundraising in West Palm Beach, left last year.

New school director Darlene Callaghan, who took over last summer, recently fired longtime administrative director Ricardo Montealeagre, who helped found the school and created and oversaw a successful exchange program with a Brazilian ballet school that has brought leading dancers Renan Cerdeiro, Kleber Rebello and Nathalia Arja to MCB. Another longtime school administrative staffer, Jesus Vasquez, was let go last fall.

This spring the troupe got a new director of development, Eva Silverstein, and added a major new position, director of community outreach and special projects. It was filled by Terry Schechter — a former president of the Funding Arts Network, a private Miami arts funding group — to oversee and raise money for community programs.

Lopez almost always thanks the community in her pre-show speeches, and she has emphasized attention-getting events and partnerships with the goal of building goodwill and awareness — as well as ticket sales and donations. Efforts have included a flash mob at Wynwood Art Walk, a collaboration with the New World Symphony on a new pas de deux by Peck, and a performance at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. On Jan. 30 the company will join the YoungArts Foundation for a special event with playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney.

The plan is for Schechter to expand that outreach. Ideas include having dancers visit children’s hospitals and shows by a new student ensemble in museums and schools. Lopez hopes to increase scholarships at the company ballet school and add programs in public schools.

“We’ve done some outreach, we’ve gotten out,” Lopez says. “I think we’ve become much more visible as a company, but not as much as I would have hoped, because our human resources are not in place.”

A less visible but crucial shift is taking place on the company’s board. Kronick, who started as president a year ago, is a well-connected figure who was the longtime vice-chairman of Macy’s. She is instituting a new professionalism and some badly needed changes, insiders say. Kronick, who is knowledgeable about the nonprofit world — she is a trustee of the Knight Foundation, and her husband, Edward Shumsky, is vice chairman of the New World Symphony — has overseen a rewrite of the troupe’s bylaws, as well as setting up committees in areas such as fundraising and finding new board members.

Such a setup, considered standard for a well-run arts board, had never been the case at the ballet. The group has often had difficulty attracting new members, and some did little besides pay dues. That helped engender a situation in which the troupe became overly reliant on a small group of board members and donors who gave heavily for years, leading to clashes with Villella over artistic control.

“There was donor and board fatigue,” Lopez says. “They were used to not really participating. … The way it was structured was not really conducive to a 21st century dance organization.”

Kronick has been more selective about who the board accepts, looking for people who bring skills and connections as well as contributions. There were 11 new members as of last spring, and the troupe recently added two more: Charles Adelman, a former chairman of Morphoses, the troupe Lopez headed in New York, and tech entrepreneur George Crowley.

“My job is to build a high-level, high-functioning board that can build the sustainability of the company,” Kronick says. “A board is not only about financial capacity, but also about … adding to the long-term growth of the company. You need people who care about the art and the community.”

Villella had sought many of these same changes on the board. That he did not succeed was due to a complex set of factors, including the lack of a strong executive director and what became a distrustful, even acrimonious, relationship between him and some influential board members. The tension undermined the ballet’s functioning and fundraising, and ultimately led to his ouster during the 2011-12 season.

But Kronick, a lifelong ballet lover who says she was a fan of Villella’s during his dancing prime, says the important thing is that the company continue to grow.

“Name a world-class city that does not have world-class performing arts institutions,” she says. “I see this as part of community building.

“I’m into moving forward. The city, the dancers, and Lourdes deserve it.”

Key to that forward motion will be the new executive director. Scolamiero, who had a successful tenure at Pennsylvania Ballet, has already started making changes, from reorganizing the development department to coaxing former donors and board members back into the fold to solving a parking shortage caused by construction near the ballet’s Miami Beach studios.

“I see my role as supporting the artistic vision and raising money to support that vision,” Scolamiero says. “The longer I’m here and Lourdes is here, the more … people will have the confidence to invest in the company again.”

At the company’s school, which has become a regular source of the troupe’s dancers, enrollment and tuition are up for both the year-round program and the summer intensive. The focus of the training has shifted away from Villella’s emphasis on energy, urgency and musicality — qualities that distinguished MCB from other companies. New teachers emphasize more traditional technique and a wider range of styles that will presumably prepare students for a different repertory, but also seem likely to make MCB’s dancers more like those at other troupes.

“We need to make sure they’re employable,” Callaghan says. “We’re looking for diverse dancers.”

All those changes behind the scenes shape what happens on stage. There will be 50 dancers this season, more than the company has had for years. Eight are newcomers, including principal Rainer Krenstetter, from Germany’s Staatsballett Berlin; soloist Jordan Elizabeth Long, trained by South Florida-based Cuban teacher Magaly Suarez; and four graduates of the company’s school.

There has been some normal turnover. Sara Esty, a frequently cast soloist, has joined a production of the classic film musical An American in Paris, being choreographed by the Royal Ballet’s Christopher Wheeldon and headed for Broadway next year. Several other dancers have left, including Skyler Lubin, a talented young corps dancer who was on the rise under Villella.

Lopez is casting some dancers, such as principals Tricia Albertson, Reyneris Reyes, and Renan Cerdeiro, more frequently. Last spring, she promoted corps dancer Nathalia Arja to soloist; the young Brazilian will dance several leading roles this season.

Villella was intently focused on the Balanchine legacy, for which he had a singular expertise and passion, and what he called “masterwork” — major pieces by a few significant 20th century choreographers like Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and Jerome Robbins. Although Lopez, who also danced at New York City Ballet, emphasizes a continuing commitment to Balanchine, she programs fewer of his ballets — just three this season. And she has added a broader range of contemporary choreographers and audience-friendly works. This season they include Tharp’s Sweet Fields, a lyrical, spiritual dance set to Shaker hymns; and Robbins’ comic ballet The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody) — particularly accessible works for those choreographers.

But she seems most engaged by more adventurous and new work, like the Peck commission (which will have a set by famed muralist Shepherd Fairey), and Balanchine’s edgy Episodes, presented last spring with the crowd-pleasing West Side Story Suite. “It was a new work for the company, and it brought something else to the dancers,” she says of Episodes, a rarely performed 1959 ballet to an astringent Webern score. “It’s how I feel when I watch the run-through of Justin [Peck]’s piece.”

Such moments of artistic pleasure and clarity are rare, as Lopez juggles the multiple changing parts that are transforming Miami City Ballet.

“It is still a daily balancing job,” she says. “The hardest part of my job is I don’t have time to think ahead. To just daydream.”

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