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Miami City Ballet’s Lourdes Lopez takes reins for new season

When Lourdes Lopez arrived at Miami City Ballet last fall to become its new artistic director, she barely had time to sleep, much less think about what was next.

“It was a terrifying September,” Lopez says. “It’s a gulp moment — can I do this?”

But she and the company plunged ahead, and have come more than halfway through the season in good shape. Now MCB has announced its 2013-14 season, the first concrete indication of Lopez’s artistic vision.

New to the company and Miami are works by famed contemporary ballet choreographers Christopher Wheeldon and Nacho Duato; West Side Story Suite, a distillation of the classic Jerome Robbins musical; and Episodes, one of George Balanchine’s most adventurous ballets.

Executive director Daniel Hagerty, who also came aboard last fall, says the new season is key to a broader plan for bolstering Miami City Ballet’s profile and financial stability and leaving behind last year’s controversy over the departure of founder Edward Villella.

The troupe received a $5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for its endowment, ticket sales are up modestly, the dancers are performing well, and marketing efforts like a splashy photo campaign showing MCB ballerinas with Miami Heat stars are drawing attention. On Friday, Darleen Callaghan takes over as director for the troupe’s school, relieving Lopez of that responsibility.

At just under $14.1 million, next year’s budget is only 2.5 percent higher than this year’s, but Hagerty hopes new fundraising campaigns like one that lets people become members for just $50 or $100 a year, a larger and more involved board and more collaborations with other arts groups will boost MCB’s community standing and bottom line.

“Lourdes has talked about wanting and needing to embrace and reflect the community, and I want that to be reflected in our giving program,” Hagerty says.

For Lopez, her first time planning a season for a major ballet troupe was “like a Rubik’s cube. It’s not like you have a bunch of ballets in a jar and you pull them out. You think ‘I would love to do this,’ but then you think what dancers do I have, and then you put the pieces together and they’re all sad, or they all have blue lighting. Then you realize this doesn’t go with that, or you’ve got the orchestra for the first half of the evening but not the rest it was really an unbelievable lesson for me.”

While Lopez and other company leaders are eager for her to make her stamp on MCB, the 2013-14 program is not a major departure from the past. Balanchine, who was mentor to Lopez as well as Villella at New York City Ballet, remains a staple. And neither Wheeldon (whose pas de deux Liturgy is already in the troupe’s repertory) nor Duato should be difficult for MCB dancers and audiences.

“My intent has never been to turn this company upside down,” Lopez says. “I do want to keep the lineage.”

One reason she chose Polyphonia, a 2001 ballet that was a breakthrough hit for Wheeldon, was the connection she saw with Balanchine’s modernist masterwork Agon.

“For a company that dances so much Balanchine I thought it was important to ask what’s the next step, what’s the evolution of that?” Lopez says. “They’re both very abstract, but architectural.”

Programming Polyphonia also marks the end of a strained period in her friendship with Wheeldon, her partner in the brief-lived contemporary ballet company Morphoses.

“We literally bumped into each other in the American Airlines lounge, and I said ‘Listen, how do you feel about our doing a couple of things of yours?’ ”

Duato, a Spanish choreographer whose work has been seen at the International Ballet Festival in Miami, will be represented by his first ballet, Jardi Tancat, an earthy 1983 ballet based on Catalan folklore. “It’s about these peasants in Spain singing and dancing very grounded and luscious,” Lopez says. “You feel like it’s a town somewhere, a real community it’s profoundly soulful.”

Although it was made in 1959, Balanchine’s Episodes may be the most challenging work of the season for audiences and dancers. With its thorny, atonal Webern music and mysterious, abstract choreography, it is one of Balanchine’s most experimental and seldom-done pieces.

“To me it’s a really revolutionary work,” says Lopez. “I love this ballet it’s like five different ways of hearing Webern’s music, showing it to you in so many different ways.”

West Side Story Suite will be challenging in a different way. The dancers not only have to master Robbins’ jazzy choreography, but they have to sing.

At New York City Ballet, Lopez learned the piece at Robbins’ request, but had to step out because of her lack of vocal talent. “It was one of the most thrilling experiences,” Lopez says. “But I cannot sing to save my life.”

Luckily, a number of MCB dancers can. (Lopez won’t say who’s in the cast, but several people close to the company report that leading ballerina Jeanette Delgado has a fine voice.)

The rest of the season will be familiar, with the return of Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphonic Dances and Balanchine pieces from MCB’s repertory including the lyrical Serenade and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. After 10 years, Lopez is reviving Ballo della Regina, a sparkling ballerina showcase made for famed former NYCB dancer Merill Ashley (who has joined MCB’s board). The final show is Don Quixote, the rollicking Spanish-style rom-com ballet that’s an audience favorite.

On balance, Lopez hopes the new season holds enough novelty and energy “to create buzz and excitement around this company. When there’s something new on every program it brings people in, it calls attention to us.”