It took some coaxing, but Lourdes López has finally moved into Edward Villella's impressive old corner office at the Miami City Ballet studios in South Beach.
"It's nice, isn't it," says the company's new artistic director with a shy smile, "and I can grow my gardenias out in the terrace."
She's going to make her garden grow in more ways than that. The 2013-2014 MCB season opening program, called First Ventures, is a sign of things to come: a company premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's breakthrough Polyphonia -- as fresh a vision of classical ballet as we are likely to see for a while -- bookended by two George Balanchine masterpieces. Serenade was the first ballet the Russian immigrant created in the United States, while the graceful and fiendishly complex Ballo della Regina displays the Balanchine style in full flower.
The program runs at the Arsht Center Fri. through Sun., the Broward Center Oct. 25 to 27, and the Kravis Center Nov. 15 to 17. The live music by Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Ligeti alone would be worth the price of a ticket.
On opening night, that ticket includes a pre-performance red carpet party complete with DJ and drinks. This is not just for donors and the usual gala suspects, but for everyone holding a ticket to the ballet.
"It's all about inclusion," says López. Balanchine once told her that keeping the theater full is like "we're selling ice in winter -- that's how hard we have to try. We have to be inviting, we have to think outside the box. And we have to try because once we get people in the theater, the art is so powerful, so transformational, that they'll ask themselves where has this been my whole life."
The woman in charge knows what she's doing. Lourdes López was born in Havana, raised in Miami, and formed artistically in Balanchine's School of American ballet in New York. She joined New York City Ballet at 16, working with both Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. She become a principal dancer in the 1980s -- her nickname in the standing room line was "The Cuban Bombshell." But no one was ready for what came next. After retiring from NYCB, López first became a cultural reporter for NBC, and she was on the dance faculty at Barnard College. Then in 2002 she was tapped to become executive director of the George Balanchine Foundation. This was a key arts job in this country, following the death of Balanchine, given that ballet, this most fragile of all the arts, needs careful attention to survive.
López also found time to cofound the dance company Morphoses with Christopher Wheeldon, and she cofounded the non-profit Cuban Artist Fund, which supports Cuban and Cuban-American artists. To say she is a good fit for Miami City Ballet is an understatement.
At 55, looking at least a decade younger, López exudes quiet authority as she discusses her plans. Miami City Ballet has boasted from the get-go a unique and thrilling Balanchine style, and that remains its main strength. Still, dance companies are like people: they get better or they get worse, but they never, ever stay the same. MCB may well get better.
"The school had no syllabus when I got here," says López. "It has one now." She is both discreet and fair about her predecessor, who "trained dancers beautifully in the Balanchine repertory, the height and the preparation -- now everyone down there at the school will get this training from levels 1 through 6."
In truth, repertory shapes the dancers as much as their daily class. And, while the Balanchine repertory was always dependably brilliant in Miami, the rest not always so. López does not pretend to be a choreographer, but she is a teacher and she certainly has great taste and good sense as to what will work and work well in Miami. More Balanchine, including The Nutcracker of course. Don Quixote, credited as by Petipa and Gorsky, perhaps freshly coached, is in store. There also will be a lot of new ballet this season, beginning with Wheeldon's extraordinary Polyphonia but also company firsts by bona fide hip and important living choreographers including Nacho Duato, Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmansky. For good measure, there's Jerome Robbins' exuberant West Side Story Suite.
"The Robbins takes real jazziness," says López "not just Balanchine jazziness." There will be some of that too, Balanchine's Episodes, set to a Webern score. "He was so far ahead of his time in Episodes But we're ready, our audiences are ready. Our dancers are ready for anything."
Everything classical, that is. The new ballets are experimental, but they are made for ballet dancers' bodies, and they are not modern dance. "I have nothing against Merce Cunningham," laughs López. "But my whole thing is the pointe shoe."
Miami City Ballet is as diverse as ballet itself but -- considering this is Miami -- it is also appropriately Hispanic, and not just now with a Cuban-American director who happens to be the first Hispanic woman to head a major ballet company in the United States. About two-thirds of the dancers are Latin American. Multiculturalism in Miami City Ballet is not an agenda, it's a reality.
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And that is as it should be, as it always has been in this country of immigrants. Two immigrants, George Balanchine and Antony Tudor, defined what would become American classical ballet, and that tradition continues. This is still the New World, not merely keeping Old World traditions but creating traditions of our own, keeping those traditions alive by constantly helping them grow. And, Lourdes López is right, maybe it's still all about the pointe shoe. This is ballet. And Miami City Ballet is looking good.
Program I kicks off on Friday at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Ticket holders are invited to a big party on the plaza on opening night starting at 6:30 p.m., which will include a DJ, cocktails and MCB dancers in full-costume. Ballet begins at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets range from $20 to $95. The program then moves up to Broward and then West Palm Beach in the next weeks. Visit miamicityballet.org.
--Octavio Roca, artburstmiami.com