Lourdes Lopez received a call this past Labor Day weekend asking her to come into work early. Eight months early, to be precise.
As the newly appointed artistic director of Miami City Ballet, she expected to start work in May 2013. That would have given her lots of time to ponder replacing the company's cofounder and longtime public face, Edward Villella. Instead, she was summoned to begin her tenure immediately, following the early-September bombshell that Villella would no longer stay through the season as planned.
Reports suggested that Villella's tearful ouster was not amicable — that he was all but fired by board members upset with the company's fiscal problems. But he was also almost universally recognized as a genius. Like a new candidate taking the oath of office after the reign of a popular president, Lopez had giant shoes to fill.
"[The dancers'] leader, their father figure, was no longer there, from one day to the next," says Lopez, who was then running the multidisciplinary dance project Morphoses in New York. "You walk into the theater the next day and there's a sense of loss, and what I did is admit to that. I said, 'Look, you are going through this transition period, you are allowed your feelings, you should have those feelings. It would be unnatural not to have them. I'm just here to help you do what you love to do, which is to dance and get the season on.'
"Within two or three days, the dancers broke the ice. I was approached by several dancers to go into their rehearsals and coach them. I know I sound like a Hallmark card, but I can't tell you how much that meant to me. Now it's business as usual."
For Lopez, 54, the prestigious new job brings her full circle. She was raised in Miami by Cuban-American parents; her father was an army officer who tussled with Castro's rebels. At age 14, she moved to New York because, she recalls, "if I wanted to dance, I couldn't do it here." She spent two decades at the New York City Ballet, working with dance legends George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins on many pieces that, by happenstance, will be performed as part of Miami City Ballet's 2012-13 season.
"Out of the 13 ballets, seven of them are works I did and was coached by both choreographers," she says. "The others I'd seen several times in New York. The gods, I guess, were looking down on me. It was a very comfortable season to walk into."
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