for Miami Herald
Miami City Ballet has endured hurricanes and precarious finances. It has basked in triumphs at home and in New York and Paris. And in a city often known for discarding its past, it has not only lasted 30 years, but triumphed.
“It’s exhilarating and exciting, and it says that South Florida really wanted this company and has been behind this company,” says longtime arts philanthropist Toby Ansin. She has been behind Miami City Ballet since she met with former ballet star Edward Villella in 1985, inspiring her seemingly quixotic but successful campaign to launch a professional ballet company in Miami.
As it heads into its 30th season, which opens Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami City Ballet has become a cornerstone of the city’s cultural landscape, a nationally acclaimed company that is arguably Miami’s most famous arts institution. Now led by artistic director Lourdes Lopez, MCB this season will do four company premieres, including one of the biggest productions in its history: a version of George Balanchine’s evening-length A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the transformative choreographer’s most beloved (and rarely done) works.
The ballet, which premieres in March, will have original sets and costumes by Michele Oka Doner and direction by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. MCB will follow that with its debut at New York’s Lincoln Center, where the Joyce Theater Foundation will present them in the theater that is the home of the New York City Ballet.
“Arts institutions with this kind of heft are the forerunner of our becoming a world-class city,” says Sue Kronick, MCB’s board chair. “There is no world-class city without world-class arts institutions.”
Quite a trajectory for a group that started as 19 mostly young and inexperienced dancers in a former department store on an empty Lincoln Road. Many thought that Villella, whose stellar performing career at New York City Ballet had been abruptly cut off by a hip injury a decade earlier, was committing artistic suicide by moving to a city derided as a cultural wasteland. Villella, however, saw opportunity in the emptiness.
“The beauty of it for me was I could do it my own way,” he said in a 2005 interview with the Miami Herald. “I didn’t inherit anything here.”
Villella and his eager band wowed Miami from their opening night on Oct. 17, 1986, embraced by a city that had never had a troupe with this kind of quality to call its own.
“Here I am in Miami and all I’ve read about major ballet companies, they’re all somewhere else,” said Jerome Cohen, who was in the audience at downtown’s Gusman Center for the Performing Arts that night and would go on to be an MCB board member and donor. “Now we have a ballet company and it’s mine. I loved it, just loved it.”
The dancers were also filled with excitement.
“I was looking up to the third tier feeling like oh my gosh, I’m part of this — and I’m home,” says Sally Ann Isaacks, who was a 17-year-old member of the troupe onstage that opening night. “It made me proud . . . then it hit me. We have a responsibility to Miami now.”
Another generation of dancers continues that allegiance. Patricia Delgado, 32, began studying at MCB’s school in 1994 and joined the company in 2001, soon after Isaacks left.
“I was a Miami girl, and I knew what Edward and Linda [Villella, founder of MCB’s school] were building here, and I wanted to be a part of it,” says Delgado, a principal dancer who is one of the troupe’s leading performers. “It felt important . . and every time I had a question about my career it was answered by the company growing.”
Villella built MCB into a renowned national presence, debuting at the Kennedy Center in Washington just nine years after its launch, acclaimed by critics around the country year after year for its verve and depth, particularly in the works of his mentor Balanchine. Villella was ousted in an acrimonious conflict with donors and board members in 2012.
The company has recovered from the turmoil and is currently on more solid financial footing than at any time in its history. This year its budget is at an all-time high of $16.7 million, while a capital deficit of $4 million has been reduced to just $50,000. There are 51 dancers, up from the mid-40s for the past half-dozen years. The troupe has expanded outreach programs such as Ballet For Young People, an inexpensive performance series for children, from one or two to five shows a year at venues around South Florida, including the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center and the Caleb Center in Liberty City. This spring MCB received a $1.5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to fund the addition of new dances to its repertory.
Executive director Michael Scolamiero says the greater financial stability means the company is starting to think about other new efforts. Among them are touring in Latin America, which the company’s leadership sees as a naturally welcoming place for their many Latino dancers, and adding other full-length ballets that would appeal to families.
“It’s important for us to identify what we want to be in five years,” says Scolamiero. “Planning that far in advance is not possible when you’re struggling to make payroll.”
Unlike last season, which saw the premiere of Heatscape, an exhilarating dance that NYCB choreographer Justin Peck created for the Miami company with a spectacular set by famed muralist Shepard Fairey, there will be no new ballets this season.
However, MCB will do three company premieres in addition to Dream. The first is Barber Violin Concerto on Program II, a 1988 romantic ballet by Peter Martins, the artistic director of New York City Ballet, who succeeded Balanchine after his death in 1983. Although Lopez, who declined to be interviewed for this story, started at NYCB under Balanchine in the early 70s, she also spent much of her 23-year career there under Martins.
The other new works are on Program III, which features Peck’s Year of the Rabbit, the 2012 dance that propelled him to the heights of the ballet world, set to music by young alternative electronica musician Sufjan Stevens. It will be paired with Sunset, by modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor, whose works, including Piazzolla Caldera and Promethean Fire, have been an important part of MCB’s repertoire since the 1990s.
The season’s opening program features Balanchine’s condensed one-act version of Swan Lake; Viscera, the riveting 2012 ballet that the young British choreographer Liam Scarlett made for MCB under Villella; and Fancy Free, Jerome Robbins’ captivating 1944 portrait of three sailors on leave in New York that became the basis for the musical On The Town and that MCB first danced in 2005.
Lopez’s programming generally continues the mix established by Villella: Balanchine; a few 19th century works such as Don Quixote; and dances by acclaimed 20th century choreographers such as Taylor, Robbins (the other major dancemaker at NYCB) and Twyla Tharp, whose driving In The Upper Room, set to music by Philip Glass, will also be on Program II and has been a favorite with MCB audiences since 2007.
Lopez has tended to present fewer Balanchine pieces than Villella did, and slightly more and more contemporary works by new choreographers. But in many ways the balance is much the same.
“Lourdes is more interested in what’s out there,” says Robert Gottlieb, an MCB board member who became a fan of Balanchine in the late ’40s, and is a kind of unofficial advisor to Lopez, whom he brought to MCB. “But she’s also very interested in what’s back there.”
Leigh Witchel, a longtime New York dance critic who is associate editor of the danceviewtimes website and has traveled to South Florida a number of times to see MCB, says the troupe’s profile outside South Florida has remained consistently high.
“Miami’s brand is neo-classical,” says Witchel. “It is sort of unique among U.S. companies in that it identifies more with Balanchine at this point than [New York] City Ballet does.”
Witchel says the dancers’ spirit, particularly in the corps de ballet, further animates older repertory and new works and makes the company stand out.
“They have great esprit,” Witchel says. “Miami dancers have a certain telepathy with each other . . . that is a gorgeous special thing.”
The newest addition to the company is Simone Messmer, who was a soloist at American Ballet Theater and then San Francisco Ballet — generally regarded as two of the top three ballet troupes in the United States — before becoming a principal at MCB this summer. Messmer, who will dance the lead in Swan Lake and one of two female roles in Fancy Free, says she was drawn by the opportunity to dance more Balanchine works and by a sense of possibility here.
“Miami is a little bit on everybody’s radar at the moment,” Messmer says. “Most of the major ballet companies in the U.S. have had the same director for a lot of years. . . . The combination of [Lourdes] being new and hungry and being a woman . . . really breeds an environment of growth. I think Miami has a great opportunity to grow right now, and I think everyone’s watching.”