The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Dec 17, 2013

Lourdes Lopez choreographs new moves for Miami City Ballet

Posted by Michael D. Bolden

Lourdes Lopez coaching Miami City Ballet dancers in Apollo. Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo © Daniel Azoulay.

You expect to hear music wafting through the windows of Lourdes Lopez’s Miami Beach office.

She moves across the space like the principal ballet dancer she once was: athletic, graceful, aware—and in charge.

Lourdes Lopez, Aristic Director of Miami City Ballet. Photo © Daniel Azoulay

It’s been a little more than a year since Lopez returned to her hometown to lead Miami City Ballet. For the company, it’s a new start following a painful separation from previous artistic director Edward Villella, who helped establish the troupe in 1985.

Lopez spent 24 years dancing at New York City Ballet under Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine—who she fondly calls “Mr. B”—before she retired in 1997. In the interim, she led the George Balanchine Foundation and co-founded Morphoses, an experimental dance philosophy, among other jobs.

Now, as artistic director for Miami City Ballet, she is creating a new identity for the company while respecting its core values, she said. Miami City Ballet opened its current season in October with a lineup that consisted of “Polyphonia” by Christopher Wheeldon, a contemporary choreographer and Morphoses co-founder, bookended by Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina” and “Serenade.”  

Lopez said she wanted that program, titled “First Ventures,” to be a “joyous, fun, happy, we’re okay type of experience” after what had been a difficult couple of years for the company. It’s the beginning of what she describes as a journey for both the dancers and for audiences.  

It’s about “showing you really how transformational this art form can be if you experience it on several levels, several occasions, and not just once a year,” she said. “It’s about pure enjoyment and having a reaction to it.”

Last year Knight Foundation endowed Miami City Ballet with $5 million to help the company expand its repertoire and commission new works. It’s also part of Knight’s strategy of investing in core arts institutions while also encouraging the development of grassroots artists.

“Polyphonia,” which Wheeldon created for New York City Ballet more than a decade ago, was new to Miami City Ballet, which is steeped in the Balanchine tradition. This season has more variety ahead, including works by Balanchine, modern choreographer Nacho Duato, “West Side Story Suite” by Robbins, and a classic full-length “Don Quixote.”  The company has an expanding repertoire of 100 ballets.

Lopez said that programming is one of the most difficult aspects of the job, but it pays off, especially for the dancers so that they can appreciate one of the lessons she learned early: It’s important to know how to dance everything.

“You want to be able to challenge them. You want to be able to give them food so that they grow because that’s going to reflect on the stage,” she said. “The minute the dancer is happy and the minute the dancer is growing [when] the curtain goes up the audience is going to be the recipient of what that dancer is doing.”

Lopez said that before beginning her role as artistic director she had thought that serving Miami City Ballet’s large audience would be challenging. The company has four home counties: Broward, Collier, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, but experience has changed her mind.

“Good art is good art,” she said. “You put something up there that people get and they’re going to love it, and that comes from never underestimating your audiences.”

Lopez said in an effort to broaden audiences she’s shifted direction for the company’s Open Barre program, which brings people into the company’s studio theater. It had focused on being just another type of performance, she said, but now she brings creators and dancers in to talk about the work and their artistry, and to give the audience more context for what they will see on stage.

In November Tony Award-winning actress Chita Rivera led a preview of “West Side Story Suite,” which the company will perform this winter as part of “Program III: Triple Threat.” In March Open Barre will feature choreographer Justin Peck, who will discuss the artistry behind creating modern ballet. It will also feature a behind-the-scenes look at his “Chutes and Ladders,” a creation that Miami City Ballet premiered in April with New World Symphony.  “Chutes and Ladders” will also be part of  “Program II: See the Music,” which opens in January.

Peck is currently choreographing a new “big work” for next season, Lopez added. That piece may even have a distinctively Miami feel, she said, incorporating the aesthetic of Wynwood Walls into the set design, with work by a street artist.

“It connects a very old traditional, formal art form with this new, urban, raw, almost rogue art form,” she said.

“Chutes and Ladders” may yield opportunities to broaden the reach of ballet, with “collateral projects” such as discussions and exhibits that could be held around the community, Lopez said.

“That’s why new work is so important because new work in many ways becomes part of your outreach,” she said.

Lopez is searching for even more ways to involve new audiences. For example, she said Open Barre could reach more people with the help of technology such as live streaming. Currently, each presentation is limited to three seatings of about 200 people. The company has also performed at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, and has a division, the Miami City Ballet School Ensemble, that has the flexibility to dance in more venues. There’s also a flash mob coming in January—be on the lookout.

“We’re trying to find creative ways of getting out there into the community,” she said.

Another opportunity will be Morphoses, “a philosophy about putting artists together to create innovative works that are dance-centric and putting them in places that create a very different experience for an audience member,” she said. Recently Miami City Ballet legally integrated Morphoses as an “artistic arm.”

“Morphoses brings to Miami City Ballet what Miami City Ballet really can’t do, which is kind of experimental funky stuff, because we have a core audience that we have to respect,” she said. “Morphoses is really more art-based. You’re not supposed to love everything. It’s about being exposed to it.”

Lopez is already looking ahead to Miami City’s Ballet 30th anniversary—the company first performed on Oct. 17, 1986. Many of the plans are still in the works and can’t be discussed publicly, she said, but she’s hoping that Miami’s spirit of cooperation will turn it into a festival for the region where arts institutions collaborate on events and exhibits.

“Dance is the only art form that can bring everyone else in,” she said.

She said that open attitude is one of the most appealing aspects to being back in South Florida; Lopez, who was born in Cuba, grew up in Miami but left for the dance world at age 14. Despite frequent visits during intervening years to visit family she had never lived in Miami as an adult.

“What I’ve loved about [South Florida] is it has retained its humanity,” she said. “People are open. People are nice. People want to have fun. I love that the city has been able to retain that and still be successful in business and the arts. I feel really blessed.”

Michael D. Bolden, editorial director at Knight Foundation

Miami City Ballet is currently staging “The Nutcracker” for the holidays.

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