Robert Gottlieb on How Miami City Ballet Has Grown, on Its 30th Anniversary

Miami City Ballet dancers—Patricia Delgado in pink—in Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements.

Miami City Ballet dancers—Patricia Delgado in pink—in Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements.

It’s exactly 30 years since Edward Villella, America’s greatest male classical dancer, founded Miami City Ballet. At the start it was a small, modestly funded company in a city hardly known for its appreciation of ballet. Today it’s one of America’s leading companies: together with San Francisco, Pacific Northwest and Boston—Houston, some would say—it ranks in artistic success and national recognition right behind The Big Two: New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.  In other words, it’s a miracle. And meanwhile the city itself has been changing—growing more sophisticated culturally, and ready to appreciate what Miami City Ballet offers it: Florida’s most acclaimed performing arts organization. Which means more support both on the donor level and at the box office. Not only are ticket sales rising but, against the national trend, subscription sales are sharply up: clearly, Miami is liking what it’s seeing.

Villella knew just what he was doing. He based his company on Balanchine, for whom he had danced his entire career—not only on the Balanchine repertory but on the Balanchine approach to dancing: fast, clear, energized. Then, slowly, as an audience began to develop, he expanded the repertory until the company was large enough and polished enough to embrace the classics: first Giselle, then Coppélia, Don Quixote, Balanchine’s Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. (He had already mounted Balanchine’s three-act Jewels, the first company ever to do so after City Ballet.) He imported works by Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and Christopher Wheeldon, but also works by Britain’s two greatest choreographers, Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor.  And the company, first under Villella, now under his successor, Lourdes Lopez, has been commissioning important works: Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Justin Peck, Liam Scarlett. With more than 50 dancers, there’s almost no ballet it can’t aspire to.

Two crucial developments have helped make MCB’s rapid advance possible: the creation of the Miami City Ballet School (by Linda Villella, Eddie’s wife), and the opening of the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts center in downtown Miami with a ballet and opera house seating 2,400, giving the company a permanent grand venue in which to perform.  But the company also serves South Florida by performing in Broward County, Naples, and the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Because the season covers so much territory, every program—and there are four a year, apart from The Nutcracker—is performed a minimum of nine times, an unheard-of luxury for both dancers and musicians.

I spend part of my life in Miami Beach, and for 15 years I’ve been associated with the company. I had known the Villellas back in New York, pre-MCB, and they welcomed me warmly when I turned up on their turf: there weren’t many other people in town who could talk to Eddie about ballet and Balanchine. (In Miami he’s Edward; in New York he’ll always be Eddie.) In the year 2000 the company moved into its superb new quarters a block from the beach—and a 10-minute walk from my house—so I’ve been able to observe the past 15 years of its history, half its lifetime, from the inside as well as from the audience. When I’m in town I’m at the studio most days, watching class and rehearsal, helping out in a variety of ways, a mix of busybody and senior advisor—after all, I’ve been watching ballet seriously since 1948. Now, after years of ducking, I’m on the board of directors—the ultimate sacrifice, but I can be helpful there, too. What I can testify to—and my view is supported by just about every significant ballet figure who comes down to choreograph or coach—is the uniquely happy and generous environment. The dancers support each other, applaud each other, spend time together, and get on amazingly well with the staff; it’s a remarkably healthy dynamic that helps to explain why outsiders in the ballet world are always commenting on how the dancers dance as a company.

Although Miami City Ballet was gaining increasing recognition outside Florida—for instance, in triumphant seasons at New York’s City Center and the famous Châtelet theater in Paris (where exactly a century earlier Le Sacre du printemps had its revolutionary premiere)—its financial situation in Miami had not significantly improved from years of scant local support. Eventually the relationship between Villella and the company’s board of directors deteriorated to a point where they agreed to disagree, and Villella left the company he had created and inspired. Fortunately, the perfect successor was identified and took over quickly and firmly in September 2012. Lourdes Lopez was raised in Miami, trained at the School of American Ballet and danced for Balanchine and Robbins at NYCB for 24 years, and went on to be head of the Balanchine Foundation and co-founder (with Christopher Wheeldon) of the company called Morphoses. She is the first artist to have been invited to join the board of the Ford Foundation.

Lopez’s training and experience echo those of Villella, her artistic vision, like his, springing from Balanchine, so there has been no break in the company’s aesthetic or performance style. Being of Miami, she suits Miami; being Cuban by birth, she connects to the Hispanic flavor of the city. Being a New Yorker for most of her life, she is closely connected to what’s happening in the “dance capital” of the world. Quickly she won the respect and affection of both the dancers and the board—I’m a witness. Needless to say, money is still a problem, but the crises today are from season to season, no longer from month to month, or even week to week. There have been large grants from the Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, and the donor base is growing, as is the Board. There’s been more and more touring—and this coming spring there will be a week-long season at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, the theater in which Lopez spent her performing career.

All of which means that Lopez can expand her company’s artistic horizons. She is commissioning major works—coming up next year, a narrative ballet by Ratmansky, his second piece for the company. And this spring she is fulfilling a major ambition of hers and of Villella’s before her: a new, original production of Balanchine’s great two-act masterpiece A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Villella was Balanchine’s original Oberon, the central male character; Lopez danced at least four different roles in it during her life at City Ballet.) To fulfill her vision, she has commissioned the legendary artist Michele Oka Doner to create a physical reflection of South Florida’s marine world while honoring  the glorious achievement of Shakespeare, Mendelssohn and Balanchine. What a way to celebrate turning 30!

Robert Gottlieb on How Miami City Ballet Has Grown, on Its 30th Anniversary