Shoulders back. Stomach in. Backside tucked. Chin up. These are not directions for a ballet barre warm up. This is Lourdes Lopez, Miami City Ballet’s new artistic director, whose dancer’s technique and vision for the company radiate like stage lights on the face of a ballerina.
At 14 years old, Lopez was offered a scholarship to train at famed choreographer George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Joining the New York City Ballet just two years later, Lopez’s career as a principal ballerina was on a fast track for success, as she fouetté turned across center stage for the next 25 years.
Balanchine, who also worked with Lopez’s MCB predecessor, Edward Villella, at New York City Ballet, remained a mentor for Lopez through her dancing career and beyond. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him,” Lopez says of Balanchine. In fact, above Lopez’s desk is a painting of Balanchine training her at New York City Ballet, with a personalized note written by the man himself. His left hand is placing her arm in third position, as his right hand tilts her neck just so.
With Balanchine “at the forefront of everything” she thinks and does, Lopez continued his legacy by signing on as executive director of The George Balanchine Foundation. This non-profit organization educates the public about the core works of Balanchine in order to advance the appreciation of dance. Lopez’s efforts to touch communities with the magic of dance extend further; she is a founder of the Cuban Artists Fund, a non-profit supporting Cuban and Cuban-American artists in the performing, visual, music and literary arts.
To envision various directions dance may take in the 21st century, Lopez co-founded Morphoses, a dance company using a multimedia, transformative dance experience to bridge the gap between artists and the audience. Her creation of Morphoses from the ground up gave Lopez the tools needed to direct a ballet company, from onstage creation to marketing and development. “It’s the same lesson, but you multiply by a hundred and you get [Miami City Ballet].” Lopez explains that she approaches her job like a business model, but with an artistic expression as the final product.
Jeté onward to 2012, Lopez took over the coveted role as artistic director of the eighth largest ballet company in the United States, after the renowned Edward Villella retired. Villella’s unexpected departure before season’s end left the company without a director and a balance sheet at risk – rather tough ballet shoes to step into.
Lopez’s arrival immediately boosted morale, encouraging supporters to stay involved. Her enthusiasm led to a “financially robust” MCB, according to its former public relations manager, Roberto Santiago, and inspired a show-must-go-on sentiment among the dancers. Santiago says, “Not a single dancer left. When they all renew, that says it all [about Lopez],” with a full company of 47 dancers, including the famous Miami sisters, Jeanette and Patricia Delgado.
Lopez’s 13 years as principal dancer for the New York City Ballet under her tutu, along with her experience as on-air arts reporter for New York’s WNBC, are bound to take MCB into a new era. The 2013-2014 dance season has a $15 million budget to implement her artistic vision. The company’s four-program season includes Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” “Don Quixote,” “West Side Story Suite,” and many more Balanchine-inspired works. The season is “a journey,” Lopez explains. She hopes the audience comes along for the ride and leaves saying “I can’t believe what I saw was dance.”
The combination of her artistic and cultural background will shape the way Miami City Ballet functions, touching the Miami community in a personal way. As a dancer, you can’t get away from what’s bred within your bones, Lopez explains. “Being Hispanic, Latina or Cuban gives you something. What’s inside of you comes out. I danced in a different way.” With the ability to communicate with the community and speak the language, Lopez’s outreach efforts to make MCB belong to the city will be an effective one.
Flash mobs, audience education performances, student ensembles, and other unique marketing strategies, including the Miami Heat world-class athleticism campaign, are all in sight for the City of Miami. Santiago is overjoyed about the glossy MCB posters, featuring the Delgado sisters with Miami HEAT stars Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. All tying back to the “journey,” Lopez explains that just like a Miami HEAT game, you can’t just go to one and understand it.
This critically acclaimed dance academy and company has a long-standing foundation that Lopez has no intention of changing. “I plan to bring expansion to the repertory, incorporating early and late 20th century great works that we haven’t seen.” Lopez also acknowledges how the performing arts have evolved due to social media. There’s an “open perspective” on what audiences hope to see on stage and this dialogue will create an open environment for a new future of dance. “That’s where art institutes are going – reaching out and using technology,” she says.
Lopez is passionate about opening audiences’ eyes to the unexpected aspects of a ballet. As the male dancers rehearse “West Side Story Suite” in Studio 1, their Converse sneakers and vocals are clear expressions of the era of the unexpected, while still keeping the world-class dance in the company’s core.
Ballet is often viewed as a woman’s world but controlled by men on the administrative side. Lopez’s role is atypical, representing how a woman can play a key role both in the direction and administration of a dance company. She hopes that her position can inspire women, but makes a note of saying, “Don’t give me a free pass because I’m Hispanic and don’t give me a free pass because I’m a woman.” She also says, “Same way as a dancer, I am judged by talent, not by gender.”