By Michelle F. Solomon
No, no, no.” Olivier Pardina stops the pianist in a rehearsal room inside the Miami City Ballet building. Pardina is famous; a French dancer and renowned ballet teacher, he’s now a faculty member at the Miami City Ballet. He’s demanding and insistent. He’s taught some of the best. Pardina scolds his class — eager teen-aged boy dancers charged with steadying ballerinas as they complete a pirouette. “You must look out into the audience, like you are welcoming them,” he tells his ballerinas as they finish their poses. “It isn’t ‘watch me’; it’s ‘I am inviting you in.’ “ He shows them — chin jutting out, a full smile, outstretched arms. He nods. The piano begins.”Now again,” he claps.
Stepping off the hot sidewalks of Miami Beach and into the spacious Miami City Ballet building is a lesson in itself — it is an effortless whisk into a place where grace is paramount and discipline is the order of the day. Young female dancers assemble in the halls, their hair gathered in familiar ballet buns. Their body suits with flowing small skirts, pink tights, and slippers give the appearance that they are frozen in time from a nineteenth- century Degas painting.
To be privy to this scene underscores the scope of the Miami City Ballet and its importance in the city of Miami, in South Florida, nationally, and internationally. There’s a new artistic director at the helm — Lourdes Lopez, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. Lopez, a Miami native, is a legend in the ballet world — a prodigy who became an apprentice at NYCB at the age of 15 and a member of the corps at 16.
“I left Miami 40 years ago, when I was 14,” Lopez says, as she sits in a board room on the administrative floor of the MCB. Her body still has the tone of a dancer, despite her saying she hasn’t danced in 17 years. “There was nothing here then, which is why I left. I left because I had scholarships in New York. I wanted to dance, and there was just no place for me to go here. I saw ballet once a year at Dade County Auditorium. That was it.”
THE PATH TAKEN
It was the beginning of a journey that would lead her back to Miami in September of 2012 to take over founder Edward Villella’s role, who left the company after 27 years. She completed a season that Villella had already programmed, but this year’s season — the company’s 28th season — is all hers. This is her vision and the full circle journey of the dancer, now turned artistic director.
“We’re all blades of grass; we all contribute to what you see on the stage. It’s not just my vision. Yes, these are ballets that I want to do, but everyone else has to be on board to create them — to make them their visions, too.” There isn’t much that’s pre-fabricated for a season at MCB — costumes, lighting, most of the sets; some are rented or bought rather than built. And of course, there are more than 40 dancers from one of the largest ballet companies in the U.S. — many of them trained at the prestigious MCB School — who all come together on stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center, where they are the resident company.
The season is an energetic one with “West Side Story Suite” by Jerome Robbins as one of four company premieres. It also includes George Balanchine’s rarely performed “Episodes,” MCB’s first work by Spanish contemporary dance choreographer Nacho Duato, “Jardi Tancat,” and Christopher Wheeldon’s modern work “Polyphonia.”
Having worked with Robbins and Balanchine, Lopez drops their names like old friends. She talks about her days dancing with “Jerry and Mr. B.”
“To do ‘West Side Story’ here, for me, was important for two reasons. I was supposed to perform Anita (in a production of ‘West Side Story’ directed by Jerome Robbins), but we found out pretty late that I couldn’t sing. So I was there for all these rehearsals, and it was a very joyous time. To learn musical theater for a ballet dancer is like nothing else. It brings something different to the dancers and is challenging for them and for the audience.”
MCB dancers will not only be dancing, but will sing roles in the “West Side Story Suite.” “By a stroke of luck, it was like someone was looking down on us.” Lopez recounts how they arrived at choosing a vocal teacher for the dancers. Principal conductor of MCB’s Opus One Orchestra, Gary Sheldon, was Rita Moreno’s vocal coach and served as her musical director. Moreno played Anita in the 1961 film “West Side Story.”
“(Gary) is completely familiar with the score,” says Lopez. “He knows it inside and out.”
And the second reason why “West Side Story” is the perfect fit for her season? “You know, Miami is ‘West Side Story.’ It is the Sharks and the Jets.”
Lopez wants the ballet company to embrace the Magic City and vice versa. “There must be an understanding of what is happening in the community today. I often think of what Mr. B’s philosophy was, and it was the idea that you have to break some parameters, and you can only break them down if you know your past and if you know where you came from.”
Under a three-year contract, and one she hopes continues after that, Lopez has plans to get exposure for the company internationally, touring Latin and South America. “I think because many of us speak the language, we can bring the art form to these areas in a very different way.” She also wants audiences to become fans of the ballet. A new campaign features the Miami Heat’s Dwayne Wade and LeBron James hamming it up with MCB principal dancers, Patricia Delgado and Jeanette Delgado, amid headlines such as “World-Class Athleticism.”
“Every fan understands what they have with the Miami Heat. Everybody gets it. We’re on par with a top sports team like the Heat. I’m not saying that you have to like us or come to a performance, but I don’t think the community really truly understands what it has with these dancers, this company.”
The interview is over. I’m compelled to step into Pardina’s class again for just one more respite before heading out into the real world and leaving this creative cocoon. “Yes, perfect. That’s the way. You look like dancers. You are dancers,” Pardina applauds. I silently applaud, too.