He was one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, and his pieces are still performed all over the U.S. on a regular basis. But it’s extremely rare for Vancouverites to see the exquisitely patterned, intricately intertwining, headily musical works of George Balanchine—let alone performed by one of the troupes most lauded for keeping his work alive.
That’s precisely the chance they’ll have when they get a visit from the Miami City Ballet, a company that has a special in with the late master: its director, Lourdes Lopez, danced for the man she still affectionately calls “Mr. B” during more than two decades at the New York City Ballet—one of the only places you could see his work when he was alive. And after all she learned from him, she feels this is an opportunity for her to give back.
“It would be such an honour to know I’m a voice for him, but I think he has so many voices now,” says Lopez, speaking to the Straight from headquarters in Miami, which the ballet company she took over in 2012 uses as a base for regular appearances in Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, and Naples, as well as its buzzing home city. “He’s been gone 30 years, but he’s still very present. I go down to rehearsal, and they’re exploring his philosophy, his technique, and his steps, and I know he’s somehow present with me every day there.”
Lopez remembers the man as being the exact opposite of the clichéd strict, authoritarian ballet master. “He knew you better than you knew yourself,” she recalls fondly. “He was also a gentle, patient genius. He loved life. He demanded the best from you but he gave you time. With Mr. B you got the feeling another day was another day to be better. He was just such an optimist.”
For the show in Vancouver, Lopez has chosen three iconic works that show the diversity of the company’s famously honed dancers, and of the icon himself. On the program is Balanchine’s 1935 masterwork, his first ballet in the U.S.: called Serenade, it’s still considered a perfect example of neoclassicism that changed the direction of ballet, set to Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C. With its white tutus, it gives a nod to the heroines of Giselle and Swan Lake. Symphony in Three Movements, driven by the bold rhythms of Igor Stravinsky, is a large, athletic ensemble work.
“Stravinsky wrote it right at the end of World War II and you hear what the world was coming out of. You hear the military, the percussion, the thrust, the drumbeat, the power, and you see that in Balanchine’s choreography as well,” says Lopez of the 1972 work.
Finally, Ballo della Regina, a relatively new piece of repertoire for the Miami City Ballet, is a startlingly speedy ode to Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo opera music. Says Lopez of the piece, which is awash in soft hues of turquoise and rose: “It’s the most magnificent, uplifting music; it’s fast, precise, and joyous, but incredibly demanding for the female and male dancer.”
Bringing the work of her mentor to a new city creates obvious joy for the passionate Lopez. But it’s important to note that basing her love of Balanchine in Miami is also crucial. It was here, as the young daughter of Cuban immigrants, that she began her dance career, and after many years in New York, she’s back in her hometown, bringing back all she’s learned.
“My life has come full circle,” says Lopez, adding the arts scene is booming in the youthful, cosmopolitan beach city. “If they had said, ‘Could you head a ballet company in Anchorage, Alaska?’ I’d have said no. My life every day has not been a piece of cake, but I always knew I was in the right place at the right time!”
Ballet B.C. presents the Miami City Ballet in Balanchine next Thursday to Saturday (February 19 to 21) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.