In the world of ballet, where women tend to be stars, few females grace the administrative offices.
When a ballerina has retired from the stage, she may teach, she may inspire but rare is the woman who leads a whole company.
So when Lourdes Lopez was named artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, history was made. She is the only Latina to lead one of the largest ballet companies in the U.S.
“I do think dance is male dominated at the administration level,” Lourdes said. “I feel truly grateful and truly very privileged that it is a responsibility to carry that on my shoulders.”
Paving the way for future generations of female ballet leaders will not be her only challenge. She will have to find a way to broaden the Miami City Ballet’s reach so its audience will include more of the city’s large Hispanic population, which it currently does not. If she is successful, her work will undoubtedly inspire directors in other cities who are equally challenged to make their art form significant to America’s growing Hispanic population.
Lopez’s ascent to her position began about five decades ago in Miami with a set of orthopedic shoes. She said she was flat-footed and had weak legs. Her mother took her to an orthopedic surgeon who gave her a pair of brown boots that she would wear for three years. One firm piece of instruction came with the corrective shoes: find an extracurricular activity to gain some strength.
She found ballet.
When the shoes came off, her parents, who came from Cuba and were struggling with money, said she could continue taking ballet classes if she was sure she would commit. She could, she remembers telling them decisively.
When she was 13 years old the family flew standby to New York. She took a few classes and it was clear to all who watched that she had talent. She got a scholarship to study at the Joffrey school and the next summer was given a scholarship to study with the American Ballet Theater. She trained with the legendary George Balanchine, joined and became a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet, went on to form her own company the New York City-based Morphoses (which will move to Miami and somehow be connected to the Miami City Ballet, something she insisted upon when she accepted the position).
After announcing that Lopez would direct the company, critics applauded the choice. She comes from the Balanchine tradition, which the Miami City Ballet is based upon, her current company is innovative and regarded.
“Ms. Lopez was by far the most qualified and exciting candidate we interviewed,” said Ana-Marie Codina Barlick, chair of the Miami City Ballet Board of Governors. “The fact that she is Latina actually was not a factor in her selection, but it is a nice bonus considering the demographics of our community. The most important thing is that a Latina woman was more qualified on her own merits than any other candidate.”
Lopez will step into the shoes of charismatic founder and director Edward Villella. He recruited talented young dancers, many of whom are Latinos. He brought in world renowned choreographers to showcase his troupe. Last summer, the company had a sold-out critically acclaimed season in Paris.
On the heels of such success, the dance world was paralyzed with shock when Villella announced that he was stepping down.
Headlines in The New York Times and the Miami Herald reflected tension felt by some donors, board members and dancers who reported that Villella was forced out. The reports would say that despite the company’s success and skyrocketing acclaim, there were serious financial difficulties.
On Tuesday, Villela, who was supposed to lead the company until April, announced he was leaving sooner than expected because he wanted to speed up transition to new leadership. Lopez will now take over the company immediately.
To say that she is walking into a precarious situation is an understatement. Yet, Lopez handled the uncertainty of her welcome among the troupe with the grace of, well, a ballet dancer -- and someone who was able to successfully rebuild her own shattered company when she and sought after choreographer Christopher Wheeldon parted ways.
“Any transitions at the beginning are challenging,” Lopez said. “Change is not fun, people they are scared of it, it’s the unknown. But there’s another side to it where it can be very exciting, very creative and open into a broader path that embraces more and different styles for audiences and dancers especially.”
While Lopez emphatically said that she didn’t want to change the company’s essence, she excitedly talks about a vision that will build on Villella’s success and embrace a range of dance that can perform classic, neoclassic and contemporary pieces.
She had many plans for how to build the repertoire, one of which includes embracing the Latin roots of not only Miami audiences but also of the dancers. About two-thirds of the dancers are Hispanic, reflective of the national explosion in dancers from Spain and Latin America. She plans to have the school and the company tie into Latin America to tap into the performance style of those Latinos who exude strong technical skills displayed uniquely in the wide and expressive movements.
She is also hopeful that in finding Latin American dancers she will also hit upon undiscovered choreographers from those countries who can create works that understand classical choreography, can showcase her dancer’s capabilities and can speak to Miami’s audiences.
That is likely to be her biggest challenge: finding a way to increase audience turnout, which will undoubtedly involve appealing to Miami’s Latin population, while keeping true to the company’s classical tradition.
“You can’t escape the fact that 80 percent of Miami’s residents are Latino but audience numbers don’t reflect that.... Is it marketing? Maybe. Programming? Maybe. Is it the way you talk to them? Maybe,” she said. “I view the fact that I speak Spanish as an opportunity to get out to the community and say we are here and we represent you.... nosotros somos juntos [we are together].”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.