First Position, and Others, in Miami

Lourdes Lopez, the new artistic director at Miami City Ballet, works with the dancers Zoe Zien, left, and Jennifer Lauren in Miami Beach.
Credit...Angel Valentin for The New York Times

ON the Thursday before Labor Day weekend Lourdes Lopez received a call from Miami City Ballet. In the spring she had been named to succeed the outgoing artistic director Edward Villella. His departure was controversial — an unhappy board, heartbroken dancers, financial problems. Instead of following through on plans to leave in April, Mr. Villella abruptly ended his tenure that weekend; by the time the dancers returned on Tuesday, he was gone. For Ms. Lopez, who like Mr. Villella is a former New York City Ballet principal under George Balanchine, it’s been a whirlwind. She arrived in Miami, with one big suitcase, at 1 a.m. that Tuesday. Eight hours later she was in charge of both the company and its school.

Even though she hasn’t lived there for 40 years, Miami is home to Ms. Lopez, who left at 14 to pursue a ballet career in New York. This month she’ll be back in New York to see performances by Morphoses, the company she formed in 2007 with Christopher Wheeldon, that start Wednesday at the Joyce Theater. In 2010 Mr. Wheeldon left the group, but Ms. Lopez carried on, changing its structure to showcase the work of a single resident artistic director. This year it is the Swedish film director and choreographer Pontus Lidberg; next year the organization will become part of Miami City Ballet.

Ms. Lopez, 54, spoke about her experiences and plans for both companies in a phone interview from her Miami Beach headquarters. These are excerpts from that conversation.

Q. What happened during your first week in Miami?

A. The president of the board called me up and said, “Edward is making some noises about wanting to leave early.” I think it was just a very stressful situation emotionally for both him and his wife, Linda. I completely understand it. It’s like having to give up your child or something. The blow was hard for me emotionally just in terms of what to do. But in a funny way it was very similar to when Mr. Balanchine passed away.

Q. How so?

A. It was overnight. Dancers just want to dance, and their life on this earth of when they can do it is so limited. What occurred to me was just to come in and calm them down and say: “Look, there’s somebody here. Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere, I’m here now, and if you give me some time, I’ll figure it out. But let’s just keep the season in focus.”

Q. What is good and what is bad about the school and company?

A. For the school I think it needs a solid syllabus that everyone is following, so it’s really based on pedagogy. The company has an extraordinary repertory with all the Balanchine and Robbins and Taylor and Tharp works, and the dancers seamlessly go from one or the other. But there are also choreographers that I’d love to introduce: William Forsythe, some Nacho Duato, pieces that would both challenge the dancers and the audiences. I’d love to do Jiri Kylian. I want to start to have artistic relationships with other companies, both in the United States and in Europe. I’d love for the company to tour to Latin America. Even a sister school down there would be phenomenal.

ImageLourdes Lopez
Credit...Angel Valentin for The New York Times

Q. What are your plans for combining Miami City Ballet and Morphoses?

A. When I was very first asked to submit my name as a candidate for the position, I said, “I want to make one thing perfectly clear: Morphoses comes with me in some shape or form.” I am very committed, good or bad, to the philosophy behind it, which is: Where is the art form going to be in the 21st century? Not that anyone has to have any solutions, but that conversation is truly important to me. We don’t have any full-time dancers, and we’ve only had Elizabeth Johanningmeier, the director of operations. So it’s not like I’m moving an entire staff of artistic and production. It’s basically a philosophy that I’m moving down.

Q. What is experimentation in ballet to you?

A.  It’s not Wellie boots and trash cans onstage. It has to have some content and relevancy and to really relate to our society. I think that’s what art is. It’s someone creating a work that an audience relates to because it’s speaking about the world that we live in. It has to be serious in terms of content. Experimentation also has to do with us asking an artist: “What do you need? We can give you resources. But think, what it is that you want to create?”

Q. What is the financial arrangement going to be?

A. In terms of governance and in terms of what corporate structure it will take, that I’m leaving to both boards. They will come together and figure it out.

Q. What about the artistic side?

A. What I would love is for Morphoses to be is a choreographic, experimental arm of Miami City Ballet. I say this with full respect: Miami City Ballet functions as a traditional ballet company. It has a school attached to it, it has permanent dancers and a permanent rep. It has artistic and production staff. But it doesn’t have a choreographic arm that just experiments, that offers the resources to outside artists or choreographers to create works of today. We’ll be using the Miami City Ballet dancers and staff.

Q. Did Morphoses disappoint you?

A. I would never be able to do what I’m able to do now at both the school and company if I hadn’t had the dress rehearsal and the tech rehearsal of Morphoses. I would have walked in, and I would have floundered. I know it sounds bizarre to say this, but when I look back now, I understand how my dots have been connected. Nothing is being thrown at me that I don’t understand. Mistakes are mistakes. You’re judged at the end of your life, and mine is not going to end tomorrow.

Q. How does it feel to be a woman in charge of a major ballet company?

A. Dance is so much, especially where I came from, about women. We’re the thing in the front. Yet in terms of heading organizations, women haven’t had a very visible position within a dance company. I don’t know why that is. But I don’t wake up in the morning and think I’m the only woman. I wake up in the morning and think, what am I going to do for Miami City Ballet next year?

Q. What would Balanchine have thought about this?

A. Everybody has a different story, but based on my conversations with him, he was about empowerment. Every time I went up to Mr. B. and said, “I don’t know what to do here,” he would always say to me, “You just have to be you.” And every time I went up and thanked him for giving me something, he would say: “I didn’t do it. You did the work.” His whole thing was ballet was woman. I think he would have loved it.

Q. Do you have any contact with Edward Villella?

A. Not since he’s left. These things just take time, and having lived through Morphoses, I completely understand both sides. This is not one person’s company. This belongs to the community. It belongs to the dancers.