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What gives a ballet company its identity? The caliber and personalities of its dancers, the vision of its artistic director, the location in which it's based – these all play crucial roles. But original ballets, made specifically for the company, shaped around the dancers' individual skills and temperaments, can also be crucial in establishing a troupe's individual profile.
When Miami City Ballet performs at the David Koch Theater this week, its two programs will include works by three of the hottest names in ballet today – all created for the company over the past four years. They should make quite a statement about MCB's artistic maturity and distinctive attributes as it marks its 30th anniversary this year.
Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky, and Liam Scarlett have created pieces for both major New York ballet companies, and they are kept busy with commissions for companies around the country and all over the world. Now MCB will showcase new aspects of their talents when they perform Peck's Heatscape, Ratmansky's Symphonic Dances, and Scarlett's Viscera – all being seen for the first time in New York.
"It is exciting to have people choreograph on us," says Callie Manning, a principal soloist who was in the original cast of all three works. "It's the most important fuel for your artistic soul. You create the work with that choreographer. It's not the same as doing a role that was made for someone else."
Manning, who joined MCB in 1999, recalls her early years as a time when original choreography was rare among its programs. The company made its reputation – and built up its dancers' technical and interpretive skills – primarily by performing an extensive array of pieces by George Balanchine.
Former New York City Ballet star Edward Villella was MCB's founding artistic director, and it was natural that he turned to the ballets that shaped his career – and are widely considered the pinnacle of 20th-century ballet. When MCB's dancers were ready to take on Jewels, Balanchine's full-evening triptych, it marked an important step forward for its artistic reputation, earning them seasons at the Kennedy Center and in Europe.
Villella soon added pieces by established masters: Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp. "We were doing all these amazing ballets, but mainly older works," Manning recalls. "There was a stretch when financially we couldn't afford to get new, commissioned works from choreographers."
As Manning suggests, commissioning new ballets is very expensive – and also risky. An artistic director hopes for a work that will have staying power in the repertory, but there are no guarantees, even when the ballet is by an acknowledged master. And MCB, like most not-for-profit arts organizations, has had to weather some major financial storms during its three-decade history, despite its success cultivating a ballet audience in an area where some had doubts the art form could thrive.
But lately, it's been full speed ahead when it comes to original work. Manning has been thrilled by the diverse new challenges. "I feel like they each have their own technique, their own style, that is so specific," she says. "We've never performed all three of these at the same time. Rehearsing them now for New York is really challenging, because we're all going between these different techniques."
Liam Scarlett's Viscera (2012) was the British choreographer's introduction to this country. He was just in his mid-20s, dancing as well as choreographing for the Royal Ballet, when Villella saw one of his works in London and commissioned him on the spot; Scarlett made a second work for MCB a year later, and his American career quickly took off.
"None of us had really heard of him," says Manning. "Initially, there was a little bit of skepticism. But the way in which he conducts a studio is very respectful. He's extremely knowledgeable and works so hard. Within five minutes I think we all respected him.
"The movement in his ballet is so explosive from your center that you feel you could knock yourself off your leg in two seconds and be on the floor. For me, technically, that piece was the hardest to get through."
Meanwhile, Ratmansky, a prolific Russian choreographer and the Artist in Residence at American Ballet Theatre, brings a distinct narrative sensibility to his work. Discussing Symphonic Dances, Manning says, "Ratmansky's ballet has a hint of a story, but it's really open to interpretation."
Justin Peck is another of today's youthful choreographic stars, whose robustly inventive works have been enlivening New York City Ballet's repertory. He's worked in Miami several times, and he has gotten to know the dancers well.
"Justin uses a lot of weight-shifting and athletic movement," Manning says. "He really has his own voice and a very clear sense of movement. [It's] very challenging, especially for females in pointe shoes." Asked about Heatscape, which Peck choreographed last year, she says, "His piece is the most fun of the three. He was really inspired by the company and how we're a big family. We all support and get along with each other, and he wanted to choreograph something that reflected the energy of the company. So there is a lot of connection between each other on stage."
MCB's most recent New York season was in early 2009, at City Center, when they impressed the city's ballet audiences with their dynamic and authoritative performances of five Balanchine masterworks, as well as Tharp's demanding In the Upper Room. This time around, however, it's not just the repertory focus that is different. The company has been through its first leadership transition. Lourdes Lopez, who danced for 23 years with NYCB, succeeded Villella as MCB's artistic director in 2012.
That means Lopez is bringing her dancers onto the stage where she herself performed for years – and where premieres were regular occurrences. That's just another way that the Miami dancers will be showing New Yorkers that they are not only tied to ballet history, but also making distinctive contributions to its present.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Miami City Ballet. Click here to browse our current offerings.
New York-based journalist Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top photo: Jeanette Delgado performs in Heatscape. Photo by Daniel Azoulay. All other photos by Gene Schiavone.