Miami City Ballet at 20.
MCB principal dancer Mary Carmen Catoya.
MCB artistic director Edward Villella, Palm Beach
gala chairwoman Mia Matthews and MCB Palm Beach County
development director Steven Caras.
Renato Penteado and Katia Carranza in Jerome Robbins's
Dances at a Gathering.
Mary Carmen Catoya, Luis Serrano and Jennifer Kronenberg
in Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove.
City Ballet Twentieth Annual Palm Beach
Gala: Night Moves
West Palm Beach, FL
It began as a hopeful dream 20 years ago: the creation of
a ballet company from scratch in South Florida, an area
not then known as a bastion of the performing arts. But
when the local visionaries invited Edward Villella, the
celebrated former star of the New York City Ballet, to brainstorm
about such a possibility, that dream was on its way to becoming
Now, as Miami City Ballet (MCB) marks its 20th anniversary
with a festive season, performing an impressive range of
dances by major choreographers, it can take pride in having
achieved an amazing degree of success. This vibrant, acclaimed
troupe, under the dynamic, determined artistic leadership
of Villella, hit the ground running and never looked back.
After only two decades, at what is considered a “young”
age for a ballet company, MCB is recognized as one of the
country's leading troupes, performing across South
Florida at its multiple home bases, and appearing at such
major venues as the Kennedy Center and the Edinburgh Festival.
The fledgling enterprise with 19 dancers has become a company
with more than 40 members, with its own state-of-the-art
facility that includes a flourishing school. The dancers'
technical skills and individual flair have been praised
by the most discerning critics, and they have acquired a
loyal Florida audience.
In many ways, it is an improbable success story. Villella,
the quintessential, street-smart New Yorker, who brought
his distinctive verve and brilliance to the New York City
Ballet from 1957 to 1975, seemed an unlikely match for the
temperate, palm tree-filled home of the proposed enterprise.
The “dance boom” of the late 1970s and early
1980s had already crested by 1986, and a period of arts-funding
cutbacks was around the corner. In a message in his company's
anniversary program, Villella himself looks back on what
was at the time “an insane undertaking.”
But in his first meeting with the local residents, he outlined
an 11 1/2-year plan: 18 months of vital and necessary groundwork
followed by ideas for productions and budgets for the company's
first 3, 5 and 10 years. Crucial to his initial concept
– and to MCB's intelligently devised artistic
growth – has been the legacy of George Balanchine,
the choreographic genius who founded and shaped the New
York City Ballet. Villella made Balanchine's works
– which incorporated the traditions of 19th-century
classical ballet within a bracingly contemporary context
– the cornerstone of MCB's repertory, knowing
that the challenge of performing those exceptional works
would cultivate confident, complete dancers, ready to tackle
ballets by other choreographers.
“I wanted to concentrate on the Balanchine repertoire
during the first ten years, and then broaden and open up
the repertoire,” he explained during a recent interview
from his Miami Beach office. He was not interested in luring
flashy guest stars and mounting second-rate productions
of story ballets around them; he wanted to nurture dancers
– and audiences – who appreciated the musical
sophistication and neoclassical innovation of Balanchine
ballets, who accepted high-caliber dancing on its own terms.
Those he was interested in luring to South Florida were
his former colleagues – dancers who, like him, knew
firsthand the intricacies and subtleties of Balanchine's
choreography and could transmit their knowledge to the dancers.
“I'm very proud that we have regard and respect
for the way these works were originally intended,”
Villella noted. Thanks to this emphasis, in 1992 MCB became
the first troupe aside from the New York City Ballet to
perform Balanchine's full-evening masterpiece Jewels,
a three-part plotless 1967 ballet that has become the Miami
company's calling card at many major performance venues.
Reviewing a 2001 performance at the Kennedy Center,
Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman found that
the company “impresses in its superlative attention
to detail – to musicality, tone and style …
each dancer seems to understand his or her role and to have
inhabited it before stepping onto the stage.”
Once the company was large enough and he felt the dancers
were ready, Villella began adding carefully chosen story
ballets to the repertory. Giselle and Coppelia
proved extremely popular with audiences, and Don Quixote
is planned for next season. At the same time, those audiences
gave a standing ovation to Symphony in Three Movements,
one of Balanchine's most complex ballets, set to a
dense Stravinsky score.
Villella has proved as savvy in building his audience as
he has been in cultivating such a high performance standard.
The company performs to 14,000 subscribers and 17,000 individual
ticket buyers during its November to April season, plus
thousands more on tour. (At the conclusion of the current
season, MCB will travel to Virginia, several New York City-area
venues and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.)
“I've had to build an audience here and educate
them,” Villella said. “I speak before every
performance and allow questions, so that these people have
a way to look at these works without intimidation.”
Thanks to his efforts, he can note with pride, “There
is a much higher level of sophistication. We have stimulated
the level of expectation for other art forms. People stop
me in the street and thank me for bringing this level of
For this anniversary season, MCB's programs offer
a cornucopia of masterworks. Villella explained, “I
wanted to take a bit of a retrospective look back –
where we came from, and where we are now.” He takes
particular pride in introducing Jerome Robbins's exquisite
Dances at a Gathering – a landmark work by
the great choreographer in which Villella himself originated
a central role – and Twyla Tharp's cheeky, exuberant
Push Comes to Shove to the roster of company ballets.
Paul Taylor's witty Funny Papers is also
on the schedule, and each program features at least one
A novel aspect of MCB is that, despite its name, the company
performs with equal frequency in three South Florida counties,
presenting each of its five programs (including its ever-popular
production of Balanchine's lavish The Nutcracker)
to Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. (It is also the resident
company of the Naples Philharmonic Center.) There is a separate
“community leadership board” and development
director for each of the three East Coast counties. As Steven
Caras, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet who
has lived in South Florida for 15 years and is now the company's
director of development for Palm Beach County, observes,
“One of the misconceptions is that we're a Miami
company. We are a South Florida company, and we've
been dancing in Palm Beach for twenty years. Palm Beach
County has the company's largest and fastest growing
subscriber base and audience.”
Mia Matthews, an actress and singer, is a transplanted New
Yorker who now lives most of the year in Palm Beach, a stone's
throw from West Palm Beach, where the company performs at
The Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. She
discovered MCB last season. “I didn't realize
what a presence they have in Palm Beach County. I was happily
surprised to discover they are a world-class company. I
had heard about their reputation, but when I saw them perform,
I realized this is for real. A lot of people here are from
New York and used to a certain level of performance, and
they're not disappointed.” Her immediate enthusiasm
was such that she signed on as the chairwoman for MCB's
annual Palm Beach gala, which takes place February 16.
An avid follower of MCB since its inception and a leading
dance photographer once his performance days were over,
Caras first moved south to work with the troupe as both
ballet master and company photographer. “When I first
came down to photograph the company, I fell in love with
them. They were unique, they were warm – they had
that same unexplainable magic that Edward had as a performer.
Artistically, it's always been a superb company, but
now I would say it's state of the art, along with
The Miami Beach headquarters to which he refers –
a 63,000-square-foot building that includes eight studios,
a wardrobe department and administrative space – opened
in 2000 and marked an important step forward in MCB's
maturity. Its school now offers classes to 400 students
plus another 200 during its Summer Intensive. But like everything
involved in running a ballet company, it costs quite a bit
of money – which is why an interview with Villella,
whose title is founding artistic director/chief executive
officer, turns to financial and funding concerns as often
as to artistic matters. The burden of raising funds to cover
the cost of the new building made it difficult to simultaneously
cover operating expenses, and put a severe financial strain
on the company.
“Artistically, you're always out there ahead
of your funding,” he notes. All dance companies rely
heavily on fundraising, since income from ticket sales cannot
begin to cover expenses. That is why major galas like the
upcoming Palm Beach event, Night Moves, are of crucial importance,
attracting sponsors and underwriters (the prestigious jeweler
Kaufmann de Suisse will be the gala's Grand Corporate
Benefactor this year). As Caras describes it, the evening
promises to be a unique and lavish occasion, even in a town
where charity events are numerous and densely scheduled.
Held in the Kravis Center's ballroom, it will feature
a special performance of excerpts from the repertory. The
dancers mingle with the crowd, and an auction will feature
fine jewelry and other items. Last year's gala raised
After 20 years, Villella knows all too well that this job
involves watching the bottom line as well as cultivating
the artistic development that takes place in the studio.
So the pride he deservedly takes in his company's
artistic growth and its contribution to the country's
ballet scene is tempered by realities: “We have exceeded
our expectations artistically; we are now trying to create
the resources to continue in those areas and directions.”
Reiter is a New York City-based freelance writer specializing
in the arts.
Image one: Joe Gato, image two: Jacek Gancarz, image three:
Joe Gato, image four: Steven Caras.