cIn her small office at Miami City Ballet's headquarters, Lourdes Lopez lights an aromatherapy burner filled with calming lavender oil and inhales deeply.
"It helps me calm down, to decompress," she said.
Calm has been elusive for Lopez since September, when she became artistic director of South Florida's only major ballet company after founder Edward Villella left abruptly, eight months before his planned retirement. Lopez, Cuban-born and Miami-bred, had already been named as Villella's replacement, but wasn't due to arrive from New York until spring.
Instead, with five days' notice, Lopez found herself in charge of the company and the dance school, facing a season whose program she did not select, with dancers she didn't yet know who were anxious over their futures with the company.
It would be a miracle if Lopez didn't feel stressed.
"Mr. 'B.' (George Balanchine, the choreographer and co-founder of New York City Ballet, where Lopez and Villella were both principal dancers) was always so calm, he was always ready to chat. I don't know how he had time to do that," she said.
For Lopez, the company's first show in Miami last month was a definitive demonstration that the dancers had overcome the previous months' turmoil.
"You take your cue from the dancers. When they're not happy, it's going to show on stage. And those performances were really spectacular. They're dancing beautifully," said Lopez.
Tonight, local audiences will have a second opportunity to see Lopez' emerging imprint on the company when it brings Program II to the Kravis Center for a four-performance weekend run that is nearly sold out. Included are two of the company's signature Balanchine works -- Divertimento No. 15, with music by Mozart and Duo Concertant with music by Stravinsky -- as well as the dazzling pas de deux from Don Quixote.
But it's the show closer that may leave audiences open-mouthed.
Even in a rehearsal studio, with dancers dressed in standard practice attire of laddered tights and tattered leotards, Liam Scarlett's primal "Euphotic" burns with explosive energy heightened by daring lifts and intense athleticism. The ballet is the second world premiere the Royal Ballet's resident artist has set on the company, following last year's "Viscera."
If "Viscera's" theme seemed like biology, with dancers' lines merging like recombinant DNA strands, "Euphotic" seems more like geology, maybe plate techtonics, with periods of calm succeeded by convulsive primordial forces. The title is a Greek word that refers to the way light is refracted through the upper level of a body of water, where "things change and images are rendered slightly askew," said Scarlett, a multi-tasker who also designed the piece's costumes and sets.
During rehearsal, Scarlett, whose floppy curls and baby face make him looks younger than 26, nodded approvingly as dancer Sarah Etsy is thrown dangerously high by four male dancers.
In lead roles, the wondrous Jeanette Delgado and powerful Kleber Rebello blaze through Scarlett's intense and difficult choreography, set to Lowell Lieberman's Piano Concerto No. 2.
Delgado's joyful dancing and willingness to push beyond her limits have made her Scarlett's Miami muse.
"She instantly transforms herself into the piece we're creating," said Scarlett, after rehearsal ended. "She has this wonderful ability to know musically what I want."
Delgado, pointe shoes off to reveal each tortured toe wrapped in protective lambswool, is equally enraptured.
"You get so wrapped up in this world he's created," she said. "He adds these very challenging turns where you don't land in a classical position. He wants something you wouldn't have thought possible, but it's exactly what it should be."
As for Rebello, Scarlett said," anything you ask him to do, he will be be able to execute perfectly."
Neither Lopez nor Scarlett appear concerned about how a piece that stretches the boundaries of classical ballet will be received by Kravis Center ticket holders. The company's biggest audience once had a reputation for disliking contemporary work. Yet, last year, "Viscera" received cheers and a long ovation at the Kravis.
"I don't like it when people say there's only one specific audience and they're not going to go for that piece," said Lopez. Dressed in black workout clothes, her wavy dark hair cut in a no-nonsense bob, she has the lean intensity of a marathon runner. "You're bringing different work that is hopefully going to stir them in a way they hadn't been stirred before. Besides, art is supposed to evolve."
Still, she'd love to have a large enough repertoire to tailor performances to her audiences, which include Fort Lauderdale and Naples, as well as Miami and West Palm Beach.
Enlarging the company's Balanchine-based repertoire is a top mission, as is bringing her New York-based Morphoses company to Miami as a choreographic think tank. She hopes to add current choreography by Lars Lubovitch (whose "Elemental Brubeck" was in Ballet Florida's repertoire), Christopher Wheeldon, Crystal Pite and Nacho Duato.
"I don't want to say too much, but you see what's on my desk," she said with a sly smile, glancing at a folio from "West Side Story."
She'd like to collaborate with Dreyfoos School of the Arts, whose campus is next to the Kravis Center.
And arrange flash mobs. Lopez really likes those spontaneous acts of dancing, like one she arranged in October at the Wynwood Art Walls in Miami.
"It would have taken me three years to arrange that in New York," she said.
Also on her list? Getting some rest.
But Lopez figures that might have to wait until summer. Miami City Ballet presents Program II (Divertimento No. 15 and Duo Concertant, both by Balanchine; Don Quixote Pas de Deux; and the world premiere of Euphotic, by British choreographer, Liam Scarlett): today and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. Information: www.kravis.org or call 561-832-7469 or 800-572-8471.
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