Puntismos: Lourdes, hi. Thank you so much for speaking with Puntismos today. It’s really thrilling to have an artist of your rich experience to speak with us.
Lourdes Lopez: It’s really my pleasure. Thank you!
Puntismos: Before we talk about the exciting journey that you’ve begun with Christopher Wheeldon and Morphoses, let’s flip back some pages.
Lourdes Lopez: Ok.
Puntismos: You were born in Havana and your family emigrated to Miami? How old were you at the time? Were you old enough to form any memories of your life in Cuba? Was your family involved in the arts / dance in Cuba?
Lourdes Lopez: My father was a captain in Batista's army so basically we had to escape in 1959. He left first and then we followed. I was a year old. No memories, unfortunately. But my family made sure that I was brought up with the language, which I speak fluently and write and all traditions.
Puntismos: Very interesting. And I know you've tried to maintain relationship with your Cuban roots. After you left New York City Ballet, you founded the Cuban Artists Fund? Tell Puntismos about your work for CAF. Are you still involved in it?
Lourdes Lopez: Yes. I am one of the co-founders. After retiring from New York City Ballet, I worked as a cultural arts reporter for WNBC. They sent me to Cuba to report on the arts during the Pope's visit. I met a lot of artists including dancers, musicians, painters, sculptors, etc. It struck me how much talent and vision was there and how few resources for these artists to work. When I came back to New York, I spoke to another Cuban friend of mine, Ben Rodriguez Cubenas, about my experience and we decided to do something about it. We founded CAF. It’s an organization which helps Cuban American artists and Cuban artists on the island with materials, resources, information and such. It’s been very rewarding and taught me a lot about non for profit. Helping Cuban artists, a little goes a long way.
Puntismos: Certainly and that must be very enriching. There are so many talented artists that don't have access to fundamental resources to pursue their art.
Your family moved from Miami to New York where you attended the School of American Ballet which has been founded by the legendary George Balanchine in the 1930s?
Lourdes Lopez: Well, no. My family did not move with me. I moved to NY with my sister. I was 14 and she was 19. I was under full scholarship with School of American Ballet. It was an opportunity my parents felt that I could not by pass, so they were incredibly supportive of me! Can you imagine that at 14 and 19, Cuban parents let their daughters move to NY on their own? I was invited to join the company at 15 and a half.
Teri went to NYU and graduated and I attended the professional children’s school.
Puntismos: Right. Which is incredible because I don't think there are a lot of 15 year old ballerinas performing for NYCB today. Tell Puntismos how legendary choreographer, George Balanchine, discovered you?
Lourdes Lopez: I am not sure you can say he discovered me. I was given a summer scholarship at the age of 11 to go to NY every summer and study with the school of American ballet. I would go for 5 weeks and then study the rest of the year in Miami. At the age of 14, they asked me to stay in New York and study full time in the school, which I did. My parents found an apartment for my sister and me which was paid by the school. During the year, Mr. Balanchine would come in and watch classes and he noticed me. He then gave me the lead in one of the school's annual performances. I did the lead the following year as well and then he invited me to join the company as an apprentice. He told me that he would only take me in if I finished high school. He took me in anyway, but I did graduate a few years later and he was at graduation!
Puntismos: Balanchine is considered the father of modern American ballet and you danced with NYCB as a principal dancer for many years. Tell Puntismos what it was like to work with this giant of choreography – personally and professionally?
Lourdes Lopez: There has never been, and there will never be anyone like him. He was a genius and one of the kindest men I have ever met. Mr. B, as he liked to be called, was gentle, understanding, kind, funny and it seemed that nothing ever flustered him. He knew his dancers better than you knew yourself. He knew when to push and when to pull back. He was very supportive. I remember a performance that I was thrown into at the last minute in the lead role. The ballet was Stars and Stripes, a very difficult role and part and I was doing the role of the ballerina. I had just learned it at the last minute because one of the ballerinas was sick. The performance was horrible! I danced it ok, but there was no personality coming through my dancing as I was so terrified. Well, I thought he would be really mad, but no. He came over and said, “Nice dear, but next time your hat for the finale should be a little further front.” In other words, he knew I knew I was bad. He did not have to rub it in, but he wanted me to know that it did not matter. For him, it was not about what you did that night, or how good you were that night or the night before, but rather a process, an artistic process, growth and development that was important.
Puntismos: Thanks for sharing that recollection. It's very interesting to hear the personal interactions between choreography and dancer as often with ballet, there's a wall between audience and performer.
You also worked with Jerome Robbins and performed in the celebrated Firebird , The Four Seasons, etc? What was dancing for Robbins like and how did it differ from your experience with Balanchine?
Lourdes Lopez: Robbins was a different creature. What Balanchine got from his dancers by being gentle, Robbins got by not always being gentle. Jerry was always very nice to me and very respectful, I am not sure why. But others were not so lucky. Yet Jerry was very demanding as he wanted everything done specifically to his direction, Where Balanchine was a little more intrigued by what the dancer would do on their own with little direction. Jerry, however, forced you to dig deep down into your soul and find what it was you needed for the role. He demanded that you think about it and even become it. He would make us make up stories in our heads for the characters that we were dancing. He wanted it to be real.
Puntismos: You danced in so many roles from The Nutcracker, Serenade, Apollo, Agon, etc. It’s unfair to ask your favorite role, but let me ask which one you felt was the most challenging for you to perform? And which do you dream about the most?!
Lourdes Lopez: Not sure how to answer this one, as all the roles had their challenges. Some challenges were big. In respect to character, style or technique and others were smaller in challenges due to other circumstances, regarding when, where, at what age and with whom I was dancing it. I think that every role always has a moment somewhere that frightens a dancer for what ever reason. If that is not the case then the dancer has become too comfortable in the role and that is not always good. There needs to be a little of the tension involved to make it different every time.
As for dreaming, I really don’t dance in my dreams...believe it or not, at least not specific roles.
Puntismos: I guess you're lucky. I would think you'd be seeing movements in your sleep . . . !
Lourdes Lopez: No...too tired I guess.
Puntismos: After you retired from your storied career in dance, you’ve embarked on a very distinguished care in executive administration within the arts.
Being a ballerina seems to be exactly like a professional sports athlete – how do many dancers handle their post professional dancing lives?
Lourdes Lopez: Not sure what you mean? How do we stay in shape, or emotionally?
Puntismos: Professionally. When you stop dancing, what do many dancers segue into? Instruction? Administration like what you've done? I ask because I "fear" that there are not that many avenues for dancers . . . .
Lourdes Lopez: The avenues are there. The dancer needs to look for them and commit to them. I feel really strongly that dancers have all the resources they need to succeed at anything. They have discipline, focus, goal oriented, committed. And to be a dancer, a good one, you need to be smart. What they don’t always is an education. It’s important that a dancer try as much as possible get an education, if possible while they are dancing. It can be done. If not, then it’s a matter of trying to figure out what excites you, what makes you feel the way you felt about dance. That is hard, but it’s out there. I really believe that artists, all artists, have a very clear sense of what makes them happy and fulfilled. It just may not be what they use to do before. But they have an understanding of that feeling. Then once you find that something, the dancer has all the tools in place to take it on and make it theirs. It’s incredible some of the things that some dancers are doing.
Puntismos: Well articulated . . . .
You recently joined Christopher Wheeldon’s nascent Morphoses – the first new ballet company created in over 30 years. How did Chris convince you to begin this new journey with him? I guess you’re his Lincoln Kirstein?!
Lourdes Lopez: Wow, Lincoln Kirstein! Those are shoes way too big for me!
Puntismos: Inspirational . . . . perhaps.
Lourdes Lopez: I met Chris when he got into NYCB. We became friends and he was always interested in choreography. In 1996, he did a short piece for the School of American Ballet in the studios and he asked me to come and see it. There I was in a studio, no costumes, a piano and about 8 dancers from the graduating class of SAB. What I saw next was one of the most beautiful little ballets. Chris had been able to create theatre, an experience, a world and he had drawn me in, in a way that Balanchine and Robbins' ballets would draw me in. I remember that I called my fiancée at the time and said, "George, I think I just witnessed the world's next great choreographer!" After that we would always talk
Chris and I share a lot of the same ideas of ballet, dancers, what is good and what is missing from the art form and aesthetics. He would often talk about helping dancers and I would say, "It’s like parenting, you need to be around." If you want to help and influence a dancer, you can’t do it from afar. Chris at this time had stopped dancing and was choreographing all over the world. So last September, he approached me with this idea. It is a tremendous amount of work, and a huge risk! But he is worth that, and the art form is worth that. If it does not work out, well we gave it 200%, we gave it our best.
Puntismos: What does Morphoses want to accomplish that Chris could not at NYCB? Can you be as revolutionary as Balanchine as in NYCB? Are there new directions to forge?
Lourdes Lopez: Morphoses and NYCB are two completely different animals. One is a big dance institution very much set in its style, focus, and approach to the art form. NYCB has made numerous contributions to dance, and will continue to do so. Morphoses hopes to move in another direction. One of collaboration among its artists, including dancers. Chris really feels that artists coming together is very exciting and that, that excitement feeds new energy and vision. Everyone is merging these days. It’s a spirit I feel of things to come. I really feel that a sense of community of belonging is back in style and it’s important to this generation. Also, the audience. Dance is losing its audience. The younger generation has no interest, or little interest, in dance being a vital part of their cultural life. This is because they can’t relate to it. I think people feel that they need to know something about the art form to appreciate it. Well, they don’t! But the younger generation really has a misconceived perception of the art form. It is cool and sexy and fun and hip, at least Chris' choreography is. He is one of them, of their generation. It is not so unlike Balanchine and Robbins who decided that story ballets were old fashioned and the neo classical and minimalist look was in. Less is more kind of philosophy, the bare essentials, get down to the core of the art form. They believed that and we have Agon and Four Temperaments and Dances at a Gathering. Well, Chris believes that dance and its artists can have a connection to a younger audience.
Puntismos: This is certainly true and it seems that the timing is right to introduce a new generation to dance. . . if not, there's a danger that interest in dance may die with the older generation.
Christopher Wheeldon is widely acknowledged as the leading American choreographer working today. Tell Puntismos about his art; his vision; his light.
Lourdes Lopez: His art is Dance and the Dancers. In the end, those are the individuals who get his vision across. They have short careers and are not necessarily financially successful, especially when you compare them to athletes, but they give their entire lives over to the art form. Balanchine use to say that Dancers were a gift from God. Each one a gift. Chris believes this and knows it. His vision is the collaboration between artists and the many disciplines, so that each gets something from the other, and each brings something to the other and to the dancer. His light is his belief that dance, classical dance, the vocabulary of classical dance is beautiful. For those of us who still feel that the pointed shoe is a thing of beauty, Chris is our gift!
Puntismos: That's very generous of you.
In . . . let’s say 2012 . . . five years from now, where do you hope to see Morphoses? Is Morphoses going to be strictly a traveling company or do you see yourself anchored in New York or any other city?
Lourdes Lopez: NYC will be our main home, but it will be a touring company. Unless, of course someone builds a theater for us that we can use year round!!! Gotta think big here!!! In 2012, our dream is 20 dancers, full time, on salary with benefits to boot!
Puntismos: I feel very confident that you and Chris will make this happen.
Lourdes, you’ve been so gracious in sharing your time with Puntismos. One final question, where can Puntismos members read about Morphoses and keep current on the company and its performances?
Lourdes Lopez: We are currently building our website, www.morphoses.org. Hopefully it will be done by February. All information will be there. It will be very interactive with blogs from dancers, and even filmed rehearsals! Our next performance will be a studio performance on February 6 and then we officially start up again in July.
Thank you so much for this great treat!
Puntismos: Thank you, Lourdes. We are very, very grateful for your time.