Both Miami City Ballet and its founder, Toby Lerner Ansin, celebrate milestones this year.
Toby Lerner Ansin, seen in her home, helped put Miami on the map as a world-class cultural destination.
“I cannot believe that 30 years have passed by so quickly,” says Toby Lerner Ansin, as the company she founded, Miami City Ballet, marks its third full decade. “They’re dancing so beautifully.” And Floridians are taking note: Subscriptions are up by 25 percent, with around 100,000 patrons enjoying the troupe’s performances each year in its four home cities.
But the ballet’s success has been hard-won. It was established with just $7,000, contributed by Ansin and six like-minded friends. “Artistic Director David Eden [of the Dance Umbrella] had said to me, ‘Toby, if you want good dance here, you have to have a classical ballet company. And you’re going to do it.’ And I laughed.”
With a determination that seems to be her trademark, however, Ansin began building the company’s foundation. With the initial funds, she says, “we flew [choreographer and former New York City Ballet star] Edward Villella in and out of South Florida to meet the dance community, the donor community, the business community—anyone we could think of.” While Villella was initially hired as a consultant, the passion of Miami balletomanes—as well as the area’s untapped talent—soon had him moving to Florida full-time to serve as the organization’s founding artistic director. “By the end of the [first] season,” Ansin says, “we had 7,500 subscribers, 19 dancers, and it was just magical.”
Although the company immediately attracted a following, the work necessary to ensure its continued existence sometimes felt endless. In the early days, board members like Ansin weren’t just tasked with raising money. “We licked stamps!” she recalls. “One board member and her husband came in with nail guns. Everybody pitched in with whatever ability they had and with tremendous enthusiasm.”
Even today, with the troupe praised as one of the best in the country, Ansin cites fundraising as the biggest hurdle. “In times when the economy is in a slump, it makes it extra hard,” she says. “[But] it’s a numbers game; the more people you involve, the better chance you have. So wherever you go, and whenever you meet anyone, you end up talking about the ballet and you light a little light.”
Ansin’s 75th birthday this year is another chance to spread the gospel of ballet. Rather than accept gifts for herself, she has chosen to give back to the company. “For my 70th birthday, my family launched the Toby Lerner Ansin Scholarship fund,” she says. The scholarship is awarded to advanced students at the Miami City Ballet School who plan on becoming professional dancers. “There are now six dancers who have received it, and they are all in the company.”
Those dancers and the others who make up the 51-member troupe are performing an ambitious program this anniversary season, including an elaborate reimagining of one of the company’s tent-pole productions, George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It’s being set underwater,” Ansin explains. “It’s quite an honor that the Balanchine estate has let [Artistic Director] Lourdes Lopez redesign it.”
In honor of Ansin’s 75th birthday, her family has underwritten the staging of buzzy choreographer Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit, which features music by acclaimed indie artist Sufjan Stevens. “They call it [Peck’s] breakthrough ballet,” Ansin says, “and I’m really excited for that.”
Regardless of the works chosen from season to season, what Ansin finds most special about Miami City Ballet are its dancers. “They are really like a family; they just have so much energy and they’re so caring about each other,” she says. “I would like for [the company] to have a really strong endowment, so that it will always have a financial foundation. Then it can go on forever.” 2200 Liberty Ave., Miami Beach, 305-929-7010; miamicityballet.org