All About Ib and Ballet Arizona

July 19, 2007
During a clean-up rehearsal of
, Ib Andersen, artistic director of Ballet Arizona, bounds onto the stage with the litheness of a cat. As he strides towards the dancers, he dispenses corrections and demonstrates steps to emphasize a point. He shows ballerina Natalia Magnicaballi a grand rond de jambe en l’air saying, “It should have this kind of grandeur,” as his leg swoops away from his body out into space. To dancers practicing turns he whips off four pirouettes landing in a perfect fifth position. “Don’t be cautious,” he says. “Go for it, and hope for the best.”
The “go for it” attitude could be the motto of Ballet Arizona, a company that was on the brink of extinction in 2000, when Andersen arrived and started building it into a formidable oasis in the desert. The company now performs top-notch Balanchine, Bournonville, and Petipa and also tackles Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. Andersen’s own two-hour, plotless ballet
, which premiered last April, established him as a first-rate choreographer. In June, BAZ topped itself with a four-day tribute to Balanchine, presenting Serenade, Prodigal Son, Allegro Brillante, Apollo, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and—the acid test for any ballet company—Theme and Variations.
As recently as 2002, all this didn’t seem possible. Susan Hendl, a ballet mistress of New York City Ballet and member of the Balanchine Foundation, had set
Allegro Brillante
on BAZ that year. When asked to return to stage Theme and Variations for the Balanchine Festival, she had her doubts and responded with, “That’s a stretch.” When she got to Arizona last spring, however, she found a much-improved company. She believes, as does Andersen, that every Balanchine ballet is a tool. “People only get better—they can’t help it,” says Hendl. “It’s the quick footwork, the speed, and the musicality.”
But credit also goes to Andersen. Paola Hartley, who danced the leads in
and Apollo on two weeks’ notice, says, “I don’t know if I could have handled such challenging roles before Ib. Now I have the confidence and the control.” She goes on to say, “Every ballet Ib has choreographed has been extremely difficult. His ballets prepare you for Balanchine and Petipa. And the more Balanchine and Petipa we do, the more we are prepared for Ib’s ballets. It’s really a circle.”

, the Danish word for “mosaic,” is Andersen’s total concept ballet. He did it all—choreography, costumes, and sets. The choreography encompasses a wide range of moods and idioms. In Act I, an oblong shape framed by transparent panels is suspended overhead, while dancers move with T’ai Chi stealth or do intricate partnering that, at times, references Balanchine’s leotard ballets. An athletic duet for Magnicaballi and Michael Cook has the pair flying at each other with split-second timing. Act II explodes with vividly colored sculptures made of aluminum strips that look like tangled ribbons. Andersen offers a spoof of the “Rose Adagio” and a witty send-up of Petipa princes. The ballet ends with a rip-snortin’ finale that earns the piece a standing ovation.
In the empty theater where
premiered the night before, a weary Andersen slumps in a seat, his lanky body resembling a broken umbrella. But his glacial blue eyes reflect a glint of triumph. “I must say, the audiences have embraced everything I have done here,” says the artistic director. But, he recalls, four years ago it was almost over before it began.
“My first day here, working with the dancers was like a funeral,” says Andersen. “We had a big press conference to announce that, unless we raised $460,000 in 10 days, we would have to close. People were crying left and right. I had just started and nobody knew who I was or what I could do.” But Phoenix art patrons responded in record time, raising money in just five days. Andersen went to work bringing his pedigree dance training, experience and prestige to bear on the BAZ dancers.
Kendra Mitchell, a native of Phoenix, talks about how valuable Andersen’s explanations of every step of Calliope in
were to her. “He pushes very hard, has high expectations, and at the same time he inspires confidence,” she says. She respects not only his vision but also his physicality. It is by following his movements that she grasps what he means because, she says, “It is still in his body.”
Born in Copenhagen, Andersen started ballroom lessons at age 4, as was the custom in Denmark. He decided then that dancing was for him. At age 7 he was accepted to the Royal Danish Ballet School, where he studied under Vera Volkova, the leading authority on the Vaganova system; Hans Brenaa, premier teacher of the Bournonville style; and Stanley Williams, before he arrived in the U.S. and became a popular teacher at the School of American Ballet. Andersen joined the Royal Danish Ballet in 1972 and zoomed to principal dancer by 1975 at age 20. At 25, his restless spirit brought him to New York. He auditioned for Balanchine, who hired him as a principal dancer and threw him into dozens of ballets in a matter of months. He felt as if his well-grounded Danish technique had been set free and sped up. In Balanchine ballets, he says, everything is “up in the air…limitless…expansive.” For 10 years  the dynamic Dane danced with astonishing grace, fleetness, and buoyancy, becoming one of the brightest stars of NYCB.
Fellow Dane Nikolaj Hübbe, currently a principal dancer with NYCB, says, “Ib was my big idol when I was a kid. He was the great young hope of the RDB. For City Ballet too, Ib had an impact. It was his musicality, his sensitivity, and his flair. He knew what was needed in the moment, and he understood the intent of the ballets.”
While in New York, Andersen indulged his passion for painting, an interest he developed in his early teens. He would spend every Monday, his day off, in art classes, and he rented an art studio in downtown Manhattan. “I was totally hooked.”
When a hip injury turned arthritic, Andersen opted for early retirement at age 35. In the first four years after he stopped performing, he choreographed for RDB, NYCB and companies in Brazil, Slovenia, Flanders, Norway, and Japan. And he was staging Balanchine, Bournonville, Fokine, and Robbins all over the world. He taught at the English National Ballet School, then spent two years as ballet master with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre under Patricia Wilde, another former star of NYCB.
After years of the itinerant life, Andersen took a hiatus from ballet and came to Arizona to paint. Why Arizona? Because there are no winters and he loves the desert, the clarity of the light, and the vivid colors. “This environment burns into your soul,” he says. For two years he focused on painting, while still taking occasional choreography and staging jobs. In 1999, he had recently returned from staging
in Montreal and, by chance, learned that BAZ was performing the same ballet. He went to see it and ran into friends who informed him that the company was looking for a new artistic director and would he be interested. Andersen applied for the position, and six months later was approved by the board.
Since taking over BAZ, Andersen has accomplished miracles. In his first year, he staged
, updated The Nutcracker, commissioned Dwight Rhoden to choreograph two ballets, and created two new works himself. He invited Hübbe to stage and dance the lead in excerpts from Bournonville’s Napoli. In 2003, he mounted the full-length Swan Lake (staged by Olga Evreinoff) and presented his own Romeo and Juliet and Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid. For the October season Hübbe returned to BAZ to stage Bournonville’s La Sylphide with Magnicaballi (see “25 to Watch” page 59) in the leading role.
Ballet Arizona has extensive outreach programs that reach over 20,000 people a year. Their Class Act initiative involves children in creating their own dances; the Ballet Under the Stars series draws new and old fans to free performances in nearby parks; and Dansmart sends BAZ dancers into public schools, libraries, and senior centers.
Now in its 18th season, BAZ still occupies a building at the back of a Phoenix strip mall that is badly in need of a paint job. But the place resounds with vitality. Guest stager and New York City Ballet alumna Zipporah Karz works the dancers hard in
, and guest ballet master Ben Huys, also a NYCB alumnus, gives a beautifully articulated company class.
In his windowless office amid the tufts of tulle, mounds of paperwork, and prototypes of
sculptures, Andersen talks about his wish list for the company. At the top of his agenda is finding an impresario to arrange a tour. He’s expanding the repertoire to include Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, a new Petipa (either Raymonda or Paquita) and Coppélia. More Balanchine will follow: Agon and a repeat of Theme. And the company will reprise Mosaik and present new works by Andersen and guest choreographers.
He hopes to expand from 29 dances now to 50—but no more, because he likes knowing every dancer’s needs and strengths. The company now has 35 work weeks, up from 32 last year. Andersen says, “I want to take this company as far as it can go. The sky is the limit.”
Astrida Woods is the dance editor and critic of
Show Business Weekly, and contributes to DM as well as Hamptons, Country, and Oprah.