MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Lourdes Lopez had heard the rumors about Miami City Ballet, that it was a failing institution in a city she remembered as a cultural wasteland she needed to leave 40 years ago to pursue a career in dance.
She didn't recognize the Miami that welcomed her in September when she took over as artistic director. The dancers were part of a vibrant arts scene, and the financial struggles that threatened the company's survival were resolved.
"I think there's support, interest and desire here," Lopez said Thursday.
The plans she laid out for the company's 2013-14 season, its school and a partnership with Morphoses, the New York dance company she co-founded in 2007, build on that support while challenging the dancers and their audience to stretch their conceptions of ballet.
Lopez, 54, was chosen last spring to succeed the ballet's founding artistic director, Edward Villella, who was resigning amid stagnant revenues and management shake-ups. She planned to take over at this season's end in May. Villella's abrupt departure as the dancers began preparing for the season's October opening forced her to lead the company through his final program.
Both Lopez and Villella had long careers at the New York City Ballet, performing under the direction of ballet icon George Balanchine. Lopez, who was born in Cuba and raised in Miami, moved to New York at age 14 to study dance and joined Balanchine's ballet company two years later.
While preserving the Balanchine legacy at Miami City Ballet, Lopez also wants to introduce new choreographers and dances, particularly those that appeal to Miami's multicultural audiences.
One such choreographer is Spain's Nacho Duato, whose "Jardi Tancat" will be performed in January. The piece features Catalan folk songs, praying for rain at a harvest, that will sound familiar to Miami's Latin American community, Lopez said.
The season that begins in the fall and ends in April 2014 also includes "Episodes," an innovative Balanchine piece that is new to the company, and an encore of Alexei Ratmansky's "Symphonic Dances," which the company commissioned and is performing this season.
Lopez also included Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story Suite," a ballet based on his Broadway musical. "It's a no-brainer for this community. It's what this community is about," she said. "Not that there's turmoil — it's the ability of both the Hispanics and the American community to come together."
Another highlight is "Polyphonia," choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's 2001 breakthrough work.
Lopez and Wheeldon founded Morphoses in 2007, but Wheeldon left three years later. Lopez said she's looking forward to working with him again in Miami.
"He's a very, very talented choreographer. His works should be seen," she said.
Morphoses may soon have a new home in Miami, too. Both companies are working out a partnership that Lopez hopes will create a kind of laboratory where the modern company can experiment and think about the future of dance without the traditional ballet company's concerns about ticket sales and expenses.
Lopez said that collaboration may begin by 2014.
Ballet's future also forms the core of Lopez's plans for the company's dance school. She has appointed Darleen Callaghan to lead it and build a curriculum that includes dance and music history, not just dance instruction. Next month, the school will begin developing a syllabus not only to train students in all aspects of dance, but also to keep them as members of the dance community even if they don't pursue dance careers.
"It's not just about creating dancers for Miami City Ballet or for other companies. I want to view the school as an opportunity to create audiences," Lopez said.
The company is poised financially to realize Lopez's plans, after paying off debts, fundraising and establishing programs that should boost revenue, said Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, who was brought in as a consultant to help restructure Miami City Ballet.
"The good thing in the arts is, ambitious plans create revenue," Kaiser said.
They also create unlikely collaborations such as a new ad campaign that pairs principal dancers Jeanette and Patricia Delgado with Miami Heat basketball stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to promote downtown Miami's cultural scene.
Lopez said the Heat approached the ballet about the campaign, and she promises more teamwork with other arts and entertainment institutions to reach new audiences.
"I've come back to a city that I don't recognize — the vibrancy, what's happening not just in ballet, but in everything," Lopez said.
Miami City Ballet: www.miamicityballet.org