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In 1986 Arizona was home to three professional ballet companies in two cities, Phoenix and Tucson. All three were young and struggling for audience and funding. Allen Rosenberg, a Phoenix banker, philanthropist, and arts patron, orchestrated a merger of the three — Phoenix Ballet, Arizona Dance Theatre, and Ballet West Arizona (itself a merger of Mesa Civic Ballet and Arizona Metropolitan Ballet) — to create Ballet Arizona.
For that first season, 1986–87, Jean-Paul Comelin (Milwaukee Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet) and New Zealand-born dancer Malcolm Burn were named co-artistic directors. Charles Fischl, who had transformed Atlanta Ballet from an amateur to professional company, was appointed Ballet Arizona’s first general manager. These three laid a foundation of excellence and creativity that made the first season a success, opening with the full-length Cinderella and concluding with the first work Comelin would create for Ballet Arizona, Requiem. Burns left for Richmond Ballet after that first season, while Comelin guided the young company for the next four years.
Michael Uthoff was named artistic director in 1992. Uthoff, who had held the same post for twenty years with Hartford Ballet, enriched Ballet Arizona’s repertoire with local premieres of major works, and by commissioning new pieces from Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Peter Pucci, Neta Pulvermacher, and others. Uthoff also strengthened the Company’s commitment to its academy, then named Arizona Ballet School, by appointing its first full-time director in 1993. Kee-Juan Han, formerly a soloist with Boston Ballet, attracted exemplary teachers from throughout the industry, and the School’s enrollment soon doubled.
Though Ballet Arizona’s artistic product was stronger than it had ever been, the late 1990s found the organization hobbled by debt. The school separated from the Company, and the artistic and executive directors resigned. Nonetheless, Ballet Arizona presented an impressive season in 1999–2000, and the board of directors strove to carry that success forward and to secure a future for professional ballet in Arizona.
In 2000 the board named Ib Andersen artistic director, and Sherry New was appointed executive director. A former principal with Royal Danish Ballet and Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, Andersen had first visited Phoenix to stage Apollo during Uthoff’s tenure. Despite significant fiscal constraints on his vision for the Company, Andersen set about reshaping Ballet Arizona with a demanding repertory of classical and contemporary ballets, including world premieres of his own pieces.
Concurrently, Sherry New set in motion a major drive for new donors and board members, significantly reducing the debt. In 2004 Arizona Ballet School formally merged with the Company, was rechristened The School of Ballet Arizona, and was also placed under Ib Andersen’s artistic direction.
With Andersen’s guidance, Ballet Arizona’s dancers were soon performing at a higher level than ever before. In 2004 the Company performed for enthusiastic audiences and critics at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Company was receiving increasing acclaim at home, as well, from audiences and local critics, and from a growing number of dance writers for print and online publications with national distribution. Between 2003 and 2007, admissions to Ballet Arizona productions increased 61 percent.
In 2004 Kevin Myers accepted the top administrative post of Ballet Arizona, assuming oversight of ongoing efforts of the board, dancers and staff, and corporate and philanthropic partners to complete elimination of the debt. In 2005, Ballet Arizona became debt-free. The next step for these partners is to ensure the Company’s financial health by establishing a substantial cash reserve and endowment, beginning with aggressive campaigns in 2009. Some of the operating capital will be combined with $6.5 million from a 2005 bond issue approved by Phoenix voters to create an office and rehearsal home for Ballet Arizona and the School, which they will share with Arizona Opera. Completion is slated for fall 2010.
Ib Andersen and Ballet Arizona are committed to preserving, celebrating, and teaching classical dance, while creating and commissioning innovative works. These have included several major pieces from Andersen, among them three original full-length ballets, Mosaik, Play, and for 2008, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition, Andersen has reinterpreted Coppélia, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker.
Ballet Arizona has received numerous local and statewide awards, among them: “Arts Organization of the Year” (Arts & Business Council of Greater Phoenix); and the 2007 “Friend of Phoenix Award” presented by Mayor Phil Gordon. Also in 2007, Governor Janet Napolitano named Ib Andersen Arizona’s Artist of the Year.
In 2006 The Arizona Republic called Ballet Arizona, “probably the most consistently excellent arts organization in the state,” and said, “This is why Ballet Arizona is such a treasure for Phoenix.” In 2007 the Republic stated, “Under Director Ib Andersen, Ballet Arizona has achieved ever new heights of finish and professionalism.”