This article is part of Phoenix New Times' issue focusing on immigrants in the Valley of the Sun. See our full coverage here.
Ib Andersen came to the Sonoran Desert sight unseen.
After years spent performing around the world, first as a wunderkind with the Royal Danish Ballet Company and then as protege to George Balanchine, the Copenhagen-born ballet dancer and choreographer had accepted the role of artistic director at Ballet Arizona. And he didn’t like what he saw — at first, anyway.
“It struck me as being very strange,” Andersen says between rehearsals on a dreary Tuesday morning in February. “Everything was so clean, there was no dirt anywhere … very plastic, in a way.”
It took him a while, but eventually Andersen embraced his new surroundings. They’ve served as inspiration for some of his most notable works, including Topia, a site-specific ballet he choreographed for performance at the Desert Botanical Garden, as well as his paintings.
“The intensity of the light really gets to you, I think,” the 62-year-old says of coming around to the desert’s allure beyond its unusual vegetation and rich colors. “I like the openness.”
That’s a reference to the sky, the landscape, and the mindset of his audience here in Phoenix. “They’re very open to anything,” he says. “They’re not jaded.”
Seventeen years later, Andersen is still pushing Ballet Arizona’s audience, one that just happens to reside in one of America’s most conservative states — and harshest climates.
He’ll present a fresh iteration of Today’s Masters in March and a remounting of Topia, the fan favorite that uses the Papago Buttes and starry night sky for a backdrop, in May. In between, April will mark the 37th anniversary of Andersen’s move to the United States to join Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. It’s also when Andersen will put on All Balanchine, a program consisting entirely of works choreographed by the late master.
“In ballet, you go back in time by doing things that have been done before,” he says. “It always has to be in the now, though … We’re dealing with a lot of dead choreographers, choreography made close to 200 years ago, but you make them alive.”
Right now, Andersen’s focus is firmly in the present, with all eyes on Today’s Masters. He uses the springtime program to highlight modern works that his company might not typically present, fare that’s foreign to ticketholders accustomed to the annual vivacity of The Nutcracker or a tried-and-true staging of Romeo and Juliet just in time for Valentine’s Day.
This year’s show runs from March 23 through 26 at the Orpheum Theatre and includes three pieces, two of which are world premières. There’s a new work by company member Nayon Iovino, a new work by Andersen, and Andersen’s staging of the classic romance Paquita, a ballet set in Spain and to music by Russian composer Ludwig Minkus.
The works are rooted in international collaboration, much like Ballet Arizona. It’s a group he laughingly compares to the United Nations, with members from around the world.
Though he’s not ignorant of politics and recent rhetoric surrounding immigration, Andersen isn’t totally into it, either. However, he does note that he hails from one of the world’s most liberal countries.
“I guess you could say that I am naive. I still believe in the goodness of humankind,” he says. “But there’s a lot of obstacles right now, that’s for sure. That’s why the arts are important, you know?”
So Andersen is taking this opportunity to do something unlike ever before. As an antidote to the negativity, he wanted to create something uplifting.
Inspired by Brazil, he choreographed a new work set to American composer Philip Glass’ samba tribute, “Days and Nights in Rocinha.” The piece of is music named for the favela — or low-income neighborhood — where the Afro-Brazilian dance and music style has roots.
“This one is very light, in the best possible way,” he says. “It’s also a very sexy piece of music. It’s all about hips.”
Iovino, on the other hand, looked to Igor Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes for inspiration. Through his piece, the Brazilian-born dancer who’s been with Ballet Arizona since 2012 explores dissociative identity disorder. It will be the third work he’s debuted at Today’s Masters, and it’s tempting to cast Iovino as next in line to Andersen.
But, somewhat unsurprisingly, a man who has devoted his life to an art form he characterizes as both fragile and constantly evolving isn’t so hung up on what the future holds and what remains to be seen.
“I think the legacy of me is the people I’ve worked with, and maybe they’ve learned something that I’ve learned. I believe in the now,” he says. “Legacy, who knows?”
Ballet Arizona presents Today’s Masters at the Orpheum March 23 to 26. See balletaz.org.