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Andersen, ballet have grown

The Arizona Republic, by Richard Nilsen

Ten years ago, former Balanchine star dancer Ib Andersen took over Ballet Arizona. The company has grown tremendously since then. And so has Andersen.

The company this week celebrates Andersen’s 10th anniversary by presenting “Play,” a full-length ballet created by Andersen and first performed in 2007. In June, the company travels to Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to perform Andersen’s new choreography, “Diversions,” as part of the Ballet Across America series.

“That just shows how far the company has come,” says star dancer Paola Hartley, who joined the troupe two years before Andersen got here.

“We’ve changed from performing at the Herberger, which is a very small venue, to Symphony Hall, with some sold-out shows, which is a huge leap in 10 years.”

In addition, the company’s budget has more than doubled, to $5.4 million from $2.6 million in 2000. The number of dancers has grown to 35, their contracts have expanded to 37 weeks from 32 weeks, and the number of annual productions has grown to six from four.

More importantly, Andersen has taken the company from the brink of collapse, with an $800,000 debt, to a stable and respected arts institution, albeit weathering a soured economy.

Over that time, Andersen has nurtured the dancers as much as the bottom line.

“He’s the only director I’ve worked with that is 24/7 in the studio,” Hart- ley says. “Others come once in a while to watch rehearsal, but they’re normally in the office doing a lot of business work. I feel like Ib is doing the business work after we’re done or in off hours. A few meetings here and there, but other than that, he’s always with the dancers.”

Andersen says that if you want to be an artistic director, you must be an artistic director, and pay attention to that end of the job.

“You better be around your dancers and give them what you think the dance should be,” he says.

It means that young dancers may seek out Ballet Arizona because they want the chance to work with Andersen.

“People know who Ib is because he was one of Balanchine’s dancers and has made a reputation for himself,” says Kendra Mitchell, who has been with the company 15 years. “Dancers do want to come here for him.”

But Ballet Arizona has changed Andersen, too. When he came, he was quiet and reserved.

“He’s European and perhaps a little more reserved,” Hartley says. “It’s taken me 10 years to get to know him better.”

But he has opened up, and his dancers know he’s on their side.

“Once you get past the ‘Hello, how are you?’ is the hardest thing with Ib ,” says Ian Poulis, who has been with the company four years. “Under the thick shell he has, there is a person who has a heart and feels for his dancers.”

Hartley agrees.

“Ib was sometimes hard to talk to,” she says, “but nonetheless, there is a huge sensitivity: He’s always aware of what goes on around him in regards to the dancers, when it comes to personal things.

“I dealt with this directly when my mom was sick. He’s extremely supportive. He understands that family comes first. I appreciate that. It’s meant a lot to me.”

Poulis adds, “Of all choreographers I’ve worked with, Ib seems to appreciate his dancers most. He knows how to use his dancers as individuals instead of pigeonholing them.”

Andersen recognizes that he has opened up in his time in Arizona.

“I’m not as guarded as I used to be,” he says. “Maybe it’s because I am older now. I know what I’m doing and I have nothing to prove.”

Andersen comes out of the Royal Danish Ballet, which he joined at 20, and the New York City Ballet, where he was a protege of George Balanchine and, later, Jerome Robbins.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he says, “that I’ve worked with the best in the time that I’ve been alive. So, I have all this knowledge that I feel it is crucial to pass along to the next generation.”