Toby Ansin, Miami City Ballet Founder, Receives Dance/USA’s Champion Award

By Jordan Levin

Toby Ansin

photo credit  Pavel Antonov.

Toby Ansin has loved ballet since she was five, when her parents set her to studying classical dance to help counteract her rolled-in feet. Growing up in Boston, she took classes six days a week, and when American Ballet Theatre came to town, she would attend five nights in a row.

“I just had a passion for ballet,” she says. “It was magical. It was just something I wanted to do and do and do.”

By the time Ansin was 14, however, she saw the other girls in class outstripping her and realized she didn’t have the talent to become a professional dancer. “It was hard,” she says. “But I’ve always been a realist.” Ansin found another way to express her love of dance – through Miami City Ballet, which she founded and where she has remained a key supporter as it has grown from a tiny can-do troupe to a pillar of the Miami arts scene and a major presence in the U.S. dance world.

“Toby’s contribution to Miami’s arts world is immeasurable,” Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez said in an email. “Miami City Ballet stands today as a monument to her vision, her tenacity, and her absolute determination to transform South Florida’s arts ecology into the vibrant, dynamic community it is today.”

For her part, Ansin, 74, credits Miami’s enthusiastic response when she launched the company. “It was such a community effort,” she says. “It wasn’t one person.”  She is sitting at the dining room table in her South Miami home, almost exactly 30 years (we’re off by two days) from the date when she first sat down with Edward Villella, the legendary New York City Ballet star who led Miami City Ballet for its first 27 years. Villella was on his first visit to Miami, to give a lecture on George Balanchine for a dance conference. The gathering’s organizer, David Eden, who brought Villella down, had been working with Miami’s nascent cultural community to launch a professional ballet company. Eden arranged for Villella to meet with Ansin, a board member of what is now the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, who Eden knew was passionate about ballet.

Villella laid out a ten-year plan for forming a ballet company at Ansin’s dining room table. But he gave her much more than an organizational template.

“He was so organized, so knowledgeable, so caring,” Ansin said in a 2000 interview with the Miami Herald. “He wanted it to happen. He’d do anything to foster ballet. You knew you were in the presence of genius. And whatever was there struck my fire.”

His passion inspired Ansin’s own. “In the same way when I put my hand on a ballet barre and said this is for me, once he started talking, I knew if he didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen,” she says now.

After Villella left, Ansin got on the phone and cajoled six friends to donate $1,000 each to support her campaign to start a ballet troupe with Edward Villella. It seemed like a near-impossible prospect. In the mid-’80s, Miami was seen as a cultural wasteland – a once glitzy vacation destination whose image had been clouded by a reputation for drug-fueled violence and nightlife, better known as the site of the movie Scarface, with Al Pacino as a crazed Cuban drug trafficker, and the hit TV crime show Miami Vice.

But it was also a period when civic and cultural boosters launched what would become Miami’s key cultural institutions, including the YoungArts Foundation, the New World Symphony, the New World School of the Arts, the Miami Book Fair International, and the Miami Art Museum (now the Pérez Art Museum Miami). Miami City Ballet became part of this cultural wave.

“The timing was right in the community,” Ansin says. “Fortunately what I had were contacts who liked the same things that I did.”

The timing was also right for Ansin, who was at a point where she could devote herself to this new project. Her three children were in high school. A back injury had forced her to drop the dance classes she’d continued taking as an adult. She was recently divorced from her husband, real estate and television mogul Ed Ansin, whom she’d married while she was still in college, and who had brought her to Miami.

Toby Ansin

Toby Lerner Ansin with Miami City Ballet dancers on opening night of the 25th Anniversary Season. Photo credit: Manny Hernandez.

Ansin’s enthusiasm and determination were crucial in persuading others to support the new company. That included Villella, who soon agreed to become full-time artistic director. A dance and ballet legend, his fame sparked excitement in Miami.

“He saw the possibilities,” Ansin says. “That changed everything. Everyone was ecstatic.”

The ballet’s board quickly grew to 40 people. In another leap of faith and instinct, Ansin discovered a place for the ballet’s home – a former Bonwit Teller department store, which she spotted while visiting a local artist’s studio on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road. At the time South Beach was a run-down, crime-ridden area occupied primarily by elderly Jewish retirees and Cuban refugees. Lincoln Road, now a packed pedestrian mall, was a desolate stretch of mostly empty storefronts. The renaissance that would eventually turn it into a glamorous international destination was just starting.

The owners of the Bonwit Teller space, Stanley and Elaine Levine, who would go on to become major ballet supporters, were eager to help and enthusiastically offered below-market rent to the nascent troupe. “The space was right and the price was right,” says Ansin. She led a community effort that saw board members painting and helping to fix up the studios (including putting pennies under the wood floor for good luck), donating shoes, light and sound equipment, and helping the troupe’s newly hired 19 dancers, many teenagers fresh from the School of American Ballet and the North Carolina School of the Arts, find apartments.

“It was just a glorious time,” says Ansin. “When you’re creating something from nothing and you see it blossom, it’s such an exhilarating thing.”

She also secured the venue for opening night, the Olympia Theater at Gusman Center, a faded former Art Deco movie palace in downtown Miami – another once upscale neighborhood struggling to recover from hard times. Needing to keep the opening a secret, Ansin signed a contract for the theater with herself as a performer. “Then I went around to my friends and said, ‘If you don’t give me money so we can have a ballet company, you’re going to have to come and see me dance!’”

Instead, Ansin sat in the audience on opening night, October 17, 1986, when a klieg light lit up Miami’s deserted downtown and the crowd was stunned by a dance company beyond anything they’d ever imagined for their city.

“We were a cultural wasteland,” says Jerome Cohen, a longtime supporter and former MCB board member who recalled opening night. “Now we have a ballet company and it’s mine. I loved it, just loved it. The people that were there were just agog. Everybody in the audience was awed by having their own ballet company… This belonged to us. This was Miami.”

Sally Ann Isaacks, the lone Miami-raised dancer in the new troupe, was also overcome. “I was looking up to the third tier feeling like oh my gosh I’m part of this – and I’m home,” Isaacks says.

The evening opened with Balanchine’s neo-classical showcase Allegro Brillante, and was highlighted by young resident choreographer Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros’ Transtangos, a sultry tango ballet with Art Deco costumes and a set that captured Miami’s style and spirit. “Nobody proud to call Miami home has ever danced like this before,” raved then-Miami Herald dance critic Laurie Horn.

“It was like a dream come true,” remembers Ansin. “Instead of dancing myself, my muscle memory was dancing onstage with all these beautiful dancers.”

The company grew so quickly in size and reputation it was soon labeled the “Miami miracle” by the press and city leaders. Villella’s brilliance in re-creating the Balanchine legacy, and in developing talent, coupled with his reputation as a performer, rapidly earned the young company dates at major national venues, including its debut at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1995, before it was even a decade old.

Until the early 2000s, Ansin was a regular presence at the ballet, often coming into the office to work the phones, helping out with fundraising and organizing events. She regularly sat in on rehearsals, and for years she never missed a performance, driving to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to see every showing of a program. “I loved seeing the different casts and how the dancers evolved,” she says.

She was rewarded by repeated moments of discovery. Among them were watching Villella teach his fabled role in Prodigal Son to dancer Yanis Pikieris, hearing ex-New York City Ballet ballerina Violette Verdy tell ballerina Iliana Lopez that she had to be “like whipped cream,” and glowing with pride as Jeanette Delgado, who Ansin had watched since she was a six-year old ballet student, brought the audience at New York City Center cheering to its feet with her performance of Square Dance. And being backstage as Villella bowed to principal dancer Jennifer Kronenberg, just coming offstage from her debut in Giselle, telling her, “You’re a ballerina now.”

“She was crying. He was crying. I was crying,” Ansin says. “These are things I’ve been blessed to be a part of.” She was sitting with Villella in the President’s box at the Kennedy Center for the company’s debut there, and when the audience rose to applaud, he leaned over and whispered, “Look at that, Toby, here’s a standing ovation you didn’t start.”

She even got to live out her childhood dream of performing, as a gypsy roaming the village crowds in MCB’s first performance of Don Quixote, at the newly opened Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in 2006. “I was onstage for the whole first and third acts,” she says. “I was in rehearsal for five weeks.” She didn’t stop smiling the entire performance.

Toby Ansin

Toby Lerner Ansin with Miami City Ballet dancers and recipients of the Toby Lerner Ansin Scholarship Award. Photo credit: Pavel Antonov.

In recent years, Ansin’s philanthropy has focused on young dancers and the Miami City Ballet School. In 2010, in honor of her 70th birthday and MCB’s 25th anniversary, her family’s foundation established the Toby Lerner Ansin Scholarship fund. And each year Ansin sponsors a talented student with an additional scholarship  in her name, which has helped dancers Andrei Chagas, Damian Zamorano, Sarah McCahill, Ellen Grocki, and Jovani Furlan become part of the company.

“When Jovani became a soloist he gave me a hug,” Ansin says. “To me that’s one of the most rewarding things.”

For her 75th birthday, the Ansin Foundation is underwriting MCB’s acquisition of Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit. It’s another significant step in a relationship that new artistic director Lourdes Lopez has built with the New York City Ballet resident choreographer, commissioning the pas de deux Chutes and Ladders, and Heatscape, a collaboration with famed street muralist Shepard Fairey that was a hit with audiences and critics earlier this year.

“Thirty years of Balanchine really spoils you,” says Ansin. “That’s why I’m so excited about Justin Peck. I just adore his work.”

As much as Ansin has given to Miami City Ballet over the years, she feels like she’s been richly repaid.

“Over the years I’ve received so much more,” she says. “The ballet’s going into its 30th anniversary, it’s a community institution, it’s become a major dance and cultural institution in the country.”

And while she never got to be a ballerina, her childhood love of ballet has paid off for Miami and the dance world as a whole. “My Dad used to tease me that paying for all those ballet lessons was really worth it.”

Jordan Levin has been the dance critic at the Miami Herald since 1999, where she also covers a variety of arts and entertainment news and cultural issues. Since 2010 she has been writing and producing radio features for WLRN-Miami Herald News, two of which aired on NPR. As a freelancer, she has written for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Dance Magazine, Latina, Billboard and Ocean Drive, among others. Before turning to journalism, she was a dancer in New York City and an arts presenter in Miami. Her history of Miami City Ballet is slated to be published by University Press of Florida in 2016.


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