A dozen pointe shoes squeak in unison as dancers in colorful leotards and delicate chiffon skirts glide across the room. Suddenly, the ladies are lifted from the floor and set upside down on the shoulders of their dance partners, their long legs extended in perfect form.
In this bright rehearsal room at Ballet Arizona, artistic director and Scottsdale resident Ib Andersen is putting the finishing touches on the company’s next production, “Play.”
The ballet is Andersen’s second original, full-length piece, and will premiere Friday at Symphony Hall in Phoenix.
Andersen, an internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer, joined Ballet Arizona in 2000, when it was a small, struggling company on the brink of closing down.
Since then, he has revived it, increasing the budget, the number of dancers and the quality of the productions under his leadership.
In the “Play” rehearsal studio, Andersen’s jeans and salt-and-pepper hair easily distinguish him from the 34 company members clad in vibrant spandex and polyester dance wear. He watches intently as the dancers execute his carefully crafted choreography, rising from his chair occasionally to demonstrate a difficult step or to give the dancers personal directions.
Though opening night is approaching quickly, Andersen was still choreographing the final minutes of the ballet last week.
“It’s (these) two minutes that are the hardest,” he said, “not because it’s the end of the ballet, but because it’s the two minutes that are the most complicated to choreograph.”
Unlike other directors who choreograph their pieces before teaching them, Andersen approaches his works with only a concept, choreographing no steps until he is in the studio with the company. That way, he can adapt the steps to highlight the strengths of individual dancers.
Andersen drew from his background in classical ballet to choreograph “Play.”
His first, “Mosaik,” was met with enthusiastic local reviews when it premiered in Phoenix in 2004.
“Play” is a combination of seven individual short ballets, which Andersen likens to a seven-course meal.
“You can eat each dish by itself, but hopefully the seven together make something more,” he said.
Andersen began his ballet career at age 7, when he left his home in Copenhagen, Denmark, to enroll in the School of the Royal Danish Ballet. He joined the company nine years later and became a principal dancer at age 20.
When he was 25, famed choreographer George Balanchine invited Andersen to join the New York City Ballet, where he danced for 10 years.
During his time in New York, he also began choreographing for the Royal Danish Ballet. He spent much of the 1990s traveling the world, doing freelance choreography for ballet companies.
In 1997, Andersen decided to move to Scottsdale for a “change of environment.” He joined Ballet Arizona as artistic director, facing immense challenges as the new leader of a company crumbling in debt.
“I took over a sunken ship, with big holes in it,” Andersen said. “We almost closed before I even had the first show. But we survived.”
Andersen said the first few years of his tenure were very hard, as the company struggled to reduce its debt and improve its productions on a low budget.
Under Andersen’s leadership, the company has grown, adding 13 dancers since 2000. The budget has also grown by 60 percent to $4 million. And in April, Andersen won the Governor’s Individual Artist of the Year Award, becoming the first choreographer to do so.
Dancer Paola Hartley said the changes have been drastic since she joined Ballet Arizona nine years ago.
She thinks one of Andersen’s most important qualities is his consistent commitment to his dancers.
“He knows his dancers, head-to-toe, very well,” Hartley said.
“He accommodates things so all his dancers look good.”