Choreographer Durante Verzola returns to the place he started with Miami City Ballet premiere
Jordan Martinez and Alexander Kaden rehearse Durante Verzola’s “Sentimiento,” part of Miami City Ballet’s “Fresh & Fierce” program opening on Friday, April 14 at the Arsht Center, Miami. (Photo courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev)
Durante Verzola is a young artist with fine-aged craft stored in his soul. For his upcoming Miami City Ballet premiere “Sentimiento”—feeling, sentiment, a surge of great expectations and perhaps sorrow—the choreographer has communed with 20th-century Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, attuned to the beguiling melodies and irresistible rhythms of the maestro’s piano works. On these heirloom roses that he picked for his dance suite, Verzola has put the sparkle of morning dew.
Verzola’s piece brings the “fresh” to MCB’s third program of the season, “Fresh & Fierce,” opening at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, April 14. For the “fierce,” it’s the ever-popular “West Side Story Suite,” Jerome Robbins’ 1995 concert piece with his high-gear choreography curated from the original Broadway musical. Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15” rounds out the offerings. For this blessed-in-heaven 1956 union with Mozart we can offer the right f-word—flawless, fulfilling, fabulous, would all fit the bill.
Being in the company of such dance royalty has given Verzola more motivation than pause. “It’s a big honor to share the program with choreographers I’ve drawn so many lessons from,” says the 27-year-old whose training at Miami City Ballet School (MCBS) and artistic contact with top New York City Ballet veterans Suzanne Farrell (he was in her company for two seasons), Kyra Nichols, and MCB’s own director Lourdes Lopez—who led him to Lecuona—places him at one degree of separation from Balanchine and Robbins.
“I couldn’t have gotten to where I am without learning what I have from them,” recognizes Verzola.
But the road to this program seems fated. “When I was thirteen,” says Verzola, “I used to check out the old ‘Dance in America’ tapes from PBS, which were my introduction to Balanchine. I always knew I wanted to make dances one day, and that gave me the original push. And the interesting thing is ‘Divertimento No. 15’ was the first ballet I saw Miami City Ballet perform.” In it he could glean how by adding or subtracting dancers—their number multiplied to the maximum power in ensembles—Balanchine worked choreographic math like magic as if balancing equations for everlasting art.
“Coming back to the beginning,” emphasizes Verzola, “makes me want to bring forth my best work.”
Verzola’s relationship with MCB is unique among contemporary choreographers, affording him the comforts of family. At 16, feeling his ballet training in Kansas City had reached a limit, he set his sights on the South Florida institution he admired for its Balanchine esthetic. He’d always counted on his parents to support his goals since, as an eight-year-old, he followed his sister into ballet class in West Point, N.Y., where his Filipino-American dad taught at the Military Academy. A self-described army brat, Verzola went on to train in Anchorage and at summer intensives throughout the country. But his most decisive moment arrived in 2012 when his parents agreed to drive him from the Midwest to Miami Beach, straight for the doors of MCB.
“We packed the whole car for me to come down and audition for the school, hoping I’d get in,” he recalls. And he did—on a full merit scholarship.
Before going on to dance at the Philadelphia Ballet II (formerly the Pennsylvania Ballet II) two years later, Verzola made his first work for students at MCBS. And he has continued to choreograph for them, now as a member of the permanent faculty, hired just last July to teach technique and repertory and lead the choreography class. He premiered “A Dance for Heroes” virtually on MCB during pandemic restrictions and still attends to freelance work.
“What’s made ‘Sentimiento’ even more special,” says Verzola, “is that there are dancers in it, like Jennifer Lauren (whom) I’ve idolized since I was in the school, dancers I took classes with, and dancers I’ve taught over the years of coming down here. This is really meaningful, allowing me to show them at their best.”
Verzola’s ballet begins with “Gitanerías,” a perky quartet for his former classmates Mayumi Enokibara, Ellen Grocki, and Damian Zamorano—all snap-and-crackle interpreters—along with Harrison Monaco, whom the choreographer danced with in Pennsylvania. “The music has so much vibrancy and light,” explains Verzola, “it was good for them to set the tone, putting out there that this is a love letter to Miami, a very magical place.”
By dressing the ballet in evocative colors and textures, Colombian-American Esteban Cortázar adds sizzle. “This is the first time I’ve collaborated with a fashion designer,” says Verzola. “That brings forward a different dynamic. As a highly creative individual, Esteban has contributed a lot of amazing ideas since he, too, has a deep connection to Miami.”
Verzola tells the story of Cortázar growing up on Ocean Drive, right above the News Café, watching Gianni Versace have his morning coffee and dreaming as an immigrant boy of a career that would spread elegance and glamour in the world—precisely the qualities the now highly successful professional helps bring out in “Sentimento,” with references to fauna and flora, jazz and Art Deco. For instance, in the quick, neon-bright “Burlesca,” the ballerinas take flight in flamingo hues and a salsa-party silhouette.
But a flashy look needs the heart to go with it, and the choreographer has taken care of that, with invaluable musical guidance from MCB company pianist Francisco Rennó, who’ll be playing on stage.
“He shaped the music in a detailed and creative way to perfectly keep its original perfume for a classical ballet in today’s world,” says Verzola. Rennó, for example, swathed the very recognizable “Damisela Encantadora (Enchanting Damsel)” in mystery, which Adrienne Carter, amid the waves of five ballerinas, swims through with expressive strength.
For his premiere’s initial pas de deux, Verzola chose “Siempre En Mi Corazón (Always in My Heart),” the 1942 Oscar-nominated song by Lecuona, whose music was equally sought after for the silver screen, Carnegie Hall, or a nightclub. The movie theme let Verzola highlight those sweet moments when, as he puts it, “your heart skips a beat and swells up at the sight and touch of a new love interest in your life.”
Other aspects of romance follow in duets —with sociable groupings in the mix using selections like “Music Box” and “Aragón,” in which Verzola displays “swirling colors in formations like what I see walking down the street.” In the playful and sultry “Zambra Gitana,” he turns up the heat with one-on-one passion. And in the closing “Yo Te Quiero Siempre,” the forever love of the title sheds a moonlight sheen on a couple’s parting, their magnetism strong yet having to yield to outside forces.
As “Sentimiento” sails on currents stirred by love and locale, Verzola charts a unified course through the suite, a compositional form he admires in Robbins—and not just in the ready-made drama of “West Side Story Suite,” where forbidden passion and clan clashes hark back to “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I take a lot of inspiration from Robbins’ Chopin piano pieces like ‘Dances at a Gathering,’ with characters coming in and out but with cohesion,” Verzola confesses. But he insists innovation must come through a present-day stance. “Identifying as a queer choreographer means a lot to me,” he makes clear. “To also represent love between two men—with power and masculine energy but also tenderness—honors classical ballet by helping it progress.”
Just so “Sentimiento” embraces a romantic male duet in “San Francisco El Grande,” tracing the steps of a union seemingly sanctified by the bell-like sonorities of the music, descriptive of an 18th-century basilica in Madrid. As the titles of many of his works indicate, Lecuona, who was gay and died in exile in 1963, drew his art—similar to the choreographer—from impressive sites as well as the sighs of people in love.
“Each scene in my ballet is distinct, and the intricacy of the music takes us to different places,” says Verzola. “But I’d like for audiences, in that range of emotions, to find their own stories.”
WHAT: Miami City Ballet’s “Fresh & Fierce”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 14 and 15; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 16.
WHERE: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 21, 22; 2 p.m. Saturday, April 22; 1 p.m. Sunday, April 23, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Also, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 29; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 30, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
COST: $39, $40, $79, $115, $189, depending on show time and venue.
INFORMATION: 305-929-7010 or miamicityballet.org