Toby Lerner Ansin’s Life In the Ballet
By Michelle F. Solomon
What do you give the philanthropist who is more about giving than receiving? For Toby Lerner Ansin’s 75th birthday on January 3, her family couldn’t have selected a more perfect gift. The Ansin Foundation underwrote the acquisition of New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit,” which Miami City Ballet will premiere as part of its 30th anniversary season on February 12, 2016.
“Justin Peck is like George Balanchine,” says Ansin. “Every time you see their choreography and, depending on where you sit when you watch the ballet, you’ll take away something different.” Which is why, when she attends opening weekend of “Year of the Rabbit,” she’ll do her “routine.” She says she’ll sit in her box seats for the Sunday matinee when she takes her four granddaughters for their girls’ day out. For Friday and Saturday performances, Ansin sits in orchestra seats. “When you see the ballet in a box seat or mezzanine you have a totally different experience than when you view it from an orchestra seat,” she advises.
For the woman who wanted to be a ballerina but gave up the dream at 14 when “I looked into the mirror and said, ‘It isn’t going to happen, I have no talent or technique,” watching a ballet is more than the presentation, especially when it comes to Miami City Ballet. Each time she gets filled with a genuine sense of pride.
“When the orchestra starts playing and the curtain comes up and I see the whole production, I realize where we’ve come,” says Ansin, the founder of Miami City Ballet. She speaks about the day the seed for MCB was planted as if it were yesterday. “I met David Eden and he was the one who expressed to me that Miami was never going to have world class dance unless it had a ballet company. And he said, ” ‘You’re going to be the one to do it.’ Of course, I laughed.” He told me I had to meet Edward Villella, celebrated New York City Ballet star, and so he arranged for us to meet. It was May 14, 1985 when Edward came to my home. He sat at the dining room table and he laid out a ten-year plan of how you put together a ballet company. Before he left he said to me, ‘Before we were talking ideas, now we’re talking business.’ And I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Villella. In a few months we’re going to announce a ballet company.’ To this day, I have no idea why I said it, but I did.”
With $7,000 from contributions – “I got on the phone and called everyone I knew,” she says – Ansin got the money to bring Villella to Miami to begin the company.
She describes layers upon layers of stories from those early years. “It really wasn’t work. I’m sure I was working 24/7, but it was exciting and you were creating.” She remembers funny stories, too, and laughs before she even tells them. The visionary philanthropist has the gift of a storyteller and is able to put bring you right back with her in a New York audition hall. “We auditioned about 300 dancers and a few of us were helping Edward. We made the numbers that would identify each dancer – 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. Well, the problem was we didn’t use the right kind of pen, so when the dancers perspired all the numbers ran.” She lets out a hearty laugh.
But there was work in those early days of the ballet. Ansin found a place for the fledgling ballet’s home. She approached Stanley and Elaine Levine, owners of the space that housed the former Bonwit Teller department store on Lincoln Road, and was able to get the company a low rent space. “We had mostly 40 year olds on the board who loved ballet. I was 40 at the time. And they were hardworking and they would fundraise and get in-kind services. When we got the studio, they came in with hammers and paint and we rolled up our sleeves and we put pennies under the floor for good luck.”
In its second season debut, the ballet company was, as one writer said in 1987, “a $4 million fixture in the city’s cultural consciousness.” Now MCB is firmly fixed. It has a $17 million budget with Artistic Director Lourdes Lopez leading the expansion of the ballet into debuting commissioned works and touring outside of Florida including the company dancing at Lincoln Center April 13 through 17.
Ansin says although she is thrilled for the success of the ballet and other causes she supports, her philanthropy is built on instinct. She just “does,” she says: “The quality that I had was the ability to know what I could do, what I couldn’t do and I was blessed that I knew how to find the right people to do what I couldn’t do and get them to do it.” She laughs at the roundabout way she lays out her successful strategy, but it’s true. “And that’s what happened with the ballet. And it grew and grew and grew. People like Mark Steinberg and Stuart Danoff and Rhoda Levitt and Roz Richter and Susan Fox-Rossellini and that whole cast of early supporters. They are really the people that made the Miami City Ballet. I was just the catalyst.”
She remains active in ensuring MCB’s financial success although she says, she “doesn’t have the time for starting new projects like she did when she was in her 40s.” She’s spearheading a campaign in honor of her birthday. “It’s a fundraiser to keep our dancers on their toes. I’m asking everyone who wants to wish me a happy birthday to donate $75 in honor of my 75th birthday for toe shoes for the dancers.”
Ansin says she’ll stay committed to keeping the foundation of the ballet strong as long as she is able. These days, she wants to spend more time with her grandchildren. However: “My support for the ballet will never waver. I want to support Lourdes’s vision and we are working on developing an endowment for the ballet. I want to do everything I can to make sure Miami City Ballet is here forever.”