Ballet Arizona dancers Natalia Magnicaballi and Astrit Zejnati in 'Play.' Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

Mention Ib Andersen’s name to anyone who attended New York City Ballet during the 1980s and vivid, defining memories come flooding back. Already the youngest male principal ever named by the Royal Danish Ballet, he arrived in 1980 in time for George Balanchine’s final burst of creative genius. Technically prodigious and effortlessly musical, Andersen proved a natural in a wide swath of roles; he was a definitive Apollo and Prodigal Son, eloquent in Square Dance and buoyantly exhilarating in Donizetti Variations.

After a period of freelance chorography and staging works (both Balanchine and full-length classics), Andersen became artistic director of Ballet Arizona in 2000 and quietly began reshaping and upgrading the company, which was founded in 1986. One brief 2004 appearance in the Guggenheim’s Works and Process series showcased a handful of the dancers here in excerpts by Balanchine and Andersen. Since then, positive New York Times reviews of a Balanchine program and Andersen’s ambitious Nutcracker have indicated further positive developments.

Finally, the company has a proper New York showcase, making its Joyce Theater debut in Play, a 90-minute, two-act work Andersen created in 2007 that features 28 of the company’s 35 dancers. The first act is set to music by Mozart, Schubert, Britten and Part while the second is all Stravinsky. As the title suggests, it is a playful exploration of classical dancing. The music creates the continuity as the work progresses through its seven sections.

Speaking by phone recently from Phoenix, Andersen was gently self-deprecating but also clearly proud of the company’s achievements during his 12 years at the helm. He recalled his inauspicious introduction to the multi-faceted job; a week after he arrived, he was told that the company would have to shut down unless they raised $460,000 in 10 days. “We actually managed, in the 11th hour, to do it,” Andersen said. “That was how I started—it was unbelievable.” The company had been through an unstable period and was no longer affiliated with its school (which is now again part of the troupe). Things continued to be financially precarious for a while.

“For the first three years, we did not know how we were going to make every payroll—but we always did. But it was that scary. That I don’t want to go through again; that was really tough.”

Fortunately, while weathering financial storms, Andersen immediately focused on re-making the company artistically. “I must say, I’ve had a very free hand—if I decided to do this or that, it was fine.” He added, with one of his frequent rueful laughs, “Of course, there’s never been any money to do anything!” He himself has staged over a half-dozen full-length productions—most recently Cinderella—while building up a Balanchine repertory of over 20 ballets. He choreographs at least one original work each season, and has added works by Tharp and Wheeldon. Next year, Ballet Arizona will perform its first Ratmansky ballet.

The company’s budget has doubled, and performances in its 2,400-seat home theater (accompanied by the Phoenix Symphony) are well sold, he reports. “Our audience demographic has always included both young and old—a wide spectrum. We’ve been lucky to have that.” He also acknowledges the importance of the live orchestra. “For our full-lengths, we can have 70 people in the pit, which is very unusual for a ballet company these days.” Next January, Ballet Arizona will move into a new home—a former warehouse with seven high-ceilinged studios and a black-box theater.

Diversifying the repertory and cultivating an audience for Balanchine has been “pioneering work,” he said. The need for full-length narrative works is a given, but he has built an audience that will welcome a bracing all-Balanchine program this spring: Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Rubies and Episodes. “It’s all about what audiences are accustomed to watching—and they get used to it,” he said. “With Balanchine, I really think the more you see, the more you really do see and the more you also understand.”

Andersen, who is also an accomplished painter, first choreographed in 1987 for the Royal Danish Ballet, and has never stopped. “It’s very intriguing to me. I feel I’m just scratching the surface. It is time-consuming to do ballets. If you paint, you can do that anywhere. With ballet, it’s expensive; you need the studio time, the place, all that stuff. And as a director, you actually are lucky that you can get that.”

His next project is a site-specific work in collaboration with the Desert Botanical Garden, a major Phoenix destination. He is choreographing for an 80-foot panoramic stage overlooking spectacular vistas. “The setting is unreal,” he said of the daunting project. “It’s like making three ballets at the same time.” And then, speaking like a true artistic director, he added, “It’s a very interesting way to reach a new audience.”

Ballet Arizona
Feb. 22–26, Joyce Theater, 176 8th Ave. (at W. 19th St.), www.joyce.org; $10+.