MIAMI (AP) -- Edward Villella, the artistic director who founded the Miami City Ballet and built it into an internationally recognized company, has left sooner than expected, the company announced Tuesday.
Villella, 75, said last year he would retire after the 2012-2013 season ends in April. But ballet officials announced Tuesday that Villella has decided to leave now.
The former New York City Ballet star founded the Miami Beach-based dance company in 1986.
In a statement, officials said Villella "had given the matter a great deal of thought" and decided with the company's executive board to speed the transition to new leadership.
The Cuban-born dancer Lourdes Lopez was set to succeed Villella as artistic director. Ballet officials say Lopez now takes over immediately.
Lopez, who also danced at New York City Ballet, has been the director at New York dance company Morphoses. She arrived in Miami last week to take over the company's ballet school, which had been run by Villella's wife.
Lopez, 53, attended classes and rehearsals Tuesday with the company's professional dancers, said Roberto Santiago, Miami City Ballet's spokesman.
In an email Tuesday to the ballet's staff and roughly 40 dancers, Villella said he was confident that the company would continue to flourish.
He also wrote that he was especially pleased with the acclaim they earned in rare tours in New York and Paris. Villella has said their triumph last summer in Paris was as dear to him as the standing ovations he received from a Soviet audience in Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the statement, Villella and board president Jim Eroncig thanked each other for support and leadership. There's no mention of the angst that has shadowed Villella's departure since his retirement was announced.
Ballet trustee Marvin Ross Friedman said Tuesday that he was leaving, too. Instead of thanking Villella for the Paris tour, a few members of the executive board forced him to resign, Friedman said.
"He created a world-class company, a crown jewel in the pantheon of Miami's cultural assets ... yet he was fired," Friedman said in an email to ballet officials, dancers and board members.
Like other arts companies, Miami City Ballet has struggled through recession and recovery. After the 2009 tour in New York, the company cut eight dancers to save money. The second half of the 2008-2009 season was performed to recorded music because live orchestral music was too costly. An executive director hired last fall to improve fundraising and management was out by the end of June.
Many dancers addressed the board in confusion after Villella's retirement announcement. "It was news that came sort of out of the blue to us, and it seemed to us not happy news. We were trying to get some answers," said principal dancer Jennifer Kronenberg.
Kronenberg said the dancers had been somewhat assured everyone involved was working toward a smooth transition.
Miami City Ballet has brought in Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as a consultant to help financially restructure the company. Kaiser performed similar tasks for the American Ballet Theater and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in the 1990s, though he says the Miami troupe is in better shape than those companies at that time.
"MCB does have to build its marketing profile and improve its fundraising potency, but I would say the same for most American arts organizations," Kaiser said.
Villella declined comment Tuesday. But in a recent interview with The Associated Press, he expressed frustration and disappointment with his impending exit.
Miami never was an ideal place to build a dance company, he said, in spite of its growing population and fundraising potential. He noted the company has always run a deficit.
South Florida also lacks the cultural heritage of major arts destinations such as New York, he said, along with major donors who prioritize arts funding.
"My estimation when I came here was that I was bringing New York to Miami, but Miami has its own manner and fashion, and therein lies a complication," Villella said.
He said he would return to New York and pursue other opportunities in dance.
He was proud to have built a company where he would have liked to dance, despite one regret: "Just my failure to make everybody understand -- and I'm talking about, not only donors and board people, the entire community, all of South Florida -- this is a company that's had standing ovations in L.A., Kennedy Center, Chicago, New York City, Paris. We are known and received better outside of Florida than we are inside of Florida."