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VILLELLA AND HIS MIAMI DANCERS TRIUMPH IN PARIS 

 

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 19 OCTOBER 2011 — With packed houses and standing ovations from sophisticated and demanding audiences used to seeing the finest dancers in the world, Miami City Ballet, founded barely 25 years ago, has taken Paris by storm. It has not only become one of the greatest companies in America, but is also one of the most outstanding on the international scene, particularly as regards its interpretation of George Balanchine’s works. With a three-week run of 17 performances of 14 different ballets at the Chatelet Theatre in July, the dancers in this young company won all hearts not only because of their vitality, musicality and deep understanding of what they were doing, but also by their joy of dancing and happiness in just being there, a happiness which audiences found contagious long after they had left the theatre.

The man who runs and founded the troupe in 1986 is Edward Villella, America’s outstanding male ballet star, who was a muse for Balanchine as much as the latter’s famous bevy of long-legged ballerinas. He is a man whose personal warmth, modesty and generosity reach out to his dancers, chosen as much for their compatibility with the group as for their musicality and quality of movement.  


Edward Villella in George Balanchine's Prodigal Son
Photo: Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
© The George Balanchine Trust

"An atmosphere of trust is essential’, Villella told me in Paris, shortly after giving his daily lesson to the company, "and I wish all my dancers to be comfortable talking to me at any time of the day or night. We have no nonsense, we have no politics. I have three to five casts of everything, so everyone has something to work on. A happy dancer is one who has something to dance. And dance is about what goes on in your mind. It’s why I give class because I want the dancers to understand the meaning of what they do and what is expected from them, and I can best explain myself while teaching. We’ve analysed together how we want to work, and much of our way of working comes from Balanchine who invited me to join New York City Ballet in 1957."

Nothing predestined Edward Villella to take up a career in dance. "I grew up in Queens, New York", he told me after class, "in a blue collar area, where my father was a truck driver. I used to run wild, and would regularly return home covered in cuts and bruises, but one day when I was 7, after I’d been knocked out by a baseball bat and was left half unconscious on the doorstep, my mother was so cross she dragged me off to dancing class with my sister. Forced into wearing tights and put at the barre, I was bored to death!"

"I was so embarrassed that I used to put my baseball gear on top of my dance outfit, and creep backwards out of the high-rise where we lived, clutching my cap and gloves, pretending I was off to a baseball match instead of going to point my toes!"

"But things changed when my sister won a scholarship to the American School of Ballet, for when they found out she had a brother who danced too, they exclaimed, a boy! If he can walk, bring him in! And dance became fun. I loved jumping and the atmosphere there was terrific with all these fabulous dancers around, like Maria Tallchief and Melissa Hayden who had such wonderful manners and style. I was very impressed, and began to fall in love with all the physicality."

However, his training was interrupted when his sister decided to quit dance and his father decided it was time he did too, packing him off to military school in Fort Schuyler at the age of 16. He became a boxing champion, a baseball hero, and obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Transportation.

"But my heart was in dance, in what I can only describe as a mind-driven physicality, and after qualifying I went back to the New York City Ballet and Balanchine, which resulted in my father not speaking to me for a year. And then in my second season, after working with Stanley Williams, a wonderful teacher, Balanchine gave me the leading role in three ballets, and my parents came. There they were at the end, in tears in the wings. The three of us just hugged and laughed and cried, so then I had everything; my passion and parental approval." 


New York City Ballet's Allegra Kent and Edward Villella in Bugaku
© The George Balanchine Trust
Photo: Bert Stern

Villella, who was an athletic, powerful and virile dancer with extraordinarily high elevation, went on to create many Balanchinian works, giving up to 300 performances a year over the 20 years of his career there. In 1959, shortly after joining the company, the Russian choreographer revived Prodigal Son for him. Villella, who added grace and beauty to his prodigious natural gifts, was ideally suited to the dramatic central role created some thirty years earlier.

"When I had trouble with the port de bras", he recollected, "Balanchine got exasperated, and muttered ‘Byzantine icons, Byzantine icons’, before leaving abruptly. So off I rushed to get a book on Byzantine icons, and there it was in the photos, the images he wanted! "

An endless list of ballets followed, including Bugaku, Tarantella, Jewels, and Symphony in three movements, and each time Villella learnt to prepare his role. "I was very fortunate to work with a genius like Balanchine", he continued, "He taught me to question who I was and what the ballet was based on. Dance, he told me, is about who you are on stage even in abstract works. One doesn’t perform movements mechanically; you had to know why you were partnering a particular dancer, what the relationship was between you, as well as your relationship to the other dancers on stage, including the corps de ballet.

"I discovered, for example, that Stravinsky composed his Violin Concerto when he was leaving his first wife, and he felt her pain. It echoes his thoughts and so, if you look carefully at Balanchine’s pas de deux, you understand better why the two dancers come together, then part, then come together again. You have to know why you move in a certain way, and why they are behaving like that. So the investigations that I made during the four years I indirectly lost as well as after joining the company and which I still continue today are not only about technique, but are about where these master roles came from and why."


Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Carlos Miguel Guerra in
Jerome Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun
Photo: Miami City Ballet

After retiring from the company in 1979 at the age of 43, Villella gave lectures and taught and while giving a conference in Miami he was asked for advice on starting a ballet company. He worked out several possibilities including ways of raising money and dealing with executive boards, the outcome of which he was invited to found the company himself.

"It was far from obvious", he commented wryly. "How was I to make a company visible and gain an audience? "We started with ten dancers in a city renowned for sun, sea and sand, and where peoples’ interest lay in fishing, clubbing and tennis, and ballroom dancing rather than classical ballet. One of my early ideas was to choreograph a ballet, The Neighborhood Ballroom, covering forty years of American ballroom dancing. And it did draw audiences. It was one of my very rare ventures into choreography, a trap I refused to fall into. Nothing is worse than a mediocre choreographer, and if you are a mediocre choreographer, you should not be running a company…… My premise is that we only do masterwork, and there’s no place for me there."


Edward Villella and Miami City Ballet Dancers
promote The Neighborhood Ballroom
Photo:  © Joe Gato
.

Indeed, the repertoire covers over two hundred years of dance, from the traditional 19th century classics to Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Wheeldon, Balanchine himself, and Jerome Robbins, the choreographer whom Villella inspired to create Afternoon of a Faun.

"It was my first solo", Villella told me, "and it was much later that Robbins explained he’d got the idea of the ballet from me. As a student several years previously, I’d been standing in a shaft of sunlight coming in through one of the studio windows, and he said I’d started to stretch, which gave him the base for his Faun, and was why he asked me to dance it only two weeks after I’d joined the company."

However, the Miami City Ballet excels, as did Villella in the sixties and seventies, with Balanchine’s creations. With Edward Villella’s very special way of transmitting all he learned from the Russian genius, his company illuminates the works even though many of the dancers hail from countries outside the U.S. and never saw the ballets danced as they were in Balanchine’s lifetime. For although some thirty to forty percent of the dancers pass through the Miami school, founded by Villella’s wife, Linda Villella, in 1993, the rest are recruited from Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, France, Venezuela, Switzerland, Puerto Rico and Germany, and completed their early training elsewhere. His daughter, Crista Villella, who trained at the school, is now ballet mistress.


Miami City Ballet dancers in La Valse
© The George Balanchine Trust
Photo: Joe Gato 

"But we are a true repertory company", Villella reminded me. "We grew up with traditional classicism as in Giselle and Swan Lake, and now we’re adding the new classicism, the kind of works that need speed and lightning attacks"

What Villella didn’t mention was the special warmth, freshness, and spirited approach his company gave to everything they danced, and the care given to planning well-balanced programmes. To audiences used to seeing Balanchine danced with the rigorous classical elegance of European companies, it was amazing to see Ballet Imperial, danced with the girls divested of their stiff tutus and unflattering, static grey wigs. The company was totally at ease in the work, reveling in every step as the women in their softly fluid dresses spun and swirled around. There was such joy and verve in movement, the boys soaring across the stage with high, ebullient leaps. It was superbly danced and had an enraptured audience on their feet, cheering wildly.


Mary Carmen Catoya and Renato Penteado in Ballet Imperial
© The George Balanchine Trust
Photo: Joe Gato

The same audience also ovationed Liturgy, created for New York City Ballet by the talented British choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. With its mystical, brooding atmosphere, it is ideally suited to the company and was sublimely interpreted by Katia Carranza and Isanusi Garcia-Rodriguez. The programme was completed by Robbins’ ten minute pas de deux, the softly lyrical Afternoon of a Faun by Robbins, interpreted by Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Carlos Miguel Guerra, and Square Dance, a ballet which I have previously found tedious. But danced by this company it was a light-hearted piece full of charm and invention, demonstrating the troupe’s exuberance and all-American musicality.


Miami City Ballet in George Balanchine's Square Dance
© The George Balanchine Trust
Photo: Kyle Froman

Miami City Ballet and Edward Villella brought a bowl of fresh air to the French capital and happily, plans are already underway for a return visit!

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque. She last wrote:The Bolshoi Ballet in Paris Shows Mixed Results.

Headline Image:  Sacha Newley: Edward Villella , 2005
Oil on linen, 20x20"
Permanent collection, National Portrait Gallery
The Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.
 

External Links: Edward Villella to Step Down From Miami City Ballet(New York Times: 22 September 2011) 

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