December 22, 2014

In the Company of Villella

Edward Villella may just have gone through a difficult time at the dentist's office, having his wisdom teeth pulled, but it doesn't stop him from showing up for a full day's work at his Miami City Ballet office, or from being gracious to an interviewer.

After all, Villella is used to pain. Throughout his long career as the first American-born male star of the New York City Ballet, he endured excruciating muscle cramps, inevitable injuries and eventually hip replacement surgery. All of that, as well as his artistic triumphs in pieces including "Prodigal Son," "Dances at a Gathering" and the "Rubies" section of George Balanchine's famed "Jewels" is detailed in his memoir, "Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic," which was published in 1992.

It isn't the pain audiences have remembered over the years, but the beauty and the dazzling athletic energy of his performances. And Naples audiences are among those who've delighted to performances by the Miami City Ballet, the company for which Villella has been artistic director since its inception 16 years ago. The dance company regularly presents a season at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts each winter and spring, climaxing this month with a world premiere of Villella's latest work of choreography in the "Neighborhood Ballroom" series he's been creating for the past few seasons.

The MCB has been highly acclaimed under Villella's leadership. The New York Times' Jennifer Dunning has declared that the "Miami City Ballet is one of the great successes of late 20th-century American ballet." Says The Washington Post's Lisa Traiger: "Its [the MCB's] 46 dancers have so thoroughly assimilated the neoclassical style of George Balanchine that it is frequently hailed as the finest living repository of the master choreographer's legacy."

Certainly that was Villella's intention when he first began to live and work in Miami. "After I stopped dancing, I used to lecture and take dancers with me around the country," says the soft-spoken Villella, casually sipping borscht in his third floor office in the MCB's new headquarters (designed by Bernardo Fort-Brescia of ARQ, formerly ARQUITECTONICA), located in an area of Miami Beach known as Collins Park which is undergoing revitalization. "My last stop on one junket was here in Miami, and four or five people came up to me and said they would like to start a ballet company and asked if I would advise and consult. I said, sure."

What that agreement led to was Villella's decision to head the new company, despite his early claim that "I'm a New Yorker. I would never leave New York." He changed his mind after talking with his wife Linda, a former championship ice skater who now serves as director of the Miami City Ballet School. "She asked me, 'Is this going to work?'" he recalls. "And I said, looking at the figures of 1,000 people every day moving to South Florida from New York, New Jersey, Chicago-places where they were used to seeing fine dance companies-that, yes, it would. So we agreed to come down and try it."

Villella's fledgling company began in 1985 with 19 dancers and, he says, "an understanding that our aesthetic would be the 20th-century dance epitomized by Balanchine and [Jerome] Robbins. It was my intention to bring a new classicism here. We couldn't and wouldn't do the sort of 19th-century spectacle that so many dance audiences have come to expect. In fact, it's only now, this season, that we've done our first 'spectacle,' with 'Giselle.' I wanted to form a real dance audience, and we worked toward that by giving pre-performance talks to give insight into the style and the process."

Audiences in Miami responded enthusiastically, resulting in theMiami City Ballet expanding to include 46 dancers from around the world and approximately 45 non-artistic staff members, with performances not only in Miami and Naples but in Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Broward and occasionally abroad as well. The company also recently moved into those shining new quarters in Collins Park after utilizing an older, smaller building in another part of town for many years.

And the 63,000-square-foot facility is indeed impressive, especially for a dance company. Broad windows on the first floor allow passersby to enjoy the sight of the company's dancers stretching and twirling in rehearsals. Little girls clad in pink leotards and tights pour into the building in the afternoons for Miami School of Ballet classes. And Villella's office, filled with mementos of his long career (including a pair of boxing gloves from his early days as a scrapper in his native Queens and a photo of him and President Clinton at a White House New Year's Eve celebration), is large and comfortable enough for him to spread out in, since his demanding schedule of both artistic and administrative duties practically requires him to live there.

It is, in fact, those administrative tasks that Villella, still trim-looking with that distinctive head of jet-black hair at 65, admits sometimes wear him down. Fund-raising is a constant chore.

"Raising money for bricks and mortar, for this building," says Villella, "was one thing. We hit our major donors for that, and it's hard to go back to them again and ask for money for our operations. And, of course, since 9-11, we're all in a different world. It's very hard for any cultural organization to make it in the best of times, and in the worst of times . We have to double and triple our efforts, and I'm responsible for that. It's my struggle to make that $250,000 payroll every two weeks. Artistically, we're sometimes spoken of in the same breath as the New York City Ballet or the San Francisco Ballet, but they're companies with budgets of $30 to 40 million. We're struggling to have one of $9 or $10 million."

That struggle is complicated by changes in the Miami area population. "There's been an enormous change in Miami in the past few years, lots of political stuff," says Villella. "When we first came here, Miami was the city of the future. Now I've found, since Elian Gonzalez and all that, the city is sometimes looking backward. And as a result many of the people who comprised our audience have moved away. We've basically lost people to Broward and Palm Beach counties. Palm Beach is now our largest-growing audience; we just added another performance of 'Giselle' there."

While those financial concerns may be challenging, it's clear that it's the artistic challenges of heading a major dance company that Villella most enjoys. While rehearsals for "Giselle" go on in one of the building's eight studios and classes in others, he slips into a bright, quiet studio to work with the two dancers who are practicing the "Quick-Step" for the "Neighborhood Ballroom." Communicating easily and empathetically with them, he demonstrates a longtime dancer's understanding of just how to describe the right move. "The knees have to kiss," he tells the couple executing a Charleston-style pas de deux. "It's like you stab the floor with your foot," he tells the male dancer as he pops in a CD playing "Yessir, That's My Baby."

Villella's "Neighborhood Ballroom" (which will be performed in its entirety next season) is part of his ongoing attempt to broaden the company's repertoire and appeal to new audiences who may appreciate pieces with more of a jazz or Broadway background. "A few years ago I opened up the sports section of The New York Times and there was a story about ballroom dancing, that it was potentially an Olympic sport," he recalls. "It intrigued me, and I began to investigate how social dance has reflected the changing periods of this century. I came up with the idea of choreographing four periods and four styles: the slower, more sensual Boston waltz of 1910, the World War I era of the fox trot, the mambo of the '50s, and, with the piece we're rehearsing now, the Jazz Age of the '20s.

"We're indebted to these social dances," he adds, "and we've never said thanks. Because we're classicists, we're accused of being artists, but I believe there were artists working in that idiom. I've found some terrific people to help me, authorities in terms of these styles, and mixed the different flavors to make a meal that's quite palatable."

Overall, Villella's choreographic style owes a debt to his mercurial master, Balanchine. "He presented genius without adornment," he explains. "The great lesson I learned from Balanchine was a respect for art, culture, quality, to always be the best and uncompromising in one's standards. He was the epitome of that."

The other mentor of a young Villella was Jerome Robbins. "Jerry was fascinating, in that he came from the American tradition and was very influenced by the theater and Broadway," says Villella. "And to work with, he was a terrific director. He could accept ideas from you and help you with your acting. Balanchine just built it into the movements and he didn't need you to make a comment. With him you thought about the aesthetics of the choreography, and didn't need much acting."

Villella's first major role for the New York City Ballet was actually in Robbins' setting of Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun," which Robbins later told him was inspired when he saw the teen-aged Villella in a dance studio, bathed by a shaft of sunlight. (That piece will have its company premiere at the Phil this month, along with Stravinsky's Violin Concerto.) And it was another Robbins work, "Watermill," with which Villella officially ended his dancing career, in 1990. As Villella notes, "My dancing career was bookended by Robbins, and in the middle was Balanchine."

Villella works today to educate his dancers in the styles of those two dance titans. "It takes a year to two years to get them comfortable with neoclassicism," he says. "They come from the 19th-century tradition. A lot of European companies hold on to that tradition. American Ballet Theater does, too.

"But I have very willing dancers. I try not to change people but to add to what they already have, in a give-and-take approach. What I have to offer is very specific. You can see it. I'm the boss, but there's mutual respect, I hope. Our dancers really believe in the manner and the signature of the company."

And, citing the relevance of dance in that troubled post 9-11 era, Villella holds fast to a belief in its value. "When we're in a period of darkness, we can provide some light, some hope. We can offer the human spirit, the soul, against the evil of terrorism, murder, the way people abuse religion. We look into those areas of wonder within the human spirit, and what we can develop and evolve into. It's not just entertainment. There's depth to it."