Enter. Edward Villella, former dancer and artist of The New York City Ballet. Who has not heard of Edward Villella? Well, until a few years ago it seems like not many of the new generation had, that is, until he built, over several years time, against much opposition, a ballet company in Miami-The Miami Miracle-from the ground up. From then on, we have enjoyed regular articles, references and symposiums featuring him although his videos are still a little scarce. Older, and wiser, but clearly fit, with the same, recognizable posture as Balanchine, D’Amboise, and other former male dancers of the era, steps up Mr. Villella, or “Eddy,” as friends call him. Older, yes, but not less handsome or engaging, intelligent, or talkative, than other dancers of the era who, now mature in years, seem to have something to say, are not merely saying something. He does a little jazz shuffle, entering stage right, and hops up onto the podium, clearly happy to be there, and talk about his passion-dance-with the assembled fans; it’s a full house.
The discussion, led by Jennifer Homans of The Center For Ballet and the Arts at NYU, and author of “Apollo’s Angels”, didn’t need much prodding; Mr. Villella was as ready as ever to discuss his viewpoints and perspective, relate stories, critique management, recent choreography, and his directorship, as well as probe the deeper meanings behind the ballet arts, at least from his position as a premier dancer for The New York City Ballet, when it was at its peak circa 1954-69. Ms. Homans and the Ballet Center have provided these evenings of intimate discussion and reception free of charge as part of their mission to make ballet more recognizable, accessible, and to also discover what is or has been there already and to preserve this information and knowledge, add to it, share it, and possibly look into the future of what may possibly be, by bringing a discussion about of the past, and its examples. It was in all a very interesting and inspiring evening particularly with the guest last night. A short q&a and a reception followed.
Edward Villella talked about his history with Balanchine and shared three short video segments which gave dancing interludes to the dialogue (much as I should do with these photos), reminding the participants that Balanchine was intricate, musical, and an artistic director who employed artists and gave them the opportunity to expand when they seemed ripe and ready, encouraging them to make their own statements, and to imbue each role with their own take and style, and often leaving them, as Mr. Villella put it, to discover what was already there, learn about it, listen to it, bring it out, highlight it, but not to actually create it, only to interpret it in their own way.
Edward expanded on how Balanchine communicated the intricacy and layers of the ballets, described how you felt it, and you were inspired by his stories, descriptions and development of the roles, and how ballet really is of the moment. He also explicated what seems to be missing nowadays is the passion that Balanchine brought to the ballet with his fellow dancers, and how inspirational he was to them, what that impact was like, and how it is not observable today in many cases. Ms. Homans commented on how many of those movements may be being lost-nuances-information-a concern of everyone important in the dance world today. These things were also “of the moment,” need to be recorded, and you feel that this is something that she wants to bring about, a larger vocabulary of dance-for dancers-in a world where colleges are teaching the perfect 15-word email. Know more, think more, be more studious!
This point of search, discovery, fortitude, and especially commitment was repeatedly interwoven in Villella’s short speeches by recalling past history and examples. And this, he explained, was his art, his passion, his whole life, even despite a break of nearly four years as a young man due to pressure by society, and by his father, not to pursue the career of a male ballet dancer (another fully-attempted profession which left him thinking only of dancing). He abandoned a future desired by others for him in order to fulfill his passion for dance; maybe, in part, because of George Balanchine. Mr. B., he made clear, was inspiration personified and he provided this inspiration to his dancers to perform their best and to continue dancing.
Edward Villella is part of the iconoclasm of American Ballet and that legacy of artists, muses, composers, visionaries, etc., the “geniuses” Balanchine’s period, carefully assembled and cultivated by Balanchine, Kirstein, Stravinsky, et al., into a New York City ‘local ballet company’ which would serve New Yorkers and the world more dutifully and consistently, it might be argued, than many public or government office-holders have, for now almost a century. Art is part of the fabric of New York, and not least among those provided services is ballet. But how Mr. Villella seems at odds with the current ballet mindset and panorama clearly and quickly becomes apparent as he is eager to live up to his own self-given mission to give not only his best, but also his opinions, viewpoints and perspectives fueled by a life lived in the arts, and to also voice his considerable concerns for the future, by example, comparing and contrasting those myriad differences from then and today. The audience sees plainly his position as a scholar and spokesperson, aptly done. He then proceeds to narrate, punctuate, clear up, and skillfully guide us through a brief engaging and informative personal history. It is obviously planned, laid out in advance of this evening, how his own point of departure was different from anyone else’s, but he never boasts this directly. Ms, Homans accentuates by giving her own opinions, too, and asking direct questions in a nice self-effacing way, without apologizing for them. The discussion seems frank enough. He expresses just how thankful he was to have the opportunities to dance the parts he did, and how amazed he was that Mr. Balanchine gave him the parts he did to work with, to create, and how this is his responsibility, and that of others, to pass on, what he thinks is, a very serious undertaking.
He said he was not sure of the present mindset of younger dancers being given this role and he seems desirous to reach them, and teach them, and he stressed this need and its importance. A few recognizable young dancers from NYCB sit in the audience, aloof, somewhat overwhelmed and intimidated, I would imagine by their responses. We are definitely not sure these people are aware how much is vested in them, or can handle that pressure or position, or even care-especially after viewing his videos, in one of which Mr. Villella is at the point of physical collapse due to his dancing exertions; he pushed himself to the limits of physical endurance. It was really quite moving. Perhaps, it is only the difference of years of maturity and reflection to cast this formidable shadow, but one cannot picture these students with the silver spoon mentality even reaching that juncture. What students have today is the inability to appreciate some other dancer’s humble beginnings, immense talent, and fire, but they do not fail to appreciate their own embraceable luck and good fortune. They do not understand what exactly this all means to the people who have been before them-what they will have to pass on, live up to. Maybe they will learn, if they try. You get the feeling that, if possible, Mr. Villella is not going to let them slip away without considering his proposition and challenge. His emphasis is that you bring technical ability and you learn the rest: acting, art, music and performance. The picture and responsibility get bigger, not smaller, not easier. It’s already there, but you must discover “it” for yourself.
Though not much of the laborious schedule and rigors of ballet under Balanchine were discussed, Tanny LaClerq’s death, the females of the NYCB, other male dancers, or the recent changes at the company, but the emphasis on his opinion was as clear as a bell. Afterall that is what we usually hope to see and hear, and we don’t usually, so we come to expect the worst from the best. But have you ever-could you ever-doubt Edward Villella? Doubt that he would deliver? He never fails. It was an honor and a privilege. Video segments are what we know of his previous accomplishments, unless we lived in that era-his unique physical accomplishments, his dynamic was different, his remarkable stamina, verve and bravado, are evident in some of those videos, our common history of ballet to us older folk, but to younger audiences this might seem extreme, a little too hard, too much, and too fatiguing. But what is there to dance if the spirit is not in it? Why are you here, his whole body seemed to say. It was the narrow margin of art versus the talented, but absent, unmusical, shallow and competitive performer of today-the poser- which Villella obviously chastises, and puts up for discussion and exhibition by saying, “this is what we don’t do” by showing dancers, “this is what you do.” There is nothing in between, or so it would seem, for Edward Villella. This could be similarly expressed by many great dancers of the past, is repeated in many interviews of former great dancers, but was handled differently here by a living legend.
Instead of limiting his listeners by these evidentiary great videos, he also gave them verbal assurances and confidence to see exactly how this might be accomplished firsthand, a directive, a mission. It was not surprising to see it attempted again, but it was handled differently, expertly. No artist’s message, expressed in their own inimitable way could fail to make it clear, and none of them (really) ever shirk the duty of the confidence, from their responsibility and openness to lay it on the line, despite some people’s aversion to hearing it, we understand their missive. But, Mr. Villella’s wisdom was much more gentle and urging. His points were clearer and accentuated with proof by example, and that, so many of the other artists of today cannot demonstrate. There is a world of difference in the actions. Mr. Villella’s actions just speak louder than anyone else’s I’ve heard. His examples are better. He truly practices what he preaches and he doesn’t preach much.
Much has been heard about Mr. Villella’s troubles, fatigue, exhaustion, injuries, and his unrivaled performances, which in my opinion, were all the more brilliant because it seems that if he was going to be a dancer, defy his father’s wishes, he had to be the greatest male dancer of his era, and possibly he was. He adds, that a lot of that was PR, played up, by the media, to show he was a rare performer to see, to promote the ballet, make it news, as a world-class performance of dancing. He claimed that his reputed speed, stamina, strength and agility, such as you might expect to see at a sporting event, were fabricated, but then you see the videos and remember. But he doesnt come across as insincere. But what of art? Perhaps he, like many other dancers always feel lacking, they don’t know the stories today, maybe they don’t seem believable. But looking at him in those roles, I would believe. I would! His attotude seemed to be that art could be exciting, death-defying, and a real punch in the face as well as all the rest. He brought it to life for generations of ballet-goers. Art for the he-man, the boxer, the street kid, the thug, the athlete-and Mr. Villella, was at one time or the other, all of those things. A regular guy, a New Yorker. He points out that he is married, has a wife-that ballet is not for sissies, but for real men, too, and family men, with family values. He makes ballet accessible for everyone. Maybe in his life his real ability, and he needed it to make a point to himself, in order to find acceptance from his own father, to keep an audience glued to their seats, and became one of the best at, was his ability to reach people-to communicate-he is expert at reaching people. He is obviously a skilled teacher and supporter of education and youth, and dance.
Maybe Balanchine played on Villella’s own personal conflicts, in selecting roles for him, those involving a father, because he knew this was in Edward’s vocabulary, his nomenclature, to state and to express it. It is clear from his perspective at least, that Balanchine’s suggestions to his artists invoked the best performances from them, and Villella said, “he knew you, he was a genius.” He gave praise, he thanked, he was lovable, and no wonder his dancer’s tried very hard to please him, or so Edward seemed to be saying, and is evident in all their admiration for him, the wide acceptance and repeating of his works, and the way his legacy is carried on by his proteges. Nowhere else is this more apparent than The New York City Ballet, or was, even though it is purported that more Balanchine works are performed in Europe than in the US. Balanchine had the gift of being able to use psychology, music, spectacle, different genres of dance, and hype, to create magic and everyone at his factory were in reality living their dreams. Part of that super-reality mixed with theatricality involved bringing to life ballets which demonstrated deeper and deeper levels of emotion brought about by human experiences to increase human understanding. Is that is what is being done today at the NYCB?
It is also very clear that the audience and their response was elemental to this process, the final countdown. But they were conditioned to expect greatness by Balanchine-not the reverse. Mr. Villella’s jumps were always just a tad higher, and his movements slightly more intense and large, and his acting at its best onstage, a performer of the highest caliber. Balanchine clearly knew how to elicit these performances from his artists, how to discipline them, and how to train them. Do they alone see this now, appreciate this, because without a force like him, they cannot recreate his masterpieces. Yet, they continue to share their unique perspective of this man, perhaps the organization’s most valuable asset is its dancers, and it should be the dance. It is also of major importance to younger dancers, and the future of ballet, to see exactly what is passed on in ballet, with many other things as well, and only they can teach. So why aren’t they all there? You definitely got the feeling that he feared for this future. But, Edward Villella remains one of the very few tangible ‘elite’ even if you catchphrase it as an “era”, those dancers dreamed of even greater things. It was hard work, day and night, for you the public and for Mr. B, whom they all sought to please. The New York City Ballet is still one of the foremost companies in the world attached to the major education division of ballet in this country, and therefore is the U.S.’s greatest ballet company. Perhaps the artists and director of that company needed to hear this talk even more than the audience did.
Edward Villella said that he would never describe himself this way, a “jumper,” he says, as though in all the roles he danced in this was the perceived reason he was selected, how he was featured, why, and his main “selling point.” He did not, was not made to, see himself this way. All the dancers were encouraged to think as a group, then. But it was plain to us, to the audience, why this charismatic and exciting performer was featured so often-maybe not enough if public videos serve right. His acting was exciting, his masculinity and energy palpable, his stamina was fatiguing just to watch, and he had bravado in spades. At that time, by dancers in this country, he was truly unmatched, and unique. Ironically, he remains alone today in that regard to a large extent. If memory serves there were many unheralded fine dancers of that institution, and where are they today? They are needed to reinforce the ideals of American ballet. The public, everyday people. because of Edward Villella, began to view ballet differently. They began to attend ballet performances in overwhelming and unprecedented numbers. He sold tickets! His impression was felt across the country, through tv, and by description, by millions of people in their homes, and ballets became popular-attendance was up!
He made an impact around the world, too, but in America, where he was needed most, he did the most good for our ballet. His presence must have been felt too, in Russia, and London, and the rest of the world, where later dancers followed his path exactly, seemly inadvertently, benefiting from the swathe he tore. It became a competition-he was not the man to follow. He was not only a major star of ballet in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he paved the way for others, such as Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, to appear in the the forefront of future ballet productions, in roles he had made famous, and increasingly made more famous in those ballets over a long career, and which he alone performed, often, when others were out due to injury, staples of The New York City Ballet and the world. As Edward Villella says, although these roles were worked on him, their difficulties are evident in the lack of ability of most performers to do them today, with perhaps the exception of a few similar stars, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Daniel Ulbricht, and some of the dancers Edward Villella has trained himself, such as at The Miami City Ballet, possibly. Not all of them shine in exactly the same or numerous ways in them, that Edward Villella did, or they would be household names.
Consequently, the search for dancers to recreate his original roles, brought us dancers of the same ilk, and then Russian, gradually, since the late 60’s-70’s, and not so many after the 1980’s were able to perform them as imaginatively or as well as he did at all. Now it is a feat just to teach and stage some of them once per year or decade. Edward Villella did them every night. He was a blueprint for what made ballet acceptable to major audiences in the public sense, what was to be expected, and allowed, and he set the barre higher, though he probably did not realize it at the time. No wonder so many of them fall short of it today! Now he does a tour, making up for lost time, by putting forth his presence and knowledge today and sharing that with others, letting people know that he is more than willing, anxious even, to convey those secrets to young hopefuls, companies, and audiences. Edward Villella was really one of the first American male dancers, along with Jacques D’Amboise, and others, who set the stage for an American prototype of the male ballet dancer, with the help of a Russian choreographer and composer, Balanchine and Stravinsky. The videos and discussion also included : an excerpt of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream with Villella as Oberon, Jewels (Rubies tcherzo-furioso, specifically), and discussions of The Prodigal Son, Agon/Apollo, and a few of his other roles (Sleeping Beauty, Scotch Symphony, Nutcracker) were alluded to, including some I have never heard of, such as Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, which had a deeper meaning for Villella (he says) too. But to Villella, all of these roles, and Balanchine’s choreography, are conveyed with the caveat that the choreographer’s role is not to create a stamped role for a performer, but is the role of a teacher- to give the performer the chance to ‘discover’ it himself. By inspiring the dancer, suggesting, and individualizing his approach to a role, and so that the line where the choreography, music and dancer or artist begin, as well as the live impact or performance, is nearly invisible or becomes one unique blend or “a moment in time.” “Dated” Villella says, possibly, but rife with meaning and ‘great things’. Mr. V does not think, and this is my interpretation, that performers today work hard enough, take ballet seriously enough, or convey enough emotion or passion in their dancing. I think this is perhaps the most important thing he said last night.
Several times, he spoke of his concern today, for Balanchine ballets, the loss of their details, and the ignoring of the many layers of his productions, the dancer’s lack of investigation and art, even ability to dance(!). He also spoke of his desire to work on coaching and teaching these things, passing down those details to new dancers and entire companies, successfully, as he has tried to do with Miami City Ballet. He wants to encourage ALL dancers to dig deeper into the legacy and history of the art of ballet, art and cultural history, to discover new meanings relevant to them, and to today, seek to convey more to the audience, not less, and to especially add something besides a smile, behind which, apparently, lies “nothing.” He repeated these warnings and concerns often, also criticizing the current mode of the backers of the art, critics, and board members, in taking the egotistical ‘front seat’ ahead of the art of ballet. He said in some ways for this reason alone “art suffers”, and a little of his particular problems with Miami Ballet in general, but also other institutions.
He is a Balanchine expert, and despite his many other performances, roles, and directorships, he remains a student of Balanchine, so why would they hire him if they didn’t want the Balanchine/Villella influence? This also emphasizes the need for organizations and individuals to do their research before pursuing a line of art they do not understand and he feels we all, they all, need to know more. We do, and we need to communicate about it more, not just in pictures, but in words, and in art-our impressions, our versions, even if we’re wrong, it opens discussions about it, if only to correct, or argue-it is something. SOmething is always better than nothing. Always. Dry critiques, tweets, and posts do not do art justice. All in all, this was a very enjoyable, provocative evening well-spent, and as you can see, INSPIRING. Spent in the company of one of my life-long favorite dancers, Mr. Edward Villella. Thank you very much Center For The Ballet and the Arts and readers of Mysylph.
To find out more about Edward Villella, read his book Villella, Edward, with Larry Kaplan. Prodigal Son. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Levin, Jordan. (another is in the works concerning the “two” Golden Ages of Ballet-one being ‘George Balanchine’s’ age, the other the previously known of Russia)
To see an introspective grouping of performance and rehearsal photographs which often deliver the ‘moment’ in many productions, please visit The Billy Rose Theatre Division Collection at The New York Public Library. Search term: ‘Edward Villella.’ The New York Public Library Digital Collections
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