Edward Villella in George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son
Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “New York City Ballet – Publicity photo Patricia McBride and Edward Villella on the balcony of the unfinished New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, in “Tarantella” costume, choreography by George Balanchine (New York)” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1964. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5baf78c0-2565-0132-8aa0-58d385a7b928
Edward Villella, The Prodigal Son. Photographer unknown.
Edward Villella and Patricia McBride
Enter. Edward Villella, former dancer and artist of The New York City Ballet. Who has not heard of Edward Villella? Well, 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. A little older, yes, but not less handsome or engaging, intelligent, or talkative, than other dancer’s of the era, who, now mature in years, seem to have something to say, not merely saying something. He does a little jazz shuffle, entering stage right, and up onto the podium, clearly happy to be there, and talk about his passion-dance with the assembled fans-a full house.
This discussion, led on by Jennifer Homans of The Center For Ballet and the Arts, and author of Apollo’s Angels, didn’t need much prodding; he was as ready as ever to discuss his viewpoints and perspective, stories, management, recent choreography, and directorship, as well as 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. Homan’s 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 there already, by what has been, to preserve this information and knowledge, add to it, share it, and possibly look into the future of what may be, bringing with it a discussion of the past, and examples. It was in all an interesting and inspiring evening as expected, particularly with the guest last night. A short q&a and a reception followed. Edward Villella talked about his history with Balanchine and three short video segments gave dancing interludes to the dialogue, reminding the participants that Balanchine was intricate, musical, and an artist/director, who employed artists and gave them opportunity to expand when they seemed ripe and ready, encouraging them to make their own statements, and to imbue each role with their complete and own take and style, 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 their own way. It expanded on the intricacy and layers of the ballets, and you felt it, and were inspired by his stories, descriptions and development of roles, and how ballet really is of the moment, and what seems to be missing nowadays largely, in part, is the passion he brought to the ballet, with his fellow dancers, and how inspirational Balanchine was to them, that impact, and how it is not observable today in many cases. Ms. Homan’s commented on how many of those movements, even may be being lost-a concern of everyone important in the dance world-was also of the moment and you feel something she wants to bring about, a larger vocabulary of dance, 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 repeated and interwoven in his short speeches by past history and example. And this, he explained was his art, his passion, his whole life, and that which, despite a break of nearly four years, due to pressure not to be a male ballet dancer by his father, an attempted other profession, left him thinking only of dancing, so he abandoned a future desired by others for his own pursuit of dance; maybe partially because of George Balanchine was inspiration personified, and he provided this to his dancers to perform their best and to continue.
Edward Villella is part of the iconoclasm of American Ballet and that legacy of artists, muses, composers, visionaries, etc., “geniuses”, Balanchine among them, carefully assembled and cultivated, by Balanchine and Kirstein, et al., into a New York City ‘local ballet company’ which would serve New Yorkers’ and the world, more dutifully and consistently, than many public or government office holders did, for the last many decades, now nearly a century. Art is part of the fabric of New York, and not least among those provided services, is ballet. But how he is at odds with the current ballet mindset and panorama clearly and quickly becomes apparent as Mr. Villella is eager to live up to his own self-given mission to give not only his opinions, viewpoint and perspectives fueled by a life lived in the arts, but to also voice his considerable concerns for the future, by example, comparing and contrasting those myriad differences. 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 but engaging and informative, personal history. It is laid out in advance of the evening, how his point of departure was different from anyone else’s, though he never boasts this, directly, Ms, Homan’s accentuates this by giving her own opinions, too, and asking direct questions in a nice self-effacing way, without apologizing for them. in this way, the discussion seems frank enough. He instead 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, and what, he thinks, obviously, is very serious undertaking this actually is, and to whom he is obligated to do this, why, and how. I am not sure if the questions or directives were laid out in advance, but it went along more smoothly and with less pomposity than any of these lectures I have attended (almost).
He is not sure of the present mindset of younger dancers set in this role and seems desirous to reach them, and teach them, and he effectively communicated this need and its importance. A few dancers sit, in the audience, aloof, somewhat overwhelmed or intimidated, I would imagine. We are definitely not sure this person can handle that pressure or position, especially after viewing the videos, one in which Mr. Villella is at his point of collapse and other tests of physical endurance. It was really quite moving. Perhaps, it takes years of maturity and reflection, and not the silver spoon mentality students have today, to appreciate other’s humble beginnings, their embraceable luck and good fortune, and what exactly this all means, and the fact that they, too, are older and wiser today. Maybe they will learn, if you 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 acting, art, music and performance. It’s already there, but you must discover this for yourself.
Though not much of the laborious schedule and rigors of ballet under Balanchine, were discussed, Tanny LaClerq’s death, or the changes at the company, but the video segments, and what we already know of his physical accomplishments, stamina, verve, and bravado are common history to us older folk, younger audiences might feel this is 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 psyche seemed to say? It was the narrow margin of art versus the talented, but absent, unmusical, shallow and competitive performer of today which he obviously chastises, and this is repeated in many interviews of former greats, but was handled differently here. Instead of limiting his listeners, he gave them confidence to see exactly how this might be accomplished, a directive. It was not surprising to see it here, but it is always a plus to have it underlined, each time, in the artist’s inimitable way-they never shirk from the responsibility and openness to lay it on the line, despite some people’s aversion to hearing it. But, Mr. Villella’s wisdom was much more gentle and urging. 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 if he was going to be a dancer, and 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, speed, stamina, strength and agility, such as you might expect to see at a sporting event, but of art instead-that art could be exciting, death-defying, and a real punch in the face as well. Art for the he-man, the boxer, the street kid, 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 one point he wanted to make, needed to make himself, to find acceptance from his own father, so is expert at. He is obviously a skilled teacher and supporter of education and youth.
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 is clear from his perspective at least, that Balanchine’s suggestions to his artists invoked the best performances from them, and as he 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 he seemed to be saying and is evident, at least, in their admiration for him, the wide acceptance and repeating of his works, and the way his legacy is carried on by his proteges. No where else is this more apparent than The New York City Ballet. He had the gift of the power of using psychology, music, spectacle, different genres of dance, and hype, to create magic and everyone in his factory were living their dreams, and part of that super-reality, and theatricality involving bringing to life deeper levels of experiences to increase human understanding. It is also very clear that the audience and their response was elemental to this process, the final countdown. Mr. Villella’s jumps were always just a tad higher, and his movements slightly more intense and large, and his acting it’s best, on stage, a performer of the highest caliber. Balanchine clearly knew how to illicit these performances from his artists, and they alone see this, now, because they continue to share their unique perspective of this man, perhaps the organization’s most valuable asset is its dancers. It is also of major importance to younger dancers, and the future of ballet, in exactly what is passed on in ballet, by them, with many other things as well, only they can teach. You definitely got the feeling that he feared for this future. But, Edward Villella remains one of the very few tangible ‘elite’, even of those days and that era, when dancers were great actors and performers, and worked their hardest for you day and night, it seems. The New York City Ballet is still, one of the foremost companies in the world and the U.S’s greatest ballet company, despite it’s obvious differences with other company’s structure.
He would never describe himself this way, a “jumper,” he says, as though in all the roles he danced in, this was the reason he was selected, how he was featured, why, and his main “selling point.” All the dancer’s then, were encouraged to think as a group, but it was plain to us, the audience, why this charismatic and exciting performer was featured so often, maybe not enough if public videos serve right. But to my mind, his acting, his masculinity, stamina, and bravado were, at the time, unmatched, and truly, unique. The public, because of Edward Villella, began to view ballet differently, and began to attend ballet by the thousands, at least in New York; and his impression, 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. 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 he 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, and elsewhere, etc., and not all of them shine in exactly the same or numerous ways in them, that Edward Villella did.
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, not so many after the 1980’s were able to perform them as imaginatively or as well. 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 tour, and is making up for lost time, by putting forth his presence and knowledge today, sharing with others and 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 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 all of these roles, and Balanchine’s choreography are described in the the sense of a choreographer’s role to not create a stamped role for a performer, but to give the performer the chance to ‘discover’ by inspiring the dancer, suggest, and to individualize his approach to a role, and in such a way, that the line where the choreography, music and dancer or artist begin, as well as the live impact or performance, is nearly invisible or become one unique blend-a moment in time, “dated” he says, possibly, but rife with meaning and ‘great things’. He does not think, and this is my interpretation, that performers today, work hard enough, take it 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(!), and 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, and to encourage dancers to dig deeper into the legacy and history of the art of ballet, art and culture 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, and also criticized 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, and as a reason art itself suffers, and 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 Balanchine 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, our impressions, our versions, even if wrong, it opens discussions about it, if only to correct, or argue-it is something, besides dry critiques, tweets, and posts. All in all, this was a very enjoyable, provocative, and as you can see INSPIRING evening, well spent, in the company of Mr. Villella, et al. Thank you very much Center For The Ballet and the Arts.
To find out more about their objectives, programs and even possible excerpts from this evening, visit https://balletcenter.nyu.edu/
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)
Videoed segments of interviews and background
#1-3 The Man Who Dances
Ballet’s Greatest Hits Featurette: Edward Villella
Lolita Khosla. A&E Revue: Edward Villella
Other published articles and references:
Dancing for Mr. B, and Everything After by Roslyn Sulcas (NYT)
“Bitter Departure for Miami’s Ballet Patriarch” by Daniel J. Wakin (Nov. 13, 2011 NYT)
Dance Heritage Collection: Edward Villella by Lisa Traiger
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
KEEP ON DANCING!