Dallas — “We all fall at some point,” says former New York City Ballet dancer Edward Villella. “But I could fall and get up on the music. Once I fell in Stanley Williams’ class and he said, ‘what was that? Did you do that on purpose?’”
Other than a few falls (“always to the music”) metaphorically speaking, Edward Villella has pretty much danced through a long and illustrious life. In recognition of his years as a principal dancer with New York City Ballet (1957-1979) and the founding artistic director of Miami City Ballet (1984-2012), this weekend the North Texas Dance Council will honor him with the Mary Bywaters Award for Lifetime Contribution to Dance.
The honor will happen twice, on both Friday and Saturday nights at the third annual Dallas DanceFest at Dallas City Performance Hall. Along with local and regional dance companies, Kleber Rebello and Jeanette Delgado of the Miami City Ballet will perform in honor of Villella.
Villella turns 80 next month and while he is happy not to “have a job” he occasionally gives master classes and stages Balanchine ballets like Rubies, Prodigal Son, and Tarantella. Last spring he taught ballet class and set Balanchine’s zippy Valse-Fantaisie for Chamberlain Performing Arts.
He flew in from New York the day before the awards ceremony, and sitting in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel in Richardson wearing glasses, a green shirt and black trousers, he talked about the state of ballet, what he had learned from Balanchine and what it was like to be an artistic director.
Balanchine was very abstract, but he could indicate how to hold out your arms at the beginning of Apollo—“like an eagle,” or to do a driving step “like a chariot.”
The major glitch to his career came early: his father insisted that he finish college (he has a degree in marine science), and so he lost four years. His parents were bitterly opposed to his decision to dance. When he was able to join New York City Ballet he was already 21, but very quickly had roles created for him, the first being Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Fawn.
His parents, still unhappy with his career choice, changed their minds when they saw him perform in Symphony in C and Interplay. Years later the formidable dance critic Arlene Croce described her reaction to that performance: “Coming to rest beside his partner, he began an amusing little vamp in plié, then launched into sautés downstage and up, looping the sautés together with a jaunty turn or two en l’air, after which he shot out of sight in a jump that touched off pandemonium.”
“The buzz died down, we settled ourselves expectantly, and then he was back, and the miracle happened again: the unstraining, space-swallowing round of sauté, grand jeté, sauté, sur de basque, the climactic grand jeté off. All just as before, only higher. And grinning like a tiger the whole time,” he says.
But careers for even major artists like Villella don’t last and he attributes his 21-year run with New York City Ballet to the discovery that “big jumps and turns can get you four or five years. You have to develop artistry. And when you really get it,” he says ruefully, “you have a couple of years left.”
After New York City Ballet, he went on to direct Eglevsky Ballet (Long Island) for four years and to advise Ballet Oklahoma for two years, before forming Miami City Ballet, now one of the largest ballet companies in the U.S. “For the first seven years [with Miami City Ballet], the focus was on Balanchine ballets. Balanchine was the most sophisticated artist, and you have to stretch dancers. Ballets like Don Quixote and Giselle are a lot easier than Balanchine’s.”
Directing is taxing: “You have to have a good relationship with the board—and some think they are the artistic directors—the sponsors, the dancers, the public. The dancers are key; without dancers you don’t have a company. If today he says, “I don’t want a job,” that’s understandable. At one point with Miami City Ballet he worked 72 days straight.
Villella acknowledges that dancers today are tremendously accomplished technically, but “artistry is not primary.” “Today young dancers are so seduced by competition it’s easy to burn out. Ballet is not the Olympics.”
As for the future of ballet, it will depend largely on choreographers. “They will take us in new directions. They are the poets.”
This year's 2016 Dance Council Honors will also give awards to Melissa Young, Natalie Skelton Award for Artistic Excellence; Christian Waits, Mary Warner Award for Outstanding Service to Dance; Elizabeth Gillaspy, Larry White Dance Educator Award; and Mary Six Rupert, Buster Cooper Tap Legend Award.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.