A baseball player and championship boxer in college, Edward Villella of Bayside, Queens became a member of the New York City Ballet in 1957, rising quickly to soloist in 1958 and principal dancer in 1960. Among his most noteworthy performances in George Balanchine’s ballets were as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tarantella, Rubies, and the title role in Prodigal Son.
Villella was the first American male dancer to appear with the Royal Danish Ballet and the only American ever asked to dance an encore at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. He danced at Kennedy’s inaugural and performed for Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. He danced in televised versions of The Nutcracker, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Brigadoon and won an Emmy Award in 1975 for his production of Harlequinade for CBS. During the 1960s he and his dancing partner Patricia McBride appeared often on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1983, Villella guest-starred on the soap opera Guiding Light.
After retirement as a performer, Villella was the artistic coordinator of the Eglevsky Ballet from 1979-84 and the director of the Oklahoma Ballet from 1983-85. He founded the Miami City Ballet in 1986 and still serves as its Artistic Director and CEO.
Villella received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1997 and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton. Miami City Ballet performs next weekend at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.
Hi Edward, this is Zac Whittenburg, I’m calling you from Chicago. How are you?
Well, I just got off a plane so I’m a bit, I’m a little punchy.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. This is going to be Miami City Ballet’s first visit to Chicago — is this the first time the company has arranged a tour here or have you made previous attempts to visit that have fallen through for some reason?
No, no, we had many years ago performed at Ravinia, but that’s as close as we got to Chicago — we’re very excited and happy to be going to Chicago proper.
You’re part of a big season for the Auditorium and you’re opening it up for them — it should be quite exciting next weekend.
Yeah, I have fond memories of that place. I was with the New York City Ballet when it reopened, that theater, many many years ago, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
You must’ve been dancing Oberon.
Yes, I was.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about the program you’re bringing here. First of all, you’ve got Symphony in Three Movements. It’s been said that the ballet was inspired by World War Two in addition to Stravinsky’s score. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that means for you and whether this attribution, or this idea, comes into play in how you have restaged the piece.
Well, first of all, I had the pleasure of being in the premiere: I was the original Protagonist in the pas de deux lo these many years ago. It’s based on Stravinsky’s score, which was written in the mid-1940s from his reminiscences of the Second World War. Of course, Stravinsky and Balanchine were major collaborators and Balanchine eventually addressed that piece and gave us physicalization of the Stravinsky music and Balanchine, in his inimitable style and manner, reduced the obvious in — how can I put this — a neoclassical sense of taking a major idea and extracting it, which is sort of the basis of Balanchine’s neoclassicism: taking a very large idea and reducing it to its essence and, thereby, approaching poetry. As Balanchine was fond of saying, “dance is poetry of gesture.” So it was obvious that the basis of that work would follow the Stravinsky score and thus his reminiscences of the war.
What about your experiences as an original cast member, someone who was present during the creation of the work — do you repeat stories or imagery that Mr. Balanchine would speak of as he was creating the piece?
Yes. As a matter of fact, in one section of the pas de deux, he encouraged me to think of it in terms of a helicopter. And there are other references, to searchlights, to explosions, to marches, to aggressiveness. It’s an abstraction of all of those areas and elements.
Helicopters and searchlights and explosions — those are wartime images for sure. As far as Valse Fantaisie is concerned, then, it’s notable that Miami City Ballet chooses to perform the 1953 version of the ballet. Is there a specific reason or motivation behind the presentation of this version as opposed to the 1967 choreography (from Glinkiana)?
Uh, yes — I prefer the ’53 version, personally. But, beyond that, it’s a work that gives us an opportunity to put forth soloists and principals onstage and that, of course, is one of my major concerns: getting our dancers to dance. That’s what dancers are about! It’s part of my premise to keep our dancers very active and interested and to advance their backgrounds, their abilities, their knowledge and so on. This is a vast art form which started centuries ago and, obviously, there are periods, different manners and styles, coming from different countries. It’s very important for me to keep our dancers not only dancing but to have them think about the works they are performing. These are not just steps that are thrown at music; certainly a genius of the dimension of George Balanchine was doing so much more. So I like the idea of juxtaposing a Balanchine work based on Russian, 19th Century dancing. Also, [Mikhail] Glinka was sometimes referred to as the “father of Russian music,” so here we get the juxtaposition of a neoclassical work with Balanchine’s sense and understanding of the 19th Century.
There’s a lot of dialogue that you set up by programming a piece like Valse Fantaisie alongside the Black Swan Pas De Deux, for example.
Yeah — that’s an interesting juxtaposure as well, because here we have an old “war horse,” if you will, from the 19th Century, a very, very traditional 19th Century piece coming to us and being handed down to us before there were things such as dance notation and video and film. A lot of that stuff from the 19th Century, especially those old war horses, have been in the hands of dancers who basically, from time to time, would do their own versions. It’s a curious contrast between that kind of situation and the clarity of a Balanchine work.
Were you in charge of the restaging of the Black Swan Pas De Deux and, if so, what was your angle on this material? It’s been interpreted so many times by so many types of performers.
Well, my “angle” on this is to let dancers dance in terms of their own backgrounds and understandings and where and when they had learned these pieces. One of our dancers is a Venezuelan and one is Cuban — there are subtle differences to the way [a work like Black Swan] is done in different places. But there again lies a sense of understanding that we, here in the 21st Century, do have the ability to document these works — Swan Lake is a more subjective interpretation, but a work like Valse Fantaisie that was done in 1953 is well-documented and well-understood, and it’s incumbent upon me to pass this on to our dancers the way it was originally intended.
Has Miami City Ballet ever performed the 1967 version [of Valse Fantaisie] or is this the only one in the repertoire?
Yes, we did dance it many years ago. Actually, I once put them both on the same program, for people who might have a curiosity to see what a genius would do with the same music separated by fifteen years.
That’s great! Now on Friday, you’re doing a Student Matinée for public school students in Chicago. I’m assuming this is something that you present in most places that you perform or cities to which you tour. I was wondering if you could talk about what the response to the program has been. Have you found cities where it’s been responded to and attended particularly well or, for that matter, poorly?
Every time we tour, when we do a young peoples’ program we have a wonderful reaction. I’ve been around a very, very long time and I’m pretty comfortable doing this kind of thing. I know what works — we’ve had a wonderful success with bringing this art form to young people.
So in your perspective the younger generation is very responsive, if it’s in front of them, to ballet as an art form.
Well, you know, they are very responsive to culture because they get so little of it! It’s a terrible failure that we have unfortunately, in this country, a situation where art and culture don’t have as prominent a position as they should. Obviously, in Europe and various and sundry other places, art and culture are more important than they are here.
Sure and, to add to that, seeing dancers of the caliber that are in Miami City Ballet can radically redefine what young people perceive ballet to be, if they’ve never seen it done so well.
Yes, and I’d also include verbalization, preparing them with words both before and after they see a work.
That brings me to a question about the company’s identity right now. The way that Miami City Ballet’s website is organized and the company’s “SuperHuman” marketing campaign — you’re really framing Miami City Ballet as a ballet company for the present age and one that can speak today’s language.
Well, first of all let me explain to you that we do a wide variety of styles. We have a very, very diverse repertoire. We have major work from the 19th Century, 20th Century, and now into the 21st Century and that was my idea: to do nothing but masterworks and to do works they way they were originally intended. French Romanticism, for example, is very different from Russian grand Imperial style, which is different from the Danish Bournonville manner, which is different from the English style, and so on. We also dance contemporary choreographers such as Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp so, as I say, it’s a very, very broad spectrum that we cover.
To that point, I notice that in your upcoming Miami season you’ve got multiple quadruple-bills that feature three Balanchine ballets and one not. Choreographers like Tharp and Taylor are two of only a handful of 20th Century dancemakers that can match Mr. Balanchine in name recognition and familiarity with his work. Does it go beyond that for you? Do you find, or are you trying to show, similarities in these choreographers’ works aside from the fact that they’re comparably famous?
Famous is not important. Quality is important and genius is important. I certainly consider Paul Taylor a genius as do many, many other people. But, again, it’s this wide spectrum and it’s this idea of dancing through the ages and having the knowledge and abilities and exposure to be able to do those things, again, the way they were originally intended.
You’ve got a big fan in Alistair Macaulay [of The New York Times], who’s said some very nice things about the way Miami City Ballet has interpreted the Balanchine canon. He’s been a little rough on New York City Ballet on the same subject, less-favorable about its interpretations of some of the same works. Is how you see the Balanchine canon performed by other companies an influence on artistic decisions that you make?
Not at all, not at all. I’m not a person who follows or copies or juxtaposes. I know this work, I know these ballets, I know the dimensions and qualities of them. George Balanchine was the single greatest choreographer in the history of dance — we are talking about masterworks, here, and that’s all I’m interested in. I’m interested in masterwork, I’m not interested in the “flavor of the month” choreographer, which is something that happens a great deal: somebody does a work and “oh, gee, gosh, this critic said this was very good,” and everyone follows. I’m not a follower. I’ve been around too long to follow. I just take my background, my experience, my twenty years of standing in front of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Igor Stravinsky, being directed by Lincoln Kirstein, and I’ve come away with some background and knowledge which it is incumbent upon me to pass on. This is an art form of passing information, as Balanchine said, “from body to body and from mind to mind.” It was my time to dance those works and now it’s my time to pass them on to subsequent generations.
So then it’s about serving the work.
What influences you as a director? Other people you have worked for, any ideas? What do you draw upon when you’re trying to get the most out of your dancers and the most out of their presence in the choreography?
I treat them with great regard and respect. I think that dancers are the product and we directors need to understand the needs of dancers. When I made the Miami City Ballet 24 years ago, I wished to make a company that I would have liked to dance in. Over the years, things evolve and change — I wanted to see a certain change in regard to dancers, for us to have deep regard for them as the art form themselves. If the dancers don’t speak that physical language people won’t know these ballets — they won’t really see them. Dancers, to me, are what companies are and what they are about and it is my great privilege to work with these wonderful young people and provide them with as much of my background and knowledge as I possibly can. Again, I come from being coached and taught and choreographed on by geniuses.
You’ve definitely had an incredible career and one that continues to outdo itself. I want to thank you so much for spending some time with me this afternoon and I, along with a lot of other people in this town, am very excited that the company is coming — we’re really looking forward to it.
Oh, we’re excited about coming to Chicago for sure.
Well, best of luck to everyone, safe travels, and we’ll see you next week.
Alright, thanks again. Bye.