Springing into the air like a gazelle, dancer Edward Villella electrified audiences with his virile performances in the 1960s and ’70s. As the reigning male star at the New York City Ballet, Villella danced several roles choreographed for him by the great George Balanchine.
Eventually, injuries forced Villella, a native of Queens, to retire from performing, but he never left ballet. He founded the Miami City Ballet in 1986, and now serves as artistic director of that company, occasionally trying his hand at choreography, too.
This month, the Miami City Ballet makes its area debut at the Detroit Opera House (Nov. 2-4), in a mixed-repertory program of Balanchine’s Agon and Raymonda Variations, as well as Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room.
In September, Villella, who at 71 still sports his trademark shock of jet-black hair, visited the opera house and sat down with us to talk about his memories of Balanchine, his technique, and his desire to strike a Faustian deal to dance again.
The Miami City Ballet hasn’t performed at the Detroit Opera House. You’ve had a chance to examine the theater. What are your impressions?
I am wonderfully impressed. All over the country, one by one, we’re losing these great old theaters, so I have nothing but the highest regard for the renovation. I think our dancers are going to love the large stage. It’s what the dancers all need — space.
Two of the three pieces on your mixed-repertory program were choreographed by George Balanchine. Tell me about Balanchine; when was the first time you met him?
I was about 10 years old. I was taken to the old School of American Ballet in Manhattan. I was an oddity because I was a guy, and there certainly weren’t many of us in those days; we’re talking about 1946 or ’47. Because I was an oddity in this class, people would come in and take a look. On a certain occasion, the door opens and this man enters, or I should say his aura entered before him. Balanchine just had that kind of presence. He was a deity, and we were mere mortals. But he was accessible, he was a raconteur, and he had a sense of humor. He would love to rehearse for a half an hour or 45 minutes, then tell 10 minutes of stories. When I first joined the New York City Ballet in 1957, he was doing Stars and Stripes, Gounod Symphony, Square Dance and Agon, and you can’t get more diverse than that. It was amazing to be around him.
Your company will be performing Agon in Detroit. It’s a very sparse ballet, with no definite plot, but there’s more going on than what’s readily apparent.
It’s called an abstract ballet, but what you have to do is analyze what abstraction is. It’s taking a larger idea and reducing it to its essence, and thereby, its poetry. He [Balanchine] didn’t just throw steps in to Stravinsky’s music. There was structure, rhyme, reason. If you break the work down, it’s about a vibrant New York environment, and all these dancers are representing that and the energies therein, the competition, what it takes to live in New York City. When you get to the central pas de deux, it really is a conflict between them; it’s like a marital spat in an urban environment.
Almost antithetical to Agon is the Raymonda Variations which is tonal and full of Russian romanticism.
Balanachine was brought up just after that era, so he was very familiar with that tradition and had deep regard and respect for it. Here we have Balanchine’s homage to that period, to that style, to Glazunov. And he does it in a way that advances the 19th century; he doesn’t imitate it.
You close out the program here with Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. What do you find so enticing about this piece?
It’s got such a contemporary edge and it’s driven by physicality. Twyla Tharp practices her physicality every morning for about two or three hours by jogging, boxing, and karate. We refer to it as In the Upper Room, but I think she was also referring to the runner’s high. It’s so dynamic.
And Philip Glass’ music just doesn’t let up.
It’s relentless, and she matches that relentless sound to a relentless physicality. When the curtain is down, so are the dancers.
When you were dancing, your elevation was phenomenal. How did you attain those heights; was it the strength in your legs?
I did have very powerful legs, but I also had very powerful feet. And I think, essentially, those were the two components. It’s how you push off the floor, and how your thighs and calves work with that simultaneous attack. It’s really about attack, and fortunately, I was born with an ability to jump. I stopped dancing between 16 and 20, which are critical years … so I had to enhance anything that was natural to me. The idea is that you can teach technique to talent, but you can’t teach talent to anybody. So you have to come to the table with certain inclinations and learn how to maximize them.
Males who want to be dancers frequently run into opposition because of societal and cultural prejudices. And their fathers often don’t want them to follow that path. Could you talk about your own experience?
It is a cultural struggle. My father ran a trucking business, his two closest pals were professional prizefighters, and his son was studying to be a ballet dancer! He wanted me to go to college, so I stopped dancing when I was 16. I went to college after my 16th year and I played baseball, and was a boxing champion and all that. But I had this drive within me, this passion to dance. So I got my degree, handed it to my father, and said, ‘That’s for you. But for me, there’s something else.’ He didn’t talk to me for a year. Later, I sent tickets to my parents when I was performing. They came backstage afterwards and were in tears — and so was I. My father, my mother, and I all laughed and cried. And then my father became a balletomane.
You injured yourself far more when dancing than boxing. You broke nine toes. You had two hips replaced …
[Holds up three fingers]. I also have stress fractures in both legs, a bad back, I’ve had a knee operation, and I have arthritis.
Even though you’re a successful choreographer and artistic director of a major ballet company, do you ever miss dancing?
I’m looking for the devil’s 800 number. [Smiles]
For tickets, call 313-237-SING or go to motopera.org.