“People say you can’t go home, but oh yes, you can,” Edward Villella said with a grin, greeting 200 cheering friends, fans, and other balletomanes at the Paley Center for Media on March 11. The parallel with the Prodigal Son, a role for which Villella was famous as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, was almost too apt.
The event — part of the Paley Center’s “Words on Dance” series — marked Villella’s first local public appearance since moving back to New York after a dramatic split with the Miami City Ballet. (As artistic director, Villella led MCB from its inception in 1986 to national and international acclaim.) Villella’s daughter Crista, formerly a ballet mistress at MCB, interviewed him about his life and career and introduced a number of films of his dancing, most of them rare finds never commercially released or seen on YouTube.
Villella revealed little about the Miami conflict, saying only that he had disagreed with MCB’s board of directors about how far the company should be run according to artistic concerns. Nonetheless, he said he was glad to leave “at a time when I couldn’t do any more. I knew I wouldn’t have another Paris,” he said, referring to Miami City Ballet’s triumphant season at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2011. “If I had done any more [for the company], it would have just been looking after it.”
He gave a few hints about his future, though, expressing no interest in retirement. “I don’t want to work for a board anymore or have to raise money, but I’d like to teach,” he said, adding that he had recently coached George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son at Cincinnati Ballet, under the auspices of the Balanchine Trust. “Now I simply want to enjoy, and to provide help and hope to other people.”
The film clips screened testified to a rich career, one that I’m disappointed to have missed. A 1968 episode of The Bell Telephone Hour captured the drama of the opening-night performance of Rubies, when Villella was battling an injury. He jogs and leaps in the third movement with playfulness and exuberance far surpassing what’s seen today at NYCB, and then he collapses in pain whenever the choreography allows him to be offstage. The highlight, drawing gasps from the audience, was the “Scherzo” from the 1967 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As Oberon, Villella executes the devilishly tricky steps with such remarkable speed, I thought at first that the footage had been sped up. Other selections were more lighthearted: The event ended with a 1973 clip from The Odd Couple that showed Villella hamming it up with Felix and Oscar in a ballet studio.
The privilege — and pressure — of dancing for Balanchine were recurring topics. Although Villella spoke only praise for the master choreographer, he mentioned two lapses in judgment that he suspected Balanchine never forgave. The first was his choice to take class not with Balanchine but with Stanley Williams during his early years with the company. (“I wasn’t ready for Mr. B’s class.”) The second faux pas came later, during NYCB’s 1962 tour of Russia: After receiving more than 20 curtain calls for his performance in Donizetti Variations at the Bolshoi, Villella, at the conductor’s suggestion, danced an encore. Balanchine, who rejected the star system for his company, wasn’t impressed. “The New York City Ballet wasn’t and still isn’t an encore kind of place,” Villella said.
Still, Balanchine did occasionally express affection for his all-American danseur. After the 1962 premiere of Midsummer, the choreographer, passing Villella in the theater, stopped to say, “You know, dear, you dance excellent last night” and put his arm around Villella. “That,” Villella said, “is when I knew I was close to being what I wanted to be: a serious dancer with trappings of artistry.”