Edward Villella in many ways epitomized the American ballet dancer of the mid-20th century in his years with New York City Ballet. Born October 1, 1936, in New York City, he began training at School of American Ballet at age 10, and, after stepping away from ballet to earn his degree at New York State Maritime College (where he also proved to be a capable boxer), he joined NYCB in November 1957.
Within a year, Jerome Robbins cast him opposite Allegra Kent in Afternoon of a Faun, and the soloist parts just kept coming; he would originate roles in Balanchine's "Rubies" and A Midsummer Night's Dream, though he was perhaps best known for his interpretation of Prodigal Son, which he first tackled in 1960, the same year he was promoted to principal dancer.
"There has never been anything that I liked to do better than dance," he told us in the May 1966 issue of Dance Magazine. "There is the saying: dancing for joy. I know exactly what that means! I am only half alive when I'm not dancing; I'm fully alive only when I dance.... Dancing and living take up all my time with none left over to give to being a celebrity. In fact, I can't afford ego. It wears you out, protecting yourself, hustling for 'great' things, all the ruses that go with maintaining celebrity status. Once you become a celebrity you cut yourself off from a lot in life and a lot in dancing."
Villella retired from NYCB after a 22-year performing career that also saw him grace Broadway stages and the silver screen. After brief stints directing PBS's "Dance in America" series, Eglevsky Ballet and Ballet Oklahoma, he became the founding artistic director of Miami City Ballet in 1985, where he remained until 2012. Villella received a Dance Magazine Award in 1965, and a National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor in 1997. NYCB began inviting him back to coach his old roles in 2018.