As Miami City Ballet turns 20, Allegra Kent interviews Edward Villella about the company’s anniversary season, and being true to the choreographers’ visions.
Long ago, at the School of American Ballet in 1951, I remember Mr. Oboukhoff stopping our class and asking a young boy with dark eyes to jump. The kid did so with a wild spring upward, lingering aloft; he created an unforgettable image. That was my first glimpse of Eddie Villella at work. In 1957, he became a new member of New York City Ballet. His splendid talent had already inspired Jerome Robbins to make Afternoon of a Faun and now it was Balanchine’s turn. A sky-guy had arrived.
In 1963 Balanchine paired us in a newly created work, Bugaku. At first Eddie and I thought it was going to be a Japanese divertimento, but no, it had a sensual side and was gorgeously costumed. Eddie was masterful at the partnering, always spontaneous—every performance possessed the nervous energy of a first-time experience. In a solo section, he flew up in a series of slanting sauts de basque that looked born of samurai power.
Luckily, I also danced with him in Faun—no leaps whatsoever—Scotch Symphony, Brahms-Schoenberg 3rd movement, Apollo, Nutcracker, and many other works. It was always thrilling to dance and interact with him.
Now the Miami City Ballet reflects Eddie’s spirit of generosity, tireless energy, and passion for dance. Last fall I interviewed him about its 20th anniversary and his vision of the future.
Allegra Kent: So, what is it like to form a ballet company from scratch?
Edward Villella: It’s tremendously stimulating and exciting but also a huge struggle. And Florida two decades ago seemed like a very odd place to try to make a company from the ground up. But a group of people came to me after I had lectured somewhere and they wanted to create one. So I said, “OK, I’ll write out a very detailed plan.”
How many pages—150?
No, much shorter. It was an eleven and a half year plan, beginning with a year and a half to organize and raise monies, executive committees, visibilities, all those things. I really liked the people involved, starting with Toby Ansin, the prime mover. Then I found out there were a thousand people a day moving to South Florida. I thought, “Wow, there may be a silent audience there.”
We like them silent.
Looking at the map, there’s Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, and, on the West Coast, Naples.
A string of pearls.
By having so many bases of support, we would get to dance a lot more. I have three to five casts of everything, which means that even people in the corps get to do solo roles.
That’s wonderful, because the corps usually feels trapped.
I didn’t want a bunch of disgruntled dancers with studio fever who never get the opportunity to perform.
What qualities do you look for in a dancer?
I look for compatible, willing human beings who are dedicated and can visualize music with their bodies. You can teach technique but you can’t teach talent.
Going back to 1985, you had nothing tangible—no studio, dancers, or staff.
We searched for a facility and found a place on Lincoln Road, which was affordable. It was also a mall so I left the windows clear—anybody walking past could watch us at work.
It’s so important to have daylight! Remember the State Theater—the rehearsal room?
That was my selfishness, because I said, “I’m not going to live subterranean.” The fifth floor of the New York State Theater is like being underground. I wanted to be touched by the wind, the trees, and the wonderful summer rainstorms. It puts you in a good mood.
What was your program on opening night?
We opened with Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. This was to show the audience that we were going to be a ballet company with an edgy kind of classicism. Also, Dick Tanner from New York City Ballet created a work with a Spanish flavor. And the newly hired choreographer, Jimmy Gamonet, made a tango piece. And we kept building our Balanchine repertoire with Apollo, The Four Temperaments, and eventually the full-length Jewels.
In ’86 you started touring?
Our ’86-’87 season gave us the beginnings of a national visibility, with performances in Florida, Kennedy Center, Jacob’s Pillow, and Europe. We became a small, knowledgeable company of 19 dancers that could provide a repertoire not generally available 20 years ago. We developed a reputation around Balanchine ideas and spent 10 years perfecting that approach. At the same time we added a Swan Lake (second act), some Bournonville, and a little Petipa. In our 10th year, I started doing programs based on ballroom, jazz, and Broadway. After our first Giselle, everyone said, “Now we really see what you’re about.”
Our next major step will be at the big new Miami Performing Arts Center in October. I’m thinking of another 19th century spectacle, Tudor’s Lilac Garden, plus more Robbins, Tharp, and Taylor.
Are there any more boys in ballet today? You wrote that you used to walk up the stairs backwards, pretending you weren’t really going to the ballet class?
Yes, there are, but they’re not the majority. I had to figure out a way to attract them—guys who were curious about neoclassicism and Balanchine. And it began to happen. Then my wife, Linda, decided to make a school. And she’s done a spectacular job. Her approach is direct and honest, and she cares about people. The school now has 400 students, and this summer we had 205 in our intensive course. They came from everywhere—China, Hungary, France, and Latin America. Also Truman Finney has joined the faculty—a tremendous compliment to us and particularly to Linda.
Is the company close to what you envisioned it to be?
It’s basically what I wanted, but it wasn’t easy. Balanchine was a very hard sell in a place where he’d had little exposure. So I had to educate the community. Before every performance I speak to the audience, and I explain certain elements of the ballets.
What’s the hardest part of what you do?
Fundraising. The budget. South Florida is a very generous place, but they’re mostly into medicine and religion. The arts are funded, but not extravagantly. It’s a struggle to move forward every year because the budget has to increase. We had Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the 9/11 stock market crash, the dot-com bubble, and more hurricanes last year. All these things affect people’s behavior. You can’t just cope by saying, “I love these ballets, I know about the stage.” The practical side also exists. And luckily, for the last 20 years I’ve had Pam Gardiner, our executive director, at my side.
You’ve created an inspiring company to watch, with superb dancers.
It’s a terrific atmosphere. The kids are eager, supportive, and generous. I trust them and I try to include them in our decisions. I let them know that people like you and me grew up in a place where information was not forthcoming. Artistic knowledge was, but not casting. I learned I was doing Prodigal Son by reading it on the board.
I know, that was the style—the night before—“Oh, there’s my name.” You also believe in coaching.
We’re making a company that is doing the work the way it was intended to be. Whether it’s Petipa, Bournonville, Ashton, Robbins, or Balanchine, we have to maintain that level of integrity. There are works that I danced for decades, so I’m prepared to pass that information on. Our ballet mistresses, who are very well-informed, will get the work up on its feet, together with répétiteurs from the Balanchine, Ashton or Robbins people, and then I’ll come in and do some coaching. That’s great fun for me—to break down who the Siren and the Prodigal are, and how they relate to the minds of Balanchine and Prokofiev. But I didn’t dance everything, and so we bring people down like you, Maria Caligari, Bart Cook, Susan Hendl, Judy Fugate, Pat Neary, Violette Verdy, Suzanne Farrell, Patty McBride. Also Elaine Kudo from Twyla, and Patrick Corbin from Paul Taylor. Dances at a Gathering and Push Comes to Shove are in our repertoire. And the audience is voracious for new works.
Tell me about your new contemporary series.
The contemporary series has been lurking in my mind for a long time. The idea is to bring to our audience newer works and choreography from Tharp, Mark Morris, David Parsons, and others. This series is being headed by David Palmer and Yanis Pikieris. The impetus comes from our move next season from the Jackie Gleason Theater here on the beach to Miami’s new Performing Arts Center. This is a way that I can thank the city of Miami Beach for everything it has done for us.
It’s so exciting, and 20 years ago there was nothing.
It was a struggle to get it started and it’s a struggle to maintain it. We’re competing with popular culture and the lack of arts programs in the public schools. We have had to teach young people, a developing audience, and a mature audience. There’s a lot to do.