New York City Ballet announced on Facebook earlier this week that current Miami City Ballet principal Jovani Furlan will be joining the company as a soloist this fall. Furlan, a native of Joinville, Brazil, left Brazil's Bolshoi Theater School in 2011 to train at the MCB School; he joined the company as an apprentice in 2012 and has quickly made his way through the ranks.
This summer the legendary New York City Ballet dancer Edward Villella marked two full-circle moments. He returned to Miami for the first time since his controversial 2012 departure from Miami City Ballet, the company he founded, to coach members of Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami. This new troupe was founded by former MCB principals and Villella protégés Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra in 2016. Villella worked with DDTM dancers on George Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux and Tarantella, signature pieces during his performing career. While there, Villella announced that he would be coaching dancers at NYCB starting in September—his first time returning to the troupe where he defined major ballets like Prodigal Son and Rubies, which the company performs this fall.
We spoke with Villella about keeping Balanchine's legacy alive, his big news, and his post-Miami life back in New York, where he lives with his wife Linda.
On Monday night, the National Dance Institute—the arts education organization founded by former New York City Ballet star Jacques d'Amboise—presented Balanchine's Guys, a lively discussion with d'Amboise and two other NYCB greats: Arthur Mitchell and Edward Villella. Many of their former NYCB colleagues, including Patricia McBride and Suki Schorer, were in the audience, and while the evening was sold out, NDI live-streamed part of the conversation. We know many of you weren't able to catch it, so we've included the video from NDI's Facebook page below. (There's a bit of a sound delay, but it's well worth the watch!)
All three shared priceless anecdotes of working with Balanchine. While NDI wasn't able to stream the whole discussion and performance, here are a few highlights from after the camera stopped rolling:
This year marks the 50th anniversary of George Balanchine's Jewels, and companies around the world are paying homage. While last summer's Lincoln Center Festival collaboration with New York City Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet was all glamour and excitement, Pacific Northwest Ballet is taking a reverential look back in advance of its opening performances next week.
In 2014, PNB artistic director Peter Boal invited four stars of Balanchine's original 1967 cast—Violette Verdy, Mimi Paul, Edward Villella and Jacques d'Amboise—to coach the company in their signature roles. And, thank heavens, they captured it all on film. This 20-minute promotional documentary offers priceless footage of them in rehearsals, interviews and lecture demonstrations, offering fascinating insights into Balanchine's creative process and original intentions.
"The whole thing was—I like jewels," the choreographer George Balanchine told an interviewer in the spring of 1967, when asked about his newest creation for New York City Ballet, a triptych called—what else?—Jewels. He had his photograph taken while gazing appreciatively at Van Cleef & Arpels designs, or surrounded by ballerinas wearing bejeweled headpieces and gem-toned costumes by Karinska. Balanchine had an instinct for promotion; the ballet was a huge success and is still regularly performed by NYCB and other companies around the world. At the Lincoln Center Festival this summer (July 20–23), 50 years after the first performance, three companies—the Paris Opéra Ballet, NYCB and the Bolshoi Ballet—will join together to perform it in a single night. The French will dance "Emeralds." On different nights, the Russians and the Americans will alternate in "Rubies" and "Diamonds."
This seems appropriate, as each of Jewels' sections alludes to a different style of ballet: French, American, Russian. Ballet was born in France. More importantly, France is where Romantic ballet, with its feather-light technique and delicate, wafting arms, was refined. (Think La Sylphide and Giselle.) The next chapter of its development took place in Russia, where ballet acquired its grandeur, thanks to the imagination of Marius Petipa and the splendor of the Imperial Theatres. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, this world disappeared. Balanchine, along with many others, left the country, bringing his ideas about ballet to Europe and later to America, or, more precisely, to New York City.
Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra are used to being the center of the action from their years as leading dancers at Miami City Ballet. But managing the whirl of activity at a rehearsal of their fledgling troupe, Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami, is a whole other dizzying dimension—coaching ballets, fielding questions from a photographer and a dancer managing company logistics, squeezing in a quick self-coached rehearsal for themselves. Kronenberg perches on a bench as a costume designer hems her skirt, talking through schedules with Guerra before they hurl themselves into Ronald Savkovic's fraught Transparente, releasing real life tensions in choreographic drama.
It was Labor Day weekend of 2012 when Lourdes Lopez received the phone call. Edward Villella, Miami City Ballet's founder and artistic director of 27 years, had left abruptly, eight months ahead of schedule. Just two days later, Lopez, who wasn't supposed to take Villella's place until May of the following year, found herself in the MCB studios. “It happened literally over a weekend," says Lopez, “and it was scary. I was walking into an environment and company I didn't really know."
It was no secret that Miami City Ballet had been going through hard times. Despite the successes Villella had brought to the company—a strong Balanchine lineage, the first U.S. commission by Liam Scarlett and celebrated tours to New York and Paris—it was over $3 million in debt. Tensions between Villella and the board were running high. In 2011, MCB announced that Villella would step down after the 2012–13 season, a “mutual decision," though his supporters quickly said that he was forced out.
Edward Villella is notorious for eating standing up. The founder and artistic director of Miami City Ballet—a company that performs the same program in four different counties—says most of the time he must take advantage of those brief moments when he can.
That’s what he’s doing on this Friday in early November. He’s arrived at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach, where the company is getting ready for the opening night of a triple bill featuring George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, Trey McIntyre’s The Reassuring Effects of Form and Poetry and Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera. I will be his shadow on this busy day as he interacts with his dancers, staff, donors and fans.
“Today is just crazy,” Villella says, eating a sandwich in his dressing room. “Any opening is the same. It’s just nonstop.” This is the second such day in one week for MCB, which premiered the same program the weekend before in Fort Lauderdale.
Earlier this morning, Villella stopped by the MCB offices to return phone calls and catch up with the administrative staff. Now, it’s 12:30 pm and, after a few more bites, he heads downstairs to the stage to teach company class, a requirement for MCB’s 48 dancers.
“I think a company should reflect the manner and style of its artistic director,” Villella says. “And the most consistent way I can do that is by teaching company class. Essentially, it’s taking a harmonious signature approach to gesture, so it looks like a company. The dancers know where I come from and what I am attempting to do.”
I sit in the wings stage right and watch the dancers at the barres onstage. I can tell that musicality is very important in this company. Founded in 1985, MCB started with a plethora of Balanchine works, which Villella danced for 20 years as a principal at New York City Ballet. Villella made it a mission to bring that neoclassical style to southern Florida and introduce audiences there to the legendary choreographer’s sophisticated musical structures.
In class, Villella offers exercises with difficult syncopated beats and claps his hands against his thighs to help the dancers keep time. Clad in black jeans, a light blue dress shirt and dance sneakers, he moves across the stage with the flair of someone who’s listening to his favorite song on the radio.
At 68, Villella is amazingly spry. He has been very frank about how, as a dancer, he never properly warmed up his body. As a result, he’s had three hip replacements, nine broken toes, stress fractures in both legs and a bad back. “I’ve been around the block,” he says simply. “You don’t walk away easily from this stuff.”
The prospect of a more-than-10-hour day can be daunting, but he knows what has to be done. He’s determined to be a hands-on director, which means that he will be at the theater whenever the dancers are there.
After a 50-minute barre, Villella teaches a center. He gives the women piqué and fouetté turns and the men jumping exercises. He also takes the opportunity to finish his sandwich.
Class ends at 2 pm, and Villella gets the only break he’ll have all day. He spends it in his dressing room reading The New York Times. A native of Queens, NY, and a longtime resident of NYC, he still likes to catch up on the news from home.
At 2:30 pm, we move to seats in the house for the technical rehearsal. In addition to finalizing the lighting, this is a chance for Villella and the ballet mistresses, Iliana Lopez and Roma Sosenko, to address last-minute issues. Dancers get a chance to fine-tune and double-check positions.
“We have not only had our rehearsal and dress rehearsal, but four performances [last week],” Villella says. “So now when we come here, I think that everyone is prepared. Now, it’s really just placing it on the stage and keeping an eye on detail and style, period and musicality.”
The dancers run through the program in the order in which they will dance the ballets later that evening. For the most part, everyone dances full out, and it’s amusing to see half the cast of Divertimento in tutus and the other half in their warm-up clothes. Those who aren’t dancing sit in the aisles, stretch and applaud the solos. The massage therapist also sets up shop backstage for those who need her services.
Everything goes smoothly, and the dancers congregate onstage for notes before going onto the next two pieces. “Like in Divertimento, [one dancer] held her passé too long and then she was late,” Villella tells me. “Those are the intricasies and the details. It’s mostly reminding. There are so many things you have to be aware of when you are onstage.”
Villella has programmed a wide-ranging lineup for this evening. Divertimento, set to the music of Mozart, features tutus, while Piazzolla Caldera is an Argentinean tango with men and women in character shoes. Sandwiched between the two is McIntyre’s free-form contemporary work.
The stage rehearsal ends at 5:30 pm, and Villella returns to his dressing room to change his clothes. He quickly puts on a checkered double-breasted suit, taking a moment to tame his still-brown mane. His wife, Linda (who is also the director of the MCB School), has called to say she will soon arrive at the theater.
Together, we drive a couple blocks to attend a special reception that starts at 6 pm for company donors who have contributed $1,500 or more. The party is held at Pacific Time, an old restaurant on Lincoln Road, a trendy shopping and dining street. There, Villella chats with donors and eats a few hors d’oeuvres before he has to hotfoot it back to the theater to give his pre-performance talk at 7:15 pm.
Before every performance, Villella speaks to the audience about the evening’s program and answers questions. “It accomplishes two things,” he says. “It makes the audience more aware of what they are going to see and it also humanizes this stuff.
“I brought a rep here 18 years ago that was unfamiliar to this community. They had been very accustomed to 19th-century spectacle. I wanted to start with Balanchine because it’s the most difficult.” As the repertoire has grown to include other works—seven premières this season—his own choreography and even the occasional Giselle or Coppélia, he has continued to introduce every performance.
The curtain rises at 8 pm, and Villella takes a seat next to Linda on the aisle in row M. “I try to sit back and enjoy it,” he says. “By the same token, I allow myself to critique.” If he notices something that needs fixing, he’ll bring it up the next day or possibly break it down in the next company class.
By this hour, Villella’s energy hasn’t flagged. He springs up at each intermission to run backstage before making an appearance in the VIP room. He is able to grab a quick drink and a few more hors d’oeuvres before he is due back in his seat.
After the third ballet ends at 10:20 pm, I follow Villella backstage before the crowd has even finished applauding. He tells me that he likes to be available to the dancers before and after every performance.
“[Before the show] I just go to them,” Villella says, “kiss them and say, ‘Have a good time. Have a wonderful experience. You’re prepared. You understand who you are. Show us.’ Afterward, I come back and I say, ‘Thank you.’”
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“The company is on such a high,” says Miami City Ballet principal Mikhail Ilyin, referring to the passionate, ebullient dancing that has characterized recent performances. A wide-ranging repertoire, huge performance schedule, a growing roster of international dancers and solid financials are propelling MCB to new levels. Next, the company, which recently wrapped up its 20th anniversary season, is poised to inaugurate the brand-new, $446 million Miami Performing Arts Center this fall as one of four resident arts organizations. But getting to its current enviable position hasn’t been easy. From the beginning, Artistic Director Edward Villella has planned carefully and far in advance, eschewing easy triumphs in favor of the slow, steady artistic progress that builds a company but doesn’t make headlines. Yet when asked what he’s most proud of after 20 years, Villella says simply, “That we’ve survived.”
Villella accepted the job of artistic director of the yet-to-be-formed Miami City Ballet in 1985, after retiring from a legendary 18-year performing career with New York City Ballet. Known for his athleticism and masculinity as well as his cocky wit, he had excelled in Balanchine ballets, such as Prodigal Son and “Rubies” as well as Jerome Robbins’ lyrical Dances at a Gathering. “I had the great privilege to work with the greats of the 20th century,” he says, including impresario Lincoln Kirstein as well as Balanchine and Robbins. “There was a wonderful knowledge that was passed on to me.”
From the start, Villella took a long-term approach, writing an 11-and-a-half-year plan that incorporated 18 months of preparation and set-up, followed by three-, five- and 10-year production plans, complete with budgets. Before the company even stepped onstage, Villella had five years of programming planned.
For its first 10 years, the focus was mainly, but not entirely, on what Villella knew best—the Balanchine repertoire. “I did it all in reverse,” he says. “Most people start with the well-known classics to attract audiences. I decided to approach the most elusive and difficult of the masters of style, that, of course, being Balanchine.”
Villella’s analytical approach to repertoire development even extended to the order in which he acquired the Balanchine ballets. The company first mastered the more straightforward Allegro Brillante and Serenade and worked up to the challenges of the complex Four Temperaments, Agon and Jewels. Villella built Jewels one section at a time, only later presenting it in its full-evening form.
The company turns in distinctive performances of the Balanchine rep, because Villella takes care that the dance interpretations are properly nurtured. For Jewels, he brought in the original dancers to coach the different sections: Violette Verdy for “Emeralds,” Patricia McBride for “Rubies” and Suzanne Farrell for “Diamonds.”
That philosophy was what attracted some of MCB’s current dancers. Ilyin, who trained at Russia’s Vaganova school and danced with Boston Ballet, auditioned for MCB specifically because he wanted to work with Villella. “I was interested in learning the American style of neoclassical ballet from someone who danced with NYCB and had roles created for him by George Balanchine,” he says. “Villella’s not just giving us background stylistically and stepwise, but also what the intention of the choreographer was.”
For his part, Villella selects dancers by focusing on the individual. “The first thing I look for is quality of movement. Each of us has that singular fingerprint of how we move,” he says. “The second is how we move to music and if we have the ability to physicalize music.” And while Villella also looks for “compatible, willing human beings,” he believes that an important factor in developing a company is “that people have artistic information that is common throughout the ranks.”
To further this goal, Villella teaches company class every day, so that his singular approach can create a more unified look for a company made up of dancers from more than a dozen countries. He hires young dancers, often early in their careers, and promotes from the corps de ballet. “We are not a company that hires or rents superstars,” he says. “We develop from within. It’s part of my great satisfaction to look at young kids who came here straight out of schools and academies and are now principal dancers.”
Mary Carmen Catoya, a principal dancer from Venezuela, had seen Villella dance on video and was thrilled to be able to work closely with a star of the ballet world who was also accessible and approachable. “What makes it special is that we all feel like family,” she says. “Our director always wants the dancers to be happy and feel comfortable. He’s respectful of who you are as a human being.”
Villella credits the congenial atmosphere in part to the company’s extensive performance schedule. In addition to moving from the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach to the new Miami Performing Arts Center, the company will continue performing at three South Florida venues: the Broward Center in Ft. Lauderdale, the Kravitz Center in Palm Beach and the Naples Philharmonic. With the Florida dates and extensive national and international touring, up to five different casts for each ballet get an enormous amount of stage time for a company of its size. “You perform a lot, and that’s what makes a dancer. I love to dance; that’s why I’m here,” says Catoya.
“When dancers have opportunities, it eliminates—to put it delicately—interpersonal problems,” says Villella. “We have challenged our younger dancers with opportunity, and they have responded. And that, I think, has been a tremendous help in terms of the artistic development and growth of our company.”
In the early days, however, in addition to building the rep and developing dancers who could make it soar, Villella also had to convince Floridians that neoclassical ballet was something they needed to see. “This was not what you would call a cultural destination 20 years ago,” he says dryly. “It was interesting to compete with sun and sand and clubs and tourism. To say that [Balanchine] was an easy sell in Florida—no. It was very difficult and people resisted. To a certain degree, they still do.” To combat audiences’ uneasiness with the unfamiliar, Villella began speaking before performances (a practice he continues), discussing the ballets’ styles, musical qualities and technical considerations, as well as the elusive drama and emotion in Balanchine ballets.
The challenges of promoting ballet in South Florida extended to the company’s finances as well. MCB started with a budget of $1 million and 19 dancers and has grown to $10.5 million with the hope of expanding to $12.5 million and more than 50 dancers for the 2006-07 season.
The company experienced many lean years. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew blew out studio windows and devastated the company’s costume shop. “Nothing happened in this city for three months, so we couldn’t draw an audience, and that provided deficit,” says Villella. “And once you achieve a deficit, boy, it’s yours to keep.” The economic aftereffects of 9/11, the dot-com bust and last year’s multiple hurricanes combined to set the company, which earns 55 percent of its revenue from the box office, further behind.
MCB was able to climb out of that hole with the help of the City of Miami Beach, which had given the company the land and $2.5 million to build a beautiful 63,000-square-foot facility in Miami Beach in 2000. Skyrocketing real-estate prices raised the property’s value, making it possible earlier this year for the city to come to the rescue with $5.3 million in exchange for ownership of the building, which it now rents to the company for one dollar per year. “That literally saved us,” says Villella.
Out of gratitude to the City of Miami Beach, Villella created a new contemporary series and children’s programming in the facility’s 250-seat theater, as the move to the new Miami Performing Arts Center meant that the company would no longer have any scheduled performances in Miami Beach.
“I think the contemporary series can and should work well on the Beach, because the Beach is a younger crowd,” says Villella. He hired David Palmer and Yannis Pikieris, former MCB dancers who had spent the past eight years working on a contemporary dance company called Maximum Dance, to develop contemporary programming.
The company’s ambitious plans for the upcoming season include a new full-length Don Quixote, as well as Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, Christopher Wheeldon’s Liturgy, Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden and revivals of Agon, Symphony in Three Movements, Raymonda Variations and Afternoon of a Faun. And, after eight years of dancing mainly to taped music, the company ended its 20th anniversary season performing again to live music.
MCB owes its success to Villella’s dedication and planning, but when asked to compare his career as a dancer to his career as an artistic director, Villella laughs: “If I had the devil’s 800 number, I’d be a dancer again.” The 69-year-old director is equally jocular about the prospect of retirement. “My wife wouldn’t know what to do with me,” he says. True to form, he’s still planning ahead. “I’d like to make five-year plans and take another look at them every three years and adjust the goals,” he says. “I try to challenge everyone slightly beyond their grasp. The whole purpose of this is to move forward. The moment you’re satisfied, it’s over.”
New York City Ballet luminary Allegra Kent's delightful children's book, Ballerina Swan, was a hit with fans and critics when it came out last year. Now the tale of Sophie, a swan who dreams of becoming a ballerina, is coming to the New York City stage. Making Books Sing's production of Ballerina Swan opens November 9 at Theater 3 on 43rd St—and it features Edward Villella as the voice of Mr. Balletski, the choreographer who gives Sophie a chance. Pointe spoke with Kent about her book's new incarnation.
How did Ballerina Swan become a play?
Barbara Krieger, the director of Making Books Sing, loved the book, and was inspired to recreate it onstage. This version will be sung and danced, and Sophie is going to be a puppet. I'm wildly excited about it—I mean, I get wildly excited very easily, but this is special!
How does Sophie the puppet work?
She has wings and a long, long neck—she's larger than a real swan, and very expressive. A dancer stands behind her, and she does the dance movements, and Sophie dances along with her. I'm so looking forward to seeing Sophie flapping and flying onstage.
Why did you think of Edward Villella as Mr. Balletski?
Well, Mr. Balletski is actually supposed to be Mr. Balanchine, and Edward of course worked with the real Mr. Balletski for decades, as did I. Edward has a real ear for recreating Balanchine's voice, too.
Are you thinking of doing a sequel to Ballerina Swan?
Perhaps. Right now I have another children's book in mind. It would follow a day in the life of a ballerina getting ready for the stage: her alarm clock rings, she packs her dance bag, she goes to the stage door, she goes up to her dressing room, she takes class, she goes for a costume fitting—everything of that nature. But Sophie may make another appearance, though not immediately.