Ballet Stars

Edward Villella on Keeping Balanchine's Legacy Alive and His Exciting Next Steps with NYCB

Villella in rehearsal with members of Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami earlier this summer. Photo by Joe Gato, Courtesy DDTM.

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.


What is it like to coach dancers led by dancers you worked with at MCB?

It's terribly reminiscent. History has its way of repeating itself. But you have to know history. Or else how do you go forward? You never stop thinking. You continue. I'm not the same person now that I was then. So there's a little more that I might have to offer. This field doesn't sit still. We have to understand it, so that it progresses. The unfortunate part of our field is that people hear this word classical and all they think about is the 19th century. Classicism doesn't stop. It's a continuum. And you have to know the past to develop and to understand what's coming. That's the beauty of it all. Balanchine said it in the simplest of manners: "Ballet is a passing art form. You pass it body to body, but more importantly mind to mind."

Villella and classmates with Balanchine at SAB. Photo Courtesy Villella.

What's rewarding and what's difficult about coaching dancers in Balanchine works now?

The rewarding part is the look in their eyes when they get it, when you pass something on to them that's a revelation.

I had a call from Alexei Ratmansky. He said, "I'm about to premiere my version of Harlequinade, and I know you did Balanchine's, and I would love for you to come to rehearsals and work with me and some of the dancers." What he was after was not the technical part of it. And all I could see was technique, which is second nature and primary to them. There's nothing wrong with that, so long as you understand who are you onstage.

What'd you tell them?

Think of the character first, because the technique is with you forever. But you have to decipher who that character is and let the technique follow and support you.

Villella rehearsing DDTM founders Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra in "Don Quixote" at MCB in 2006. Photo by Joe Gato, Courtesy Villella.

Dancers have incredible technique now.

It's the period of technique.

Are there other things that dancers today don't know?

Yes—they don't know who they are onstage! [laughs]. Technique and positions are not hard to provide. But the internal understanding of a role is not obvious. You have to be guided in this.

The first time I worked with Balanchine he was choreographing Square Dance. So I'm looking, and I'm like where do I get this from? Then I start to watch him, because in demonstrating a single gesture Balanchine gave you what he was interested in. He wasn't articulating and verbalizing them. He was physicalizing them. All I did was watch him. And every once in a while he said one or two words and I mixed those words with the visual. And it was perfect.

Villella and Patricia McBride in rehearsal with Balanchine in 1960. Photo by PhotoFest New York City, Courtesy Villella.

Tell me how you got invited to coach at NYCB, and what you think about it.

I was asked to teach a couple classes at School of American Ballet. Jon Stafford [one of the four interim artistic directors of NYCB] came to watch my class, and I had the pleasure of having lunch with him, and he asked specifically about coaching Prodigal and Rubies. I start on September 2nd with Patricia McBride on Rubies. They haven't asked me for a specific time for Prodigal but we've been mentioning it back and forth.

For years I've been contacted by dancers there asking if I would coach them. And I'd say, "I'd be happy to do it but unless I have permission from your artistic director I would be interfering. Ask Peter [Martins] if it's okay and if it's okay I'll be there tomorrow." But that was something Peter was uncomfortable with. My generation has never been asked to contribute to the New York City Ballet. And we originated so many of these roles.

Now there are four dancers in charge. You can imagine the responsibility that was thrown at them. They never knew Balanchine, they don't know what he was like, what he was about, how in one or two words he gave you a concise understanding of an entire role. They just made a logical conclusion to get the people who were originals in so many of those ballets while we're still here. There ain't that many of us left. How people could not think about that as a way to operate is a little beyond me. And it's not just me—I think they're asking a number of people

Are you excited to work in the Koch Theater again?

It's a familiar feeling that I'm looking forward to. It's nostalgic, its romantic, it's all those things.

Villella in "Prodigal Son" in 1960. Photo by PhotoFest New York City, Courtesy Villella.

How do you feel about the six years since you left MCB?

First of all I'm thrilled to be back in New York. I grew up there. I had my whole career there. Everyone in New York is very familiar with me. I thought, when I got back, who the hell is going to remember me? And maybe the third day, we were going to a pharmacy, and someone from across the aisle said, "Hey Eddie, welcome back to New York, boy did we miss you!"

I'm back in my hometown where they understand the level of my art form. I love the idea that I'm not directed by a board. I will never work for a board again.

I've had the opportunity to travel and continue doing what I do. I stay in touch with the field. The other thing is for the first time I have the whole family around me. So in my own way I have it all. My fantasy was to finish in New York in a brownstone. So how happy can I be?

Show Comments ()
News
Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in George Balanchine's Agon. Photo courtesy DM Archives

Former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell passed away today in a Manhattan hospital. He was 84 years old.

Mitchell originated the role of Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Oleaga Photography, Courtesy DM Archives

As a leading dancer with NYCB in the 1950s and '60s, Mitchell became indelibly associated with two roles created on him by George Balanchine: the central pas de deux in Agon (1957) and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962). Mitchell's performance of the athletic, entwining Agon pas de deux with Diana Adams—a white woman—caused a major stir during a moment in which America was rife with racial tension.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Dana Benton and Josephine Lee discuss pointe shoes. Still via YouTube

Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, interviewing school directors and chatting with professional ballerinas to find out how they customize and break in their pointe shoes. Below, check out Lee's stop at Colorado Ballet. She touches base with principal dancer Dana Benton and academy director Erica Fischbach. Stay tuned for more!

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Australian Ballet in rehearsal during World Ball Day. Photo by Kate Longely, Courtesy Australian Ballet.

For the last few years, World Ballet Day has transfixed millions of ballet lovers with its hours and hours of live-streamed classes, rehearsals and behind-the-scenes extras from major companies around the globe. (We here at Pointe certainly don't get any work done!) The 2018 edition is right around the corner—but things will be a bit different this time, especially for ballet fans in the Western Hemisphere.

For one thing, WBD is only 12 hours this year, and you'll need to prepare for losing a full night's sleep—or perhaps plan a fun slumber party—to enjoy live coverage. Hosted by Australian Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and The Royal Ballet, streaming begins on WBD's Facebook page in Melbourne on October 2 and ends at 5 pm London time. However, for folks in North America, that means 9pm EST/6pm PST on Monday, October 1 through 12pm EST/9am PST on October 2. In past years, the National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet helped host the event, but they are not participating this time (which may explain the shorter schedule).

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Anna Greenberg of ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, photographed by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

All dancers have their go-to tension area: shoulders that creep up towards the ears, a hand that becomes a claw, or feet and ankles that grip. Yet "Just relax" can be the hardest correction to apply. We spoke with four teachers for their tips on releasing tension throughout the body—and how it's all connected.

The Face

A dancer's face is a frequent tension trouble spot, as eyebrows lift or furrow, jaws clench and tongues peek out. Hilary Cartwright, international guest teacher and creator of Yoga Narada, notices that, for many students, "all the tension goes into the face in their effort to achieve and please their teacher." Similarly, Seattle-based ballet instructor Stephanie Saland observes that dancers "demonstrate" their focus with their face instead of actually being attentive. "Does 'focus' mean bug your eyes and shove your chin forward to show interest, enthusiasm, volition?" she asks. "Or can you just be present and take the information in?"

Cartwright recommends taking a moment to "turn it around" and find your inner smile. "When you're feeling tense, think of something—a smiley face, your dog or cat—that brings back reality a little bit. Remember the good things in the rest of your life." If your inner smile turns into an outward one, even better. Smiling is a simple way to alleviate tension in your face and convey your joy of dancing.

Saland suggests visualizing a mask that's painted onto your face dripping off "almost in puddles down the front of your body." This relaxes facial tension and sends your focus inward. Remember that in class, sometimes, you can just make the effort without feeling that you have to project out.

News
Ballet Austin's Aara Krumpe in The Firebird. After 20 years, this is Krumpe's final season with the company. Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has helped spotlight sexual harassment, as well as verbal and emotional abuse, in the ballet industry. Most recently, a lawsuit filed by Alexandra Waterbury against New York City Ballet and principal dancer Chase Finlay, who has since resigned, revealed particularly chilling behavior. Earlier this week, we posted an article that struck a nerve with our audience. We've received some heated responses about the story's prompt and tone. We hear you, and we want to take this opportunity to give you a voice to address concerns and ask questions about recent claims of abuse in the ballet world.

Dancers, students and dance parents: how have these revelations shaped your view of the dance industry, and what worries you most? What changes do you want to see from leadership to address them? Professional dancers, what advice or insight would you give students and those in their early career about what to expect in the professional world?

We want to hear from you. Please feel free to comment or to send your thoughts to abrandt@dancemedia.com.

News
Ramasar and Catazaro, via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Nevada Ballet Theatre. Still Courtesy Lee.

Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, interviewing school directors and chatting with professional ballerinas to find out how they customize and break in their pointe shoes. Below, check out Lee's first stop: Nevada Ballet Theatre. She touches base with company dancer Caroline MacDonald, and academy director Anna Lantz. Stay tuned for more!

Keep reading... Show less
Editors' List: The Goods

Longer ballet skirts are having a major moment. We've seen them popping up in the Instagram studio clips of dance fashionistas around the world—from American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston to The Royal Ballet's Beatriz Stix-Brunell to Berlin State Ballet's Iana Salenko. And with cooler weather on the way, we have a feeling we'll be seeing even more calf-length skirts.

Beyond being trendy, long ballet skirts give any studio ensemble a sophisticated prima ballerina vibe (hi, Natalia Makarova). Try out one of these long skirt options.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Tricia Albertson kisses Didier Bramaz after finding the perfect hat in The Concert. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

Tricia Albertson, as told to Gavin Larsen.

I like to make people laugh, so I was excited to be cast as the Mad Ballerina in Jerome Robbins' The Concert. But the character herself didn't feel like me. She's so bubbly and excited, and I'm a bit more pensive (when it comes to ballet, at least). I didn't want her to come across as stupid—she's still thoughtful. I guess you could say she's flighty, but it's just that she's so excited about the music at the concert that everything else is a blur to her.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
A portrait of Fanny Elssler, Courtesy Olga Smoak.

This Thursday, we're throwing it all the way back to Fanny Elssler, one of the most famous ballerinas of the Romantic period. Elssler may have graced stages far before the age of reality TV and Instagram, but her story is anything but dry. Last week, the Historic New Orleans Collection put on a symposium on the history of dance in New Orleans, of which Elssler played a pivotal role. We spoke with dance historian Olga Smoak to find out more about why this ballerina is still so exciting... nearly 200 years later.

But first, watch a recreation of Elssler's famous "La Cachucha," which she performed in New Orleans in 1841, danced by Rebecca Allen at the HNOC last week. Note the extreme tilts of the torso; they're part of what made Elssler such a captivating dancer in her day.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!