Reflected in the mirrors of Miami City Ballet's large, airy studio on Miami Beach, Edward Villella's teaching persona is deceptively understated. Standing before his dancers, the dance icon and founder of MCB waves his hand in an incomplete gesture and mumbles a few almost inaudible words. However, as soon as the first piano chord is struck, dancers in groups of four and five bound to the front of the room and pounce, executing each sequence with the company's trademark athleticism and exuberance. Seventy-five-year-old Villella doesn't need to shout. He and his dancers speak a common language—one he's been honing for over a quarter of a century as artistic director and mentor to hundreds of them.
For 26 years, Villella patiently and methodically built MCB into a critically acclaimed company. He also devoted himself to the mission of passing on the knowledge imparted to him by 20th-century masters George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Igor Stravinsky. To the shock of many, Villella's departure from MCB was announced in September 2011. He spoke candidly and passionately with DT just days before abruptly leaving the company on September 4, 2012, eight months earlier than planned. He has since relocated to New York City with his wife Linda, former director of the MCB School.
Mia Leonin, for Dance Teacher: What has been your main challenge as artistic director of Miami City Ballet?
Edward Villella: I came from the best the world has ever seen—George Balanchine, Stravinsky, Robbins. I came from New York where we had Paul Taylor, Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp. I came from knowledge and awareness, so when I was asked to start a ballet in Miami, it was my thought and idea, “Well I've been asked to bring New York to Miami." What I fully didn't realize is there's a New York manner and a Florida manner. So for over a quarter of a century I have been trying to educate and bring Miami up to or near the level of cultural understanding of a city such as New York. It's not an easy thing to do.
DT: Was there something you wanted to avoid as the director of your own company?
EV: How dancers are treated. Dancers are quite often treated—unless you're some major principal—as a cog. We started with 19 dancers of all shapes and forms. I had to mold this whole thing into a cohesive unit. It was crucial and critical for me to create relationships with dancers. I wanted every dancer to feel comfortable talking to me and calling me by my first name. In class I walk around. I sit with people. We chat. I know them. They know me. It's a family.
DT: What do you consider among your greatest accomplishments with MCB?
EV: I have left one of the best companies in the world today. I don't say that. The critics in New York say that. The critics in Paris say that. We have achieved a statewide company first, a national company second and an international company third. However, we did all of that with this minuscule budget. We have been competing at the highest level. We shared a stage with the Kirov at the Kennedy Center, and guess what? We did not come off second best. Our reviews were far beyond what the Kirov was able to achieve.
DT: What has been a highlight of your 26 years with MCB?
EV: I've been at this now for 55 years [dancing, teaching and directing], and I have never seen or heard about a triumph such as we had in Paris. We did 17 performances, 14 ballets, three weeks, and we had something like 96 or 97 percent attendance. From the very first ballet, we had standing, screaming ovations. I must have done 40 different interviews and the first question they said to me was, “How did you get dancers to dance like that? We've never seen this attack, the sharpness, the speed, the angularity, the musicality, the full understanding of each ballet, the relationship of dancers on the stage."
DT: What is unique about the way your dancers perform Balanchine's works?
EV: My dancers know who they are within an abstract ballet. An abstract ballet is not abstract for the sake of being abstract. An abstract ballet is a larger idea that you reduce to its essence, and it becomes poetry. You have to understand what that larger idea was and how that then relates to the brilliant minds of a Stravinsky and a Balanchine. People talk about my legacy. My legacy is Balanchine and Stravinsky. Those are the guys who showed me what all of this stuff is about. They are no longer available, so it's incumbent upon me to keep going.
The first commedia dell'arte work Balanchine did for me was a work called Harlequinade. I didn't know what commedia dell'arte was. I didn't know there were two styles—French and Italian. At any rate I'm flying around, and I'm doing what I think a commedia kind of character, a harlequin, should be doing. He didn't say a word. He just watched me flail around and at one point he stopped me and said, “You know, dear, Harlequin is premier danseur," and I went: “Oh my God. Now I have a character—it's all up here [gestures to the upper body and torso], and it's full of charms and it has its vulnerabilities."
He did a second commedia dell'arte for me. It was called Pulcinella and, so before we got started, Balanchine says, “Do you know who Pulcinella is? He's the kind of guy who likes to look under the skirts of little girls." So I immediately knew who that character was. So if you listened to him, you got it in terms of influence and understanding. It became clear that I had to hand-feed this kind of stuff to my dancers.
DT: How much time do you spend working on technique with your dancers?
EV: I don't spend a great deal of time correcting people because the class corrects itself. Technique is terrific and steps are wonderful, but it's the qualities that are critical. It's how you pass through these steps, how you use that vocabulary and alphabet, how you have internal awareness and knowledge of that particular moment in time in that choreographer's mind, during that composer's notes.
A dancer's entire attitude changes if given a few logical, practical ideas that they can trust and now feel they understand how to make a role. These dancers know what my point of departure is, but the best part is that they trust me and they believe in me. And it works.
DT: How do you create that trust?
EV: It's a pretty simple connection. I want their respect. I seek their respect every single minute of every day and there's a mutuality of respect, a mutuality of trust, of opportunity and of success in what we do. I happen to be a person who has danced almost everything, and I know these ballets inside and out. I know the concept of the ballets. I know the characters. I know what their relationships are. This is a unique knowledge.
DT: How was this knowledge imparted to you?
EV: Balanchine said, “What ballet is about is body to body, but also mind to mind." It's that kind of intimacy that I wanted to focus on. Not the outside stuff—the steps and the counts. Once he said to me, “I think you have a great potential for Apollo. Go and learn it." I went, I learned it and I showed it to him. He said, “No, that's not it." I said, “Mr. B, those are the steps and counts," and he said, “Of course. But there is no poetry in your gesture. I am going to dance it for you." He was a man in his mid-60s, standing in front of me in a double-breasted suit with loafers, a Western shirt and a Western tie. He danced Apollo for me and I went, “Oh my God. Now I have awareness, a point of departure."
DT: What is the challenge to passing on these concepts to future generations?
EV: You can't just pass these things on. That's the real problem with videotaping. What's the last videotape you looked at? Suddenly that becomes the bible. All kinds of mistakes are made musically, technically, all kinds of dramatic misunderstandings, but suddenly you have it on this video. Now you're going to do it this way, and it distorts unless there is comprehension. It's an oral tradition. People think, “Oh, you show them a step." No, no, no. It's how you pass through that step. How do you lift an arm? People lift an arm from their shoulders. It's from the back. All of these things are interconnected. It's how you understand the totality of it all and put it all together.
DT: Is there anything you regret about your time at MCB?
EV: That I was not able to bring more comprehension to South Florida. I was capable of doing that at the Kennedy Center, in Chicago, New York and Paris, but when you are dealing with a community that doesn't fully have enough exposure, interest and support, it's a little exasperating, and you feel like you have not fully done what you started out to do.
DT: What's your next step?
EV: What I want to do first of all is to return to a place where they speak my language. Miami does not speak my language.
DT: Anything else?
EV: What the hell do I do with the rest of my life? I'm not going to just take this information and put it in my back pocket. I'm a sharing person. I love to teach. I love to watch the glint in the eye of a dancer when they get it. What a pleasure that is!