Somewhere in Queens in 1946, a 10-year-old boy wore his baseball uniform over his dance outfit and slunk off to the ballet classes his mother forced upon him as a punishment. That boy grew up to be Edward Villella, one of the most celebrated male ballet dancers in American history. Villella appeared at Barnard on Monday as part of the dance department’s “On Dance” series to speak about his journey of becoming what he calls a “spokesperson for male ballet dancing.”
A short, husky man with a distinctive Queens accent, Villella spent most of his career at the late George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. He quickly rose to principal roles after joining the company, famously partnering with Barnard dance faculty member Allegra Kent. Villella spoke of Balanchine, who created many roles for him, as a father figure.
“When he quit smoking, all of us quit smoking,” Villella said.
The cultural climate surrounding Villella’s rise to stardom greatly differed from that of the modern male ballet dancer. His parents, especially his father, greatly disapproved of his interest in ballet and sent him to the State University of New York Maritime College.
“I was a very frustrated guy,” Villella said of his time at school. He took up boxing as a release of this frustration and a form of cross-training, but ultimately he graduated with physical limitations.
“I didn’t dance for those four years and my body was my enemy,” he said.
Though Villella harbored regrets about the four years of setbacks, he was able to join NYCB immediately upon graduation. He described ballet at the time as an “untouchable art form.”
But Villella subverted this expectation as a dancer.
“I didn’t give a damn,” he said. “I did what I wanted to do.”
Villeella made television appearances and performed in commercial and Broadway productions that blurred the high-brow and low-brow art forms that many were careful to keep separate. These ventures outside Balanchine’s ballets were attempts to humanize ballet for its audience, Villella said.
As the number of dancers who knew Balanchine personally diminishes by the year, Villella’s impression of the Russian choreographer was a crowd-pleaser.
“He wanted to get to what it was that he wanted to get to,” Villella said.
Villella himself is an anomaly among Balanchine’s dancers—his women tended to rise to stardom, instead of his men.
“In politics, it’s Eisenhower, and in ballet, it’s women,” Villella quoted Balanchine as saying. He recalled one of Balanchine’s few moments of anger, telling his male dancers, “You’re just porters: You pick them up, you put them down.”
Last year, Villella retired from his post as artistic director of Miami City Ballet, the company he founded in 1985, to return to New York. His newest project is a ballet on ice titled “Reveries.” It will premiere at Ice Theatre of New York on Thursday and run through the weekend.
His goal for this five-couple piece is to “make an ice ballet with no applause,” focused on artistry and form rather than tricks. “People were in tears,” he said of a preview of the work. “We made a point.”
Though he is moving beyond the world of classical ballet in his work, Villella passionately defended the genre.
“People think classicism stopped in the 19th century,” he said. “That’s a fallacy. Classicism goes on and on. Look at Apollo. It could have been made yesterday. That’s classicism.”