From a Beaning to Ballet

Edward Villella's Miami City Ballet brings two different nights of dance to Centennial Hall

If Edward Villella had not been knocked cold by a baseball in 1945, he might never have become one of the most acclaimed dancers in ballet.

And choreographer George Balanchine might never have composed some of his most cherished works. Sunstruck Miami might never have gotten its own ballet company.

But that baseball did hit Villella on New York's mean streets, setting off a chain of events that led to Villella becoming a celebrated New York City Ballet dancer. His high leaps and magnetic stage presence inspired Balanchine to make "Rubies" and to revive "Prodigal Son." And when Villella's dancing days were done, he founded the Miami City Ballet, today a highly regarded regional company known as a repository of Balanchine works.

The Miami stops at Centennial Hall this weekend to dance the full-length Balanchine ballet Coppélia on Friday, and a mixed-rep program on Saturday, of two shorter Balanchine works and a Twyla Tharp.

How did one stray baseball trigger so many happy endings? Let Villella tell the story.

"I was very physical," he said last month from his office in Miami Beach. Growing up Italian in Bayside, "I used to hang out on the streets of Queens," while his sister was indoors, pointing and flexing in ballet class. But the baseball put an end to his roaming days at age 9. His mother was so distraught about the knockout, she told her son, "From now on, we're dragging you to your sister's school."

"I had to sit there and watch," Villella chuckled. "I got so bored, I went in the back and I started to jump and fly around. The teacher said, 'Either you get him out of here, or you stick him in tights at the barre.' The next day I was in tights at the barre."

Villella hated the rigid steps at first, but it wasn't long before he realized that ballet was the perfect medium for his high-flying energy. His mother soon brought both kids to train at Balanchine's School of American Ballet. Though his sister quit ("Good, enough of this," their father said), Villella kept at it. He went off to college to please his parents, but after graduation went back to the domain of Balanchine.

"My parents didn't speak to me for a year," he said.

Unbeknownst to them, their son almost immediately became a star at New York City, the company that was then re-defining ballet. Balanchine, a classically trained Russian, was creating something new, an abstracted "neoclassical" ballet stripped of old-world romanticism and energized by America.

"He was a magnetic personality," said Villella, who spent his entire dancing career with Balanchine. "You quickly understood (that he was changing dance) and then got to what he had to give. It was amazing. The world dances differently now because of what he was providing."

Even Villella's parents eventually saw the worth of what their wayward son was doing.

"I sent them tickets to our second opening, in my second season. They thought I'd be buried someplace in the corps. Indeed, I had three solo and principal roles out of four. They came back (stage) in tears."

Dancing some 22 years with New York City, from the start, Villella won such critical encomiums as "athletic and virile," "exciting," "earthy."

"I was very fortunate," he said modestly. "But in those days, companies were in need of men. I could jump and leap and turn, but in the beginning, I didn't have any finesse or intellectual understanding. It took me years to accomplish all (that) ... and to understand what dance is beyond the physical."

Serious hip injuries (he's had three replacement surgeries, right, then left, then right again) abruptly ended his dancing career in 1979. For a few years, he labored as fledgling artistic director at a series of small troupes, learning the fine points of dealing with "unions, dancers, contracts, donors and boards."

In 1985, he took an offer from a group of backers in Miami to head up his own company. He relished starting a brand-new troupe, unencumbered by a previous director's legacy, but he nonetheless decided to begin with Balanchine.

"I thought that if we started from a Balanchine background as the core of our repertoire, we would have some work that had yet to be seen, certainly in Florida, and around the country. That enabled us to start touring in our first year."

Ten years in, "after making sure we became recognized for neoclassicism," Villella starting working backward in time, adding to the cutting-edge Balanchine work the romantic story ballets, the Giselles and Nutcrackers, of the previous century.

"Companies usually start with a 19th-century repertoire," he said. "We did absolutely the opposite, and got the hardest work achieved first."

Miami's Coppélia is Balanchine's 1974 version of the comic story about a faithless lover, Franz, who falls in love with a life-sized doll. (Petipa staged the original in 1884, basing it on a tale by Hoffman, the author who also spawned Nutcracker.) Danced by some 45 dancers, "Coppélia is one of those great, great works," he said. "It's full-length, three acts. We have a guy, Luis Serrano, who is just a superb Coppélius," the mischievous toy maker who crafts the doll. "He's very funny, and he's also a very good dancer."

The Saturday night mixed-rep show opens with Balanchine's "Ballo Della Regina," a 1978 dance inspired by Don Carlos, the Verdi opera about a fisherman seeking the perfect pearl. The work for some 28 dancers is "just a delightful divertissement. We open with women on stage, and they dance beautifully." Their arm movements suggest swimming, and the lighting "gives you a sense of a pearl. Naturally, the principal lady we recognize as being that perfect pearl."

Next up is 1982's "Nine Sinatra Songs" by Twyla Tharp, the modern choreographer who sent her most recent work to town last month in the traveling show Movin' Out.

"What we have is Mr. Sinatra singing and Twyla Tharp interpreting," Villella said. "What I love about is that it balances against the 'Ballo.' Verdi has a 19th-century feel and we have a '50s feel with Sinatra."

The finale, Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," is a big work for 30 dancers of "strictly Stravinsky, Balanchinian neoclassicism, without storyline but with incredible invention." A folk motif in the opening and closing invokes the charm of old Russia, Villella said, while two duets in the middle, about "getting together and coming apart," are tinged with sadness.

Villella said the dance is a window into the late choreographer's many sources.

"You can easily see Balanchine's points of departure--all that folk stuff, the neoclassical movements based on the 19th-century ballet tradition, the emotional aspects of the pas de deux. It's almost as though everything is super and wonderful, the pas de deux in the middle brings us down, and the finale sends us home."

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