Last July, Miami City Ballet artistic director Edward Villella was enjoying the greatest triumph of his career. Night after night, the troupe he launched from a Lincoln Road storefront 26 years before basked in thunderous standing ovations from packed crowds at Paris storied Theatre du Chatelet.
Those three weeks in Paris topped Villellas previous high 22 curtain calls in Moscow on tour with the New York City Ballet at the height of the Cold War.
Ive never experienced anything like this, Villella said from his Paris dressing room. I feel exhilarated and happy and so proud of our dancers. We are operating at the highest levels.
But the accolades abruptly ended when Villella and the company returned home. The ballet had a deficit of over $1.5 million, and was in one of the worst financial crises in its history.
A cadre of powerful board members felt that Villellas passion for his art and his troupe had undermined the companys finances and so alienated key donors that the troupes survival was at stake.
They confronted the 75-year-old director with a stark choice: renounce his current contract and agree to retire by spring 2013, or the company would be forced to declare bankruptcy.
Lawyers were standing by to draw up the papers. He was given a few days to decide. With his company and his own financial future on the line, Villella agreed.
On Sept. 22, he announced his departure to his stunned dancers, reading from a press release.
He was choked up, swallowing back tears, one dancer recalled. Everyone was in shock. It was very apparent this was not his choice.
The career of the man who had brought Miami City Ballet to the summits of the dance world and boosted the citys name across the country was over in Miami.
The break climaxes years of tension between Villella and the board at a time when the company has reached unparalleled success: a critically acclaimed debut in New York in 2009, the Paris performances, a national TV debut on PBS last fall, and premieres of two successful ballets from major international choreographers last season.
The conflict has also exposed the often rough-and-tumble world of arts patronage ego clashes and strong-arm tactics that led to Villellas ouster. And it has prompted bitter, behind-the scenes arguments over the future of South Floridas most renowned performing arts group.
The whole business was a bad business, says board member Francinelee Hand. Theres a lot of anger and resentment, and no one is willing to tell anything.
With a confidentiality agreement in place, Villella would not comment for this article.
But financial documents obtained by The Miami Herald, and interviews with more than 20 board members, current and former staffers, dancers, and donors paint a portrait of a clash between a man driven by a vision of achievement for his art form and a group of influential patrons convinced that Villellas passion had taken the company beyond its financial limits.
The issue has divided board members, some of whom remain intensely loyal to the dance legend, while others say Villella had become so egotistical and arrogant that he put his own ambitions above the survival of the company.
Im sure there were problems with Edward on an artistic and temperamental level there always are, says Alfred Allan Lewis, a longtime ballet supporter whose partner, as former head of the Audrey Love Charitable Foundation, shepherded millions in donations to MCB.