In his 18 years as a dancer, Edward Villella earned fame as an enormously gifted interpreter of George Balanchine, the Russian-born choreographer who transformed American and classical ballet, and as a charismatic figure who brought ballet to popular culture. But his greatest contribution to the art form he loves may have been his 26 years as artistic director of Miami City Ballet, a tenure that ended abruptly last week.
Persuaded by arts benefactor Toby Lerner Ansin, Villella made good use of his glamour and stature in building a troupe in a city with little history and less interest in ballet. It was a coup for Ansin and Miami, but it was also transformative for Villella.
Launched in 1986, Miami City Ballet became an artistic pillar in a decade that also saw the birth of the New World Symphony and New World School of the Arts. MCB was proof that Miami was becoming a real city with real culture. We didn’t have just any ballet company; we had one led by Edward Villella.
MCB grew to play a vital role in the dance world, one not fully appreciated in its hometown. Within a decade of Balanchine’s death in 1983, there was a growing sentiment that the genre-changing repertory he created for New York City Ballet was losing its integrity and edge. But Villella’s troupe — despite its small size, youth and relative lack of virtuosity — soon became known as a haven where the master’s revolutionary ideas, acute musicality and brilliant craftsmanship were honored and expressed. More than once, a dance critic or ballet lover in New York, the capital of the dance world, told me how lucky I was to live in a city where I could regularly see the company perform.
Villella had been revered as a Balanchine interpreter; now he was keeping that legacy alive. In 1992, MCB became the first company after New York City Ballet to perform Balanchine’s masterwork Jewels (which included Rubies, the jazzy, intoxicating romp he created for Villella).
Great Balanchine dancers such as Patricia McBride, Suzanne Farrell and Violette Verdy were brought in to work with MCB, providing the one-on-one handoff of knowledge — one dancer telling another, “This is how you do it” — that is essential in ballet. “Body to body and mind to mind” is how Balanchine described it. Villella didn’t just repeat the edict; he lived it.
That living connection to a vital ballet legacy was as important as Villella’s reputation in bringing MCB acclaim and opportunities many companies never have. Just 10 years after its founding, MCB danced at the Kennedy Center. Its wildly successful New York debut in 2009 led to an even more successful opening in Paris and the company’s first national television appearance on PBS in 2011.
Villella’s dancers were a vibrant presence in the dance world. Everywhere, people marveled at their energy, intensity, precision, vitality and musicality — dancing so intimately attuned to the music that each brings the other to life. At many performances, the highlight was not the soloists, but the corps, dancing on the same impulse, as if they were inhaling the music with a single breath. It seemed as if Villella had taken a tiny piece of his heart and his urgent dancing, a New York critic wrote, and implanted it in each of his dancers.