In rehearsal, he often seemed less elegant classicist than the boxer he was as a teenager, when his truck-driver father made him quit ballet and Villella took out his frustrations in the ring. He’d prowl MCB’s soaring main studio, a stalking, crouching figure among the lithe dancers, bouncing on the balls of his feet, hands reaching as if to pull the dancing out of them. “C’mon!” he exhorted them at a rehearsal of Balanchine’s Agon in 2000. “Energy! Go! Sharp! Attack! Go, go, go! Up! Up!” He always wanted more.
He was just as demanding in the daily company classes he led. Ballet dancers never stop taking class, and it can make all the difference in whether they develop or stall. Villella understood that; the years he lost when his father pulled him out of dance put him at a disadvantage that he overcame with the help of teacher Stanley Williams.
The process requires a combination of analysis and physical understanding so deep it seems instinctual. MCB’s dancers move the way they do largely because of Villella’s class, which pushed them hard and in new ways. I remember him letting them loose in one class, the men trying to outdo each other in leaps and turns, the women in flying pirouettes and extensions, laughing, gritting their teeth and applauding each other. They didn’t hold back.
Villella’s legacy was extended by the Miami City Ballet School, founded by his wife, Linda, who built it into one of the top training academies in the country and a source of talent (and income) for the company. Miami sisters Jeanette and Patricia Delgado and the young Brazilians Kleber Rebello and Renan Cerdeiro, company favorites, are just a few of its notable alums.
Villella’s allegiance to Balanchine and to classicism tended to make him artistically conservative — or at least cautious. He often said that MCB was a company that did masterworks, and the choreographers he chose besides Balanchine — Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor — tended to be established and allied, in their own way, to classical principals. Villella admired Mark Morris, but said he couldn’t afford him. He was frustrated by criticism that he didn’t do enough new and commissioned work and conversely, not enough traditional story ballets — expensive undertakings that were usually out of the struggling company’s reach. Still, he carefully, deliberately built the company’s range and repertory. Balanchine was his bedrock, but he wanted the company to be capable of anything.
One of the most stinging of the many injustices surrounding his ouster is that he leaves on the heels of a season in which world premieres from rising choreographer Liam Scarlett and established star Alexei Ratmansky left the company poised to move in a more creative direction that could further elevate its standing. Only time will tell how well his successor, Lourdes Lopez, fulfills MCB’s promise.
As frustrated as Villella often was with Miami, with funding that couldn’t match his ambitions, with the struggle to build an audience at home while getting standing ovations on tour, he never lost focus on the dancing. In fact, the company often seemed to dance best during its regular financial crises, as if the turmoil drove Villella deeper into his work. MCB debuted in New York as its budget melted down with the economy, with the eyes of the dance world on it — and the troupe never danced better.
Villella, 75, is returning to New York, where he plans to keep working in dance. He seems to have put behind him the city and company to which he devoted a third of his life. But Miami should not forget him. He gave us 26 years of vital, beautiful dancing, along with a company that has changed the way we see ourselves and the way the rest of the world sees us.