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Behind the curtain: Edward Villella’s firing as Miami City Ballet boss

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 Villella’s previous high — 22 curtain calls in Moscow on tour with the New York City Ballet at the height of the Cold War.

“I’ve 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 Villella’s passion for his art and his troupe had undermined the company’s finances and so alienated key donors that the troupe’s 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 city’s 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 Villella’s ouster. And it has prompted bitter, behind-the scenes arguments over the future of South Florida’s most renowned performing arts group.

“The whole business was a bad business,” says board member Francinelee Hand. “There’s 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 Villella’s 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.

“I’m 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.

“But the purpose of a board is to support the purpose of the company, not to put blocks in front of it.”

Ana-Marie Codina Barlick, the ballet chairwoman who has led the recent changes, says she and others were forced to take drastic measures to keep the company afloat.

“This is not about Edward personally,” Codina said. “It’s about how the company has been managed and the fact that the company goes from financial crisis to financial crisis. ... As a donor you get very frustrated when you’re being asked to make emergency donations and you feel like your business advice is not being listened to.”

Since Villella’s departure was announced, financial and other crises have continued to shake the ballet as it prepares to enter its last season with him at the helm.

Last fall the board touted new executive director Nicholas Goldsborough, a former fundraiser for Harvard University and Carnegie Hall, as a solution to their money woes. But in June, he was fired in a surprise decision that stunned the troupe’s dancers and staff.

At the same time, staff at the company and the Miami City Ballet School were told they would have to take pay cuts and furloughs — with money now coming from its endowment, school tuition and orchestra grants to fill the budget gaps, according to two key staff members who requested anonymity.

The company is $2 million in debt, and projections for individual donations fell from $4 million in June of last year to $2.3 million this spring.

Hoping to stop the bleeding, board members agreed this month to bring in Michael Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, to consult on management and fundraising, for a fee of between $125,000 and $150,000.

The new artistic director, former New York City Ballet dancer Lourdes Lopez, takes over as soon as Villella leaves next spring. She has been meeting with potential funders in Miami for several months.

From the time Villella arrived in Miami — after his career as a dancer was derailed by crippling hip injuries — he was constantly tested by the tension between his own artistic ambition and board members eager to have a great company but not always prepared for the cost, said people close to the troupe.

The new director was faced with a community that lacked the kind of deep generational support found in established northern cities.

The company started in 1986 with 17 dancers and a budget of just $1 million. Less than a decade later, it was being invited to world-class venues such as the Kennedy Center and Scotland’s Edinburgh Festival.

By 2000, MCB had more than doubled in size and moved from a meager storefront to its state-of-the-art home near the Bass Museum.

But the growth came at a cost. Year after year, individual donors were forced to bail out what had become one of the top troupes in the country. While some board members were inspired, many were frustrated at the costs.

Prestige productions like the world premiere of Twyla Tharp’s Nightspot in 2008, and Romeo and Juliet during the company’s 25th season, were pricey — at times topping $1 million.

“He was always reaching for something the board was never ready for,” says a former longtime staffer. “You feel like you’re part of something extraordinary, and then you’re crashed into this financial reality all the time.”

Further ruffling donors’ feathers, Villella would complain bitterly that Miami didn’t appreciate the company’s artistic achievement.

They were constantly swinging between good years and budget shortfalls, juggling bills to make ends meet.

The tension peaked as the economy plunged in 2008 — just as the company was invited to perform in New York for the first time. The acclaim the troupe earned there propelled it to new heights, garnering them the invitation to Paris and their television debut.

The financial strains were typical for ballet companies. But the spiraling costs were becoming too much for some board members.

“These tours have been very prestigious, but they never seem to translate to something that produces revenue for the company at home,” says Codina, who became president in 2009. “It’s been great for our brand and the stature of our company. But we always seem to end up in a financial mess.”

At times, Villella, whose salary reached $365,000 last year, clashed with board members he thought were meddling. But their tolerance for his intensity was waning.

According to several sources, R. Kirk Landon, a longtime major donor, pressed Villella to retire and withheld a major cash infusion in 2011 unless Villella promised to leave. Landon would not comment for this story.

People began to move for a change at the top. In addition to Codina, daughter of politically influential Miami developer Armando Codina, new board president Jim Eroncig joined in the move to oust the director. Also in that camp were Landon and lawyer Alex Tachmes, whom Codina installed as vice president, according to board members and employees.

Some of Villella’s strongest supporters began to believe he could no longer manage the chaotic finances. They included Toby Lerner Ansin, who launched the troupe with Villella and has been one of its biggest donors, and Robert Gottlieb, an influential New York publisher, editor and dance critic who for years had been a close confidant.

By the time Villella returned from his celebrated Paris visit, the core group had already decided he needed to go. Because they are executive board members, the by-laws required only three to agree.

Immediately, the fallout was severe. The dancers barged into a board meeting the day Villella’s retirement was announced, demanding explanations. Some board members said they felt betrayed that such critical decisions were made behind closed doors and they never had a chance to weigh in.

“Jim [Eroncig] holds everything close to his chest as does Ana [Codina], and they don’t share any information,” says board member Bob Avian. “Basically it’s write the check and keep your mouth shut.”

Says Arthur Levey, a board member who challenged Villella’s ouster: “They’re so adamant about taking control. Why is it we don’t know what really happened?”

Codina says a confidentiality agreement signed by both sides means that the terms of Villella's retirement must be kept secret.

The executive group promised that money would flow once Villella’s retirement was set.

But so far that has not happened.

Meanwhile, top board members are counting on a $5 million grant from the John F. and James L. Knight Foundation to get the company out of its hole — money that could come as soon as September. The foundation gave the troupe a quarter-million last year to fund a search for a new artistic director and develop a five-year plan for the future.

Knight officials say they have not guaranteed anything to the ballet and have distanced themselves from the fray. “No grant has been promised to MCB; no such grant has been authorized by KF trustees,” Knight President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen wrote in an email. “Whatever moves the MCB trustees have made have been made on their own.”

Some say the controversy and the perception that Villella was treated badly means the move backfired on the executive board.

At least four board members have said they will leave or are considering stepping down once Villella is gone.

“There’s a basic lack of understanding of how fragile great art is,” says longtime board member Marvin Ross Friedman. “When it’s achieved it’s so magical. Here we have great art and we’re throwing it away.”

The biggest question hangs over the ballet company itself — and whether it will sustain the quality and reputation Villella has spent a quarter-century building.

Board members like Codina say MCB will be fine once it is on a more stable economic foundation, and that it will serve the community better if it focuses on performances at home instead of high-profile shows elsewhere.

And they say that, although the process has been painful, it was necessary — and now it’s time to move on.

“It had to happen and it’s very, very hard,” said Ansin. “The emphasis should be on moving forward.”

Others say the troupe will take an artistic hit that is not measurable in dollars and cents.

“They’re going to lose a great teacher, a great reconstructor of American ballet classics, whose name alone carries a standard of excellence,” says Sally Sommer, a well-known dance writer and professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “The company is going to have to put itself back together after it has been scattered like a jigsaw puzzle.”

As he nears the end of his time with the troupe he thought would be his life’s best work, Villella looks gaunt and haggard. Friends say he has insomnia and trouble eating. The man who bounded through rehearsals with the energy of the boxer he once was now shuffles slowly. He and his wife Linda are selling their home in Miami Beach, and plan to move back to New York as soon as the final shows of his last season are done, sources say.

“They don’t understand what has made Miami City Ballet so special and different,” says a longtime dancer who asked not to be identified. “How Edward has taught us to think about dancing, how you’re doing it, why you’re doing it that way, what the music is telling you — how it’s driven by your mind.

“They don’t understand. They think nothing’s gonna change.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the reasons for the secrecy surrounding Edward Villella's departure. A statement attributed to board chairwoman Ana-Marie Codina Barlick should have explained that the secrecy was due to a confidentiality agreement that had been signed by both sides.