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Miami City Ballet leader Edward Villella bows out 8 months early

Miami City Ballet founder and artistic director Edward Villella stepped down unexpectedly on Tuesday, eight months earlier than planned — the latest move to shake the troupe in a year of power struggles, personality clashes and financial strain.

The news that Villella, 75, whose forced retirement was announced a year ago, would not head the troupe for one final season was emailed at mid-morning Tuesday, a time when he normally leads the dancers in their daily technique class.

“Over the weekend [Villella] and the MCB Board leadership decided it was in the best interest of the company to speed the transition,” the announcement from Villella and ballet officials said. It went on to say that incoming artistic director Lourdes Lopez, appointed last spring, would take over immediately rather than at the end of the 2012-13 season in April as originally announced.

Financial terms of Villella’s departure will remain private, said company spokesman Roberto Santiago.

“We offer Edward Villella our gratitude for his contributions to Miami City Ballet,” board president Jim Eroncig said in the announcement. “He has created a world-class ballet company. We are poised for an amazing future because of Edward’s years of commitment to excellence.”

Villella did not appear at a meeting to give the news to company dancers and staff Tuesday, but addressed them via email.

“I am both pleased and saddened to be writing you,” Villella’s email said. “Pleased, because we have achieved so much together and because I have faith in the future that all of you are helping to create. Sad, because it is hard to say goodbye. I have decided that with the leadership transition plan well underway, it is best for me to leave the company now.”

Villella had recently severed other major ties to Miami and the company. His wife, Linda Villella, the founder and director of the Miami City Ballet School, stepped down on Aug. 31. The couple, who have been looking for a home in New York City, are close to selling their Miami Beach house, according to several sources.

“I’ll be going back to New York, my home, and I will be continuing what I’ve been doing for the last 55 years which is to work in my art form,” Villella.told WLRN-Miami Herald News.

Ballet officials said discussions about a leadership transition sped up over Labor Day weekend.

The statements from the board leadership and from Villella — who also wrote to donors and ballet subscribers — struck a conciliatory tone. “Edward is responsible for bringing world-class dance to Miami,” said founding board member Toby Lerner Ansin in Tuesday’s announcement. A letter from Villella to the company’s donors opened with thanks for their “dedicated support and unwavering commitment… while we can stand on the accolades of the past, we are also ready to build a strong future.”

The harmonious words contrasted with the acrimony that surrounded the ballet in recent months, as some board members, donors, and supporters said that members of the ballet’s executive board forced Villella out, jeopardizing the ballet’s reputation and finances. This summer, the troupe faced debts of over $2 million, and the staff took salary cuts and unpaid furloughs. Executive Director Nicholas Goldsborough was fired abruptly in June, and Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., was brought in as a consultant.

Longtime MCB board member Marvin Ross Friedman resigned Tuesday, blaming the board of governors for Villella’s departure and calling it “a great injustice to a great artist and an unrecoverable loss to our community.”

“Edward’s dismissal was orchestrated by very few members of the [executive board] for reasons best known only to themselves, never adequately explained and without consulting the Board of Trustees,” Friedman wrote of the break between Villella and board leaders. “I love Miami City Ballet. … I cannot, however, in good conscience continue as a member of a board that so lacks authority and transparency and an organization whose leadership acts with such reckless disregard.”

Villella and ballet leaders both stressed that Tuesday’s departure was a mutual decision. Villella said he initiated the talks to expedite his exit.

“I urge those who have supported me over the years and who have believed in my artistic leadership to respect this decision,” Villella said in an email.

Board member Arthur √Levey, who had also criticized the board leadership’s management, said that while Villella’s departure was a great loss, it was time for him and the ballet to move on.

“He’s a giant… and there’s a loss of continuity and of opportunity,” Levey said. “But for Edward I think [leaving now] was the right thing to do. He’s done his job here and he still has a lot to give. You have to go forward, he’s not young anymore, and his time is valuable.”

“But the ballet should continue to survive. It’s the art we should support regardless of who the management is.”

Lopez, the incoming artistic director, said she found out Sunday that Villella would be leaving, and arrived in Miami pre-dawn Tuesday. “Edward felt the company was in good hands and the next step was whether I was available to come down sooner rather than later,” the former New York City Ballet dancer said Tuesday. Lopez has been visiting Miami frequently since she was selected as artistic director in April, meeting with potential donors and supporters. More recently, she has focused on the ballet’s school, which she will also head until a new director can be appointed.

“This is something that I’ve prepared for since April,” Lopez said. “We dancers think ahead, we plan our roles.” Lopez, who spent much of Tuesday attending rehearsals for the company’s season opening performance on Oct. 19 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, said there would be no changes to programming or casting this season. “I absolutely want to honor Edward’s last season,” she said. “It really is a privilege and an honor to succeed Edward Villella and to be part of this great organization.”