Welcome home, Mr. Villella! This was the sentiment last Tuesday night in a sold out Words on Dance event curated by the Paley Center for Media. After 26 years in Miami, founding and running the Miami City Ballet from a rag tag troupe to the kind of company that fills houses in Paris on tour, the New Yorkers in attendance were beside themselves to have their hometown hero back.
Villella’s perspective on what really happened down in Miami to bring him back is the topic for another conversation with a different moderator, perhaps, though he touched on it briefly to say that he was unable to continue with such a fundraising gap and did not want to run the company as simply another business. Christa Villella, his daughter and former ballet mistress in Miami, moderated and she was a pleasant counterpart. However, this is a man who needs no introduction nor interruptions. The stories flowed out of him, each one better than the last.
Here are a few fun facts that emerged from my favorite tales he told:
*He has a B.S. in Marine Transportation from a military college he attended to please his parents, who were initially not supportive of his desire to dance. He took a four year break from ballet and came back to wear “the old coat” of the Prodigal Son, literally and figuratively.
*When he was struggling with Prodigal Son, there was a moment of revelation when Mr. B muttered “byzantine icons” under his breath. This opened the world of the ballet’s port de bras for him and led him to begin dipping his toe into Russian Constructivism. As a dancer, he was true performing artist who researched his roles and was always “learning from what he didn’t know.”
*He was never sure if Balanchine ever forgave him for: cutting class to train with Stanley Williams (his body needed a much longer barre than Mr. B favored) and dancing an encore in Russia after so many curtain calls and demands from the audience (it went against the anti-star policy of NYCB).
*After a career-ending injury and diagnosis, it took him a year before he could even go see the ballet.
Villella, and his stories, are essential for the future of dance, and ballet in particular. He knows how to articulate the essence of a small gesture, let alone the excitement and importance of a classical art form. His presence and words continue to make dance relevant. Whether it is through freelance coaching of his namesake roles and/or teaching master classes, the dance world and New York City should feel particularly lucky to, once again, witness the return of their Prodigal Son.