Who’s Here: Edward Villella, Dancer

Edward Villella headshot
Edward Villella

For 19 years in the last half of the 20th century, New York City’s Edward Villella was considered America’s greatest male ballet dancer. A principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, his tenure began only a few years after the founding of that company by director George Balanchine, who is universally regarded as one the greatest choreographer who ever lived. Balanchine often choreographed ballets directly for Villella in those years and the two worked together closely.

Villella won many awards, including an Emmy for a CBS Television production of Harlequinade. He danced at the inaugural of President Kennedy and performed for Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford. In 1997, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton and was a Kennedy Center Honoree. The Dance Heritage Coalition named him as one of the first 100 of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures. Edward visits his many friends here in the Hamptons and first began coming out here more than 30 years ago.

Villella never intended to become a ballet dancer. He was born and raised in Bayside, Queens. His father was the head of a trucking company that brought bolts of cloth to factories in Corona, Queens and brought finished dresses to the garment district in Manhattan. His mother was a housewife and had grown up in an orphanage in Corona. The two met at a party where his father was performing in a dance band, and when they had a daughter (Villella’s older sister, Carolyn), his mother wanted her to have all the things that she had missed when in the orphanage.

While Edward played and hung around with his friends on street corners, playing stickball and getting into scrapes, his mother accompanied his sister to a ballet class after school three times a week. Carolyn was 8 and he was 7. They were both going to PS 130.

“What happened was that one day I got knocked out cold playing baseball on the street. We were playing ‘running bases’ with two sewers as bases. A ball hit me in the back of the head. My friends didn’t know what to do with someone out cold. So they picked me up, brought me home and laid me on the stoop and, frightened, they ran off. Eventually, I got up and went inside.”

A neighbor happened to see the incident and told his mother. His mother told him, “Well, obviously we can’t trust you on the street anymore.” He then got “dragged” to his sister’s ballet class.

“There were these 40 giggling girls, my mom and me. I was totally bored. They were doing these delicate gestures and steps. Then they started to jump. I could jump. So I went to the back of the room and tried out a jump or two of my own. What did I know? But I was a good jumper, though I was kind of doing it all in a clownish way.”

The director of the school saw him and said to his mother “either get him out of here or put him in tights at the barre.”

“So my mother bought me some tights. I thought ‘nobody is going to know about this.’ But I was wrong. It was soon all over town. We dried the wash on clotheslines out back in those days. The neighbors saw them. As for my friends, I now found I had to not only defend ballet dancing, I also had to defend myself physically from them. I fought and won the fights. Though I was small, I was fast, strong and smart. I should tell you I was the welterweight boxing champion in college.”

His mother had high hopes for his older sister. When she turned 11, she contacted George Balanchine, who had just opened a ballet school in Manhattan called the School of American Ballet, to see if she could arrange a scholarship for Carolyn. She got one. “As my mother was leaving, she told the registrar, ‘I also have a son who’s not very interested, but he does ballet dancing, too.’ A boy was an answer to a ballet school’s prayer in those days.” They were rare indeed. So along went Edward.

Two years later, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia offered Balanchine the use of the City Center in Manhattan for his new company. The only condition was that he change the name from Ballet Society to New York City Ballet.

“George Balanchine was a genius,” Villella told me. “Not just in the world of ballet. He could talk geopolitics with Henry Kissinger. He had a photographic mind. When Mr. B walked into a room, his persona preceded him. He was elegant, commanding and utterly remarkable. And he taught us all everything.”

“I was 10 when I first saw him, and his school soon showed me this was much more than just street stuff. It required your mind. There were positions of your feet and arms. There were soaring jumps. I fell in love with it. I could speak a physical language if I was willing to learn it.”

When Edward was 16, his sister told their mother she didn’t want to do ballet anymore.

“It broke her heart,” Edward said. “She said she never wanted to hear the word ballet spoken in their house ever again.”

“And you thought—what about me?” I asked.

“I did. But I didn’t say anything. But then my father supported her. ‘It’s over. It’s done,’ he said. And turning to me he said, ‘And you’re going to college.’”

The brother of one of Edward’s closest friends was at the New York State Maritime College in the Bronx. This college today is where it has always been, on a military base at the foot of the abutment of the Throgs Neck Bridge. “One day I was in ballet school, the next day I was in college.”

“What about ballet?” I asked.

“We weren’t allowed off the base. I used my physicality by lettering in boxing and baseball. At the end of four years, I got a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Transportation. On graduation day I told my dad I wanted to be a ballet dancer. He wouldn’t speak to me for a year.”

“And Balanchine took you back?” I asked.

“One day all these years later, I just showed up again. ‘Remember me?’ I asked. They did. And they motioned for me to come in.”

Villella returned to class and was soon asked to join the company, first as a Corps de Ballet dancer, where he spent three years, then as a soloist and finally, two years later, as one of the principals. He was to remain a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet for the next 15 years.

And Balanchine choreographed for him in the neo-classical style. “He choreographed to my strength, my ability to jump, my musical ability, my quality of movement, much of which involved speed.”

Balanchine choreographed Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bugaku, Tarantella and revived Prodigal Son for Villella.

“He knew us intimately and choreographed for us in that manner. He used our potentials and our intelligence. He challenged us and made us work for it. He had a no-star system and listed us all alphabetically.”

Who the stars were was left to the critics. I asked Villella to describe one of the peak moments in his career.

“I would have to say it was in October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he said. “This was during a State Department tour to the Soviet Union. We were all aware the Soviet interpreters were KGB following us everywhere, including the hotel.

“There were about 60 of us. And this was the first time Balanchine had been back to Russia since he had defected at 19. It was very emotional for him.

“One day we were invited to lunch at the American Embassy, and suddenly the staff started boarding up all of the windows. Outside, students threw rocks and ink bottles at the embassy. It was quite frightening as we were leaving. Our country and theirs were within hours of raining down nuclear missiles on each other.

“The second night at the Bolshoi I had a bravura role with pyrotechnical aspects. I finished my variation and when it ended people applauded and stamped their feet in unison. The Russian audience was calling me back to do an encore. All together there were 21 curtain calls. This was one of the most emotional experiences in my life at that time.”

I asked Villella to give me an idea of how he interrelated with Balanchine.

“One day he asked me to learn the ballet Apollo.

“I did and showed it to him. He said, ‘That’s not Apollo, you do not have enough poetry in your gesture. I will show it to you.’ He was wearing a double-breasted grey suit, some loafers and a cowboy shirt. He was approximately 65 years old. Then he danced it for me and I began to understand the poetry of gesture. He talked about the role… an eagle on a crag looking down from the rock, a matador watching a bull go by, a soccer step, a bicycle rider, and a chariot driver. He also told me Apollo was a rascal. With all these masculine images, I now had a point of departure from which to develop the role of Apollo.”

Early in his career, Villella began coming to the Hamptons to enjoy the beach, the beautiful homes, the beautiful women and the social life. He bought a classic sports car, a ’57 Corvette, and after that a Ford Shelby. He was a partner in a New York City disco called Arthur, with Roddy McDowell and Cybil Burton Christopher. He got married to one of the ballet dancers in the company and then got divorced. He traveled to London, Paris and Tokyo with the company.

“Once, I got a speeding ticket in Virginia,” he told me. “The police clocked me doing 110.”

The average career of a ballet dancer in his or her prime at the top of their career is usually 15 years. Villella’s lasted 20.

“You don’t do things quite as fast as you used to. You know it is going to end somehow.”

After a performance at the White House before President Ford, he experienced a lot of pain in his right hip. Afterward, he went to see the company’s orthopedic surgeon. He told Villella his dancing career was over. He would need a replacement for his hip.

So he retired. But he soon learned he could continue to make his living as a speaker at universities, using other dancers to do lectures and demonstrations. Edward was invited to be an artist in residence at West Point and worked with the football, baseball and lacrosse teams. He also choreographed for companies and television.

One year, he was asked to choreograph a television special that would feature Dorothy Hamill, the Olympic skating champion. He declined at first, telling the producers that he didn’t know enough about ice skating. The producers offered to bring the former Canadian national champion, Linda Carbonetto, to New York to be his assistant. She was in Los Angeles with the production company and they all met in New York for the first production meeting. Not only did the TV special work, they also fell in love and got married.

A few years later, Villella got an invitation to start a ballet company in Miami. “The great man had passed away. His neo-classical abstractions and his choreographic details were becoming diluted.”

In 1986, he founded the Miami City Ballet with $1 million in backing and 19 dancers. Edward Villella would be its director. He and his family moved to La Gorce Island off Miami Beach and remained there for 25 years, taking the company from its inception to one of the most respected companies in America. By 2012 the company had grown to 53 dancers and had a budget of nearly $15 million.

“What did you enjoy about it?” I asked.

“The exhilaration of moving in a controlled way and still having a sense of abandonment.”

Today, Linda and Edward Villella live in a brownstone overlooking the Hudson on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and often come out to the Hamptons to visit friends.

Edward Villella will be talking about some of his major roles and his career at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Saturday, August 16 at 11 a.m. You can visit guildhall.org for all the details.

Vintage Edward Villella
Vintage Edward Villella photo by Bill Eppridge

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