Villella, Edward Joseph
VILLELLA, Edward Joseph
Villella, the only son of Joseph and Mildred (DeGiovanni) Villella, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in New York City. His father was a truckdriver, and his mother was a homemaker. To keep him off the streets and out of trouble, his parents in 1946 enrolled him in ballet classes at the School of American Ballet, where his older sister, his only sibling, was also a student. Villella was a natural and began thinking seriously of becoming a professional dancer. The instructors were so impressed with his talent that they told him to apply for a scholarship. Villella auditioned and was immediately accepted as a scholarship student. When his sister decided to quit dancing, Villella was expected to do the same, for his parents had other plans for him. Although Villella attended Maritime College, in the Bronx, earning a B.S. in maritime transportation in 1957, he never gave up his dream of becoming a dancer. After completing his education he returned to dancing classes. He had to work hard, however, to compensate for the four years he had lost. His progress was nothing short of extraordinary. In 1957, just one year after he returned to dance, Villella was accepted into the New York City Ballet (NYCB) under the directorship of the famed George Balanchine.
By his own admission, Villella spent most of his time at the NYCB "on the outs with Mr. B." Balanchine was the wrong teacher for Villella. Almost from the beginning Villella began to suffer severe cramps as a result of Balanchine's training methods, which were better suited for taller female dancers than for Villella's shorter, more muscular body. With the help of Stanley Williams, a member of the faculty at the School of American Ballet, Villella discovered a way to survive Balanchine's regime. Williams worked with Villella to build up his endurance, strength, and flexibility, considerably diminishing the risk of serious injury.
During the 1960s Villella became a featured dancer in Balanchine's troupe and, hailed as the greatest American-born male dancer in history, rocketed to national prominence. Villella debuted in the title role of The Prodigal Son, a work Balanchine personally disliked but revived for Villella during the 1959–1960 season. The role established Villella as a dancer of great power, finesse, and skill, and his performance remains one of the defining moments in the history of American ballet.
In 1961 Ballanchine promoted Villella to principal dancer in the NYCB. That year Villella danced at PresidentJohn F. Kennedy's inaugural celebration. Throughout the 1960s Villella created roles in nearly a dozen of Balanchine's works but came to be most strongly identified with the memorable roles of Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962) and Harlequin in Harlequinade (1965). During the 1960s he also appeared in Broadway musicals, including Brigadoon (1962).
With its sharply defined proportions, Villella's physique appeared to have been tailor-made for Balanchine's choreography. Dancing the roles of cavaliers and princes, Villella captured the essence of the gentleman, albeit one with a bit of the rascal in him. Villella's athleticism also made him an excellent partner. As one critic noted, Villella "shone as beautifully as the women with whom he was paired." Villella commanded attention in his performances with facial expressions that were as powerful and memorable as his leaps and turns. Many ballet aesthetes found his style too brash and earthy, but his good looks and charismatic presence, both on and off the stage, made him popular with audiences.
Part of Villella's immense popularity arose from his pioneering efforts to bring dance to television. In the 1960s he appeared as a guest on a number of television variety programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Bell Telephone Hour, and The Mike Douglas Show. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) produced a documentary about his career in 1968, titled Man Who Dances. Through television Villella reached audiences that might never have had the inclination or the opportunity to attend live ballet programs. Even on the small screen his performances conveyed energy, bravado, and excitement. In addition Villella demonstrated for many Americans that ballet was not only a permissible activity for heterosexual males but also was a way to display male power and sensuality.
By the early 1960s Villella attained international stardom. One of the most unforgettable moments of his career came in 1962 when he was invited to perform an encore at the famed Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, making him the first American male dancer ever to do so. It was also a first for a member the New York City Ballet. The significance of the event, which occurred at the height of the cold war, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, was not lost on Villella. In his autobiography Villella wrote that he was "dancing for my country." He later became the first American male dancer to perform with the Royal Danish Ballet.
Peter Martins, who later became a member of Balanchine's company, recalled seeing Villella in 1969 when Villella was still at the peak of his form. Martins found the experience electrifying. Years afterward, he wrote, "What I saw was rough-edged, overwhelming energy, full-out brio and excitement.… Here was someone with city street energy, who hadn't been brought up in the tradition-bound, sheltered, directed, somewhat protected environment."
Villella tried his hand at choreography, but without success. He continued to dance until 1979, when his numerous injuries at last forced his retirement. Since then Villella has spoken to audiences around the United States in an effort to promote an interest in dance. He has also served as artistic director for two ballet companies and in 1986 started his own in Miami, Florida. Villella and his wife, Janet Greschler, with whom he had one child, divorced in November 1980; they had been married since 1962. He married Linda Carbonetta, a figure skater, in April 1981. They have three children.
Although he no longer performs, Villella has never lost his love of ballet. His place in American dance history is secure, unrivaled, and in some ways reflective of the American dream. For the son of working-class Italian immigrants to rise to the pinnacle of the dance world was no mean feat. His accomplishment also brought recognition to ballet as an American art form.
With Larry Kaplan, Villella coauthored his autobiography, Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic (1992). Villella's place in the history of American ballet is documented in Olga Maynard, "Edward Villella Talks to Olga Maynard," Dance Magazine (May 1966). Igor Youskevitch, et al., The Male Image (1969); John Gruen, The Private World of Ballet (1975); Brett Shapiro, "One Ballet Dancer: Edward Villella," Dance Scope (1981); and "Villella Speaks on Balanchine," Dance Teacher Now (Mar. 1985), are all useful sources.