Edward Villella was known as a beer drinker in a Champagne world during his years performing with the New York City Ballet. Today, as founding artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, he is a poker player in a business suit.
In truth, quite a bit of the higher- priced drink flowed out through Villella's technique and the easy yet commanding way that he occupied the stage. But it was his gutsy attack that drew the eye and heart, in a career with City Ballet that began at City Center in 1957.
Now Villella returns, woefully sentimental, he confesses, at all the memories stirred by that return. The occasion is the New York unveiling of the Miami company in a two-program debut season (Jan. 21 _ 25) that includes "Rubies," a defining ballet for Villella, four other Balanchine classics and Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room."
How does a ballet star become the steward of an internationally known troupe with 55 dancers, a repertory of 88 ballets, a new block-long home and a budget of $14.5 million?
Villella was lost for a time when his career came to sudden end, one hip worn through, in 1975. The thought occurred to him that he had something to pass on, perhaps as a company director. "I said, 'Whoa, wait a minute. I really don't know enough. I'm going to make a fool of myself."
He cut his directorial teeth on the Eglevsky Ballet, moving on to became a long-distance director of Ballet Oklahoma. "After about six years of this, I began to get the hang of marketing and pR and finance and dealing with unions and orchestras and all this kind of stuff you rarely think of as a dancer."
Then, lecturing in Miami, he was approached by several people who asked him for advice about starting a company there. "They asked me if I would help, so I wrote them an 11 1⁄2 year plan, a year and a half of organization and raising front money and visibility, then a three, five and ten-year production plan, with budgets, and five years of programming."
Unsurprisingly enough, he was invited to take the job. He did some research and discovered that the influx of people moving to Florida included many from cities where he had performed. Furthermore, there were four large cities nestled relatively close in Florida. "But palm Beach will not talk to Miami, Miami won't talk to Fort Lauderdale," he said. "It has to come to them. So that's what we did." Boards were organized in the three cities and the fourth, Naples, produced the company's performances there. "I predicted on opening night that if we did our job correctly we would have 2,000 to 2,500 subscribers and we had about 4,500 our first season."
That was in 1985. Villella chose to begin with Balanchine and progressed to the 19th-century classics and work by August Bournonville and Paul Taylor. He brought in Violette Verdy, patricia McBride and Suzanne Farrell to work on the three ballets in "Jewels" that they had originated _ "Emeralds," "Rubies" and "Diamonds." A bit of ingenious marketing followed. "Violette came down to do 'Emeralds' and we did two other ballets she was associated with," he said. "Same with patty and Suzanne."
He also presented the three "Jewels" ballets separately in galas. "Then I put "Jewels" into the repertoire and raised some more money. You either die or invent."
But there were clouds scuffing the horizon, as persistent as the pushing winds and "sideways rain" that Villella delights in seeing from the huge windows of the company headquarters, along with the faces pressed close to watch the dancers rehearsing and learning, early on, to perform.
"When we first came down here, there was a militancy against Castro. If you ate a candy bar from Cuba, they'd kill you."
Miami City Ballet failed to toe the line sufficiently, and there were threats of boycotts, picketing and denials of funding. "It was really scary," Villella said. "We had to tiptoe. But I'm a tough old bird."
He learned to be in a career interrupted at a crucial age by the four years his parents insisted he spend at the New York State Maritime College. "I clearly remember the first day I walked into that theater," he said of City Center and the resumption of his life in dance. "I clearly remember the first performance I did. I had an awful lot to learn and catch up to, so that was a huge learning place for me. It's where I began to be able to think like a dancer. The major part of what you do as a performer I couldn't even get to until I found my feet underneath me. So it holds many, many memories."
The dancers who will accompany him on his return are the fruit of his years of struggle and analysis of his art form. They are defined, he said, by their individual qualities of movement, by their ability to physicalize music and by their technique. "But tech- nique is not the criterion. You can teach technique to talent. You can't teach talent."
Villella bided his time for this debut. "I kept us out of Manhattan very purposefully for all these years. First of all until we could afford it. Secondly, until we could do it without embarrassing ourselves. I'm not going to say we're perfect and we're going to knock the world over. But we are not going to embarrass ourselves."
For tickets and information, visit New York City Center.
Jennifer Dunning has written books about the New York City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet, Alvin Ailey and Geoffrey Holder. She was a staff dance writer for the New York Times.