In 1963, New York City Ballet star Edward Villella made an indelible impression on City Center audiences when he crossed over from ballet to theatre to play the role of Harry Beaton in Brigadoon. This month, another ballet (and Broadway) mainstay is about to do the same, as Robert Fairchild tackles the role of the roguish suitor. Recently, Villella and Fairchild sat down to talk about Brigadoon, the future of ballet, and what it’s like to dance in a kilt.
When you joined the company in 1957 they were still performing at New York City Center. What are your memories from that time?
Edward Villella: What I liked about City Center was the closeness of the first balcony. You could almost reach out and touch them, so you really felt close to your audience. In terms of establishing any kind of rapport or relationship with an audience, it was so much easier when you weren’t looking into darkness but could see their faces.
Robert Fairchild: It’s so intimate.
EV: Yes, and that was just an incredible time. Working with Balanchine, Stravinsky, and Robbins.
RF: I mean it doesn’t get better than that.
EV: It was an extraordinary time, and I was enjoying every part of it. And I was learning from every part of it.
RF: I consider that time to be the Golden Era. We look up to them so much for everything, and they inform so much of what we do today. They’re the tapes that we watch when we learn ballets. We don’t have Balanchine, but we’re still dancing his ballets. The only way that we can know what to do is by watching them.
Robert, you joined NYCB in 2005. What was it like to join a company with so much history?
RF: I grew up in Utah and had no knowledge of this incredible institution, so it was amazing to realize the huge history that this place had. I feel so lucky to be a part of its story in some way.
EV: The wonder of NYCB was that they all provided us with so much background and understanding. Their work transcended so many settings. Balanchine and Robbins choreographed for ballet, Broadway, film, opera, and on and on. They were providing us with their individual backgrounds and experiences, which were so diverse. I just relied on those guys and how they guided us and showed us and illuminated us.
Like any art form, dance has evolved over the years. How do you see the art form changing in the future?
RF: I think that everyone needs an “in,” and my “in” was Gene Kelly. Growing up in Utah, my exposure to dance was watching tapes of Gene Kelly. He’s the one who made me want to be a dancer. I think dance competition shows, like So You Think You Can Dance—they’re an “in” for people.
EV: It’s never been easy to get people interested in the world of ballet, but it’s so important.
RF: When I did An American in Paris, someone said to me, “I love your show, I’ve seen it eight times, and I just bought my first ticket to see NYCB.” That was so exciting because I love ballet, and I want other people to as well. I think productions like Brigadoon here at City Center can help bridge the gap between musical theatre and ballet.
Let’s talk about that gap. What was it like to come from ballet to musical theatre?
RF: I feel so comfortable onstage at the ballet, but when you’re onstage doing something completely different, it feels like it’s the first time you’ve ever performed. The two disciplines, ballet and singing, they’re really at odds with one another, because they come from such different parts in your body. It’s exciting, but it’s definitely a challenge to both sing and dance at the top of your game.
EV: I never wanted to interfere with the passion in my mind, which was to be a ballet dancer. So the lovely part of it is, I never sang. I never wanted to. The only stuff I ever did was stuff that was comfortable for me. I’m one of these crazies: I like to have a good time. So that’s what I did, I only had good times.
What was the most memorable part of performing Brigadoon each night?
EV: The sword dance was certainly the pinnacle. The real problem with the sword dance was that you were wearing a kilt. You could never look down, which meant you never knew where your feet were going. And there was this Scottish superstition that if you touched the swords while you were dancing, you died in battle.
Are you looking forward to that, Robbie?
RF: I always love a challenge, and I’m looking forward to seeing what our director, Chris Wheeldon, does with it. It should be really fun.
EV: Well, with Chris we know it’ll be inventive.
RF: For sure. He’s a creative genius. You never know what it will be, but you know he’ll show us something really cool.
EV: He truly will. And you will have so much fun. I always, always had a great time. Harry Beaton is a wonderful character.
RF: Even though he’s kind of the villain, the way that he’s written, you can see his dilemma.
EV: He’s a sympathetic character. There’s nothing wrong with him. Poor guy—he’s in love, and he can’t get an education. Wow! (Laughing) Does that sound contemporary or what?
Why is it important that City Center presents Brigadoon today?
EV: Why not do it? The music is gorgeous, the story is intriguing, and the characters are sympathetic. There’s no reason not to do it. Sometimes we just have to go back and look at these lovely things that entertained us once upon a time.
RF: I feel like there’s a lot of things about this musical that can resonate with today’s audiences. It’s really a story about not feeling like you belong. It’s about falling in love and finding out that where you live isn’t home anymore. That’s the kind of story that will always be relevant.
Jacob Jones is a freelance culture writer currently living in NYC.