“A number of years ago I was keynote speaker, so of course I had a manager who used to take a booth way, way back when,” says the legendary ballet star. “And I had a small group of my own that used to tour, so I’m aware of APAP. But in terms of being actually in the booth, this was my very first time.”
The Bayside, N.Y. native had returned to the city with his wife a year ago, after 25 years in Florida.
“I started getting calls for speeches, master classes and coaching,” says Villella. “I wasn’t interested in getting deeply involved with other companies, but I love and adore teaching and coaching and speaking and doing residencies--and of course, I love the art form.”
But as one of Villella’s great mentors said, “It’s about passing the art form.”
“George Balanchine said, ‘Body-to-body and mind-to-mind.’ That’s how we all learned: body-to-body, but also mind-to-mind. I had the great fortune of being in the right place and the right time in [Balanchine’s] New York City Ballet and learning from the geniuses I was exposed to. These ballets took care of me when I was a dancer, and now that I’ve stopped dancing, it’s time for me to pass this stuff on, and in my mind I’m returning a debt not only to the art form but to those works—and the people who took care of me and passed it on to me.”
Specifically, Villella was promoting at APAP a number of related activities—coaching, consultancies, lectures, master classes in ballet technique and partnering, residencies--all falling under the heading of Villella: The Art of Dance.
“Basically, I’m one of those crazies who’s done everything!” he says. “I attended New York Maritime Academy and got a bachelor of science in marine transportation. I used to own part of a discotheque in New York City. I won letters in baseball and was welterweight champion in boxing in college. But I wanted to be a dancer.”
Villella’s father, however, drove a truck in the garment center.
“He didn’t have the same aesthetic pursuits I did,” Villella says—putting it mildly.
“I got started dancing because my sister was doing it--and I got knocked unconscious by a baseball. My mother said, ‘Enough!’ and dragged me to my sister’s dance school. But my father was embarrassed, and when I went to college he was thrilled that I was no longer a dancer.”
But Villella returned to dance, and in a plotline “right out of Billy Elliot" (“my wife said, ‘They ripped off your story!’”), didn’t talk to him for a year.
“I sent him and my mom a pair of tickets to my second opening at the New York City Ballet and left word that if they liked it, to come backstage afterward,” recounts Villella. “There were four ballets, and I had prominent roles in three of them. At the end of the performance, Mr. Balanchine was on stage and showing me what I was doing right and wrong, and when he finished the conversation, he went off to the right and I went to the left and there were my mother and father in the wings in tears--and my father became a balletomane. He even handed out my reviews in the garment center!”
Now Villella, who founded the acclaimed Miami City Ballet in 1986 and served as its artistic director, is “thrilled and delighted” to be back in New York.
“The cultural environment there is ‘limited,’ shall we say?” he explains. “It’s been an interesting journey, but it’s great being back in ‘cultureland.’”
“It’s a wonderful time in my life,” Villella concludes. “I’ve been around this stuff 55 years and worked with geniuses like Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Igor Stravinsky and [New York City Ballet co-founder with Balanchine] Lincoln Kirstein, and spent a lot of time doing a lot of different things, and now it feels like a lovely full circle for me.”
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