The only thing odd about dancer Edward Villella receiving the Kennedy Center Honors is that he seems too young for award. In fact, he’s 61 and not even the youngest person to be so honored, yet there is something so resolutely energetic about this man that such tributes seem out of place.
“I have no plans for retirement,” says the artistic director of the Miami City Ballet and former star of the New York City Ballet. “I’m having too good a time. It’s the next best thing to dancing, and I can’t do that anymore.”
In fact, Villella was one of the shining stars of the American ballet scene until injuries forced him from the stage at the age of 39. “Twenty years is a good, long time, though,” he says.
The New York native first started taking lessons at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet at the tender age of 10. He initially was sent there by his mother, a frustrated dancer, to accompany his sister and keep out of trouble. But it was clear he had talent and he stayed until he was 16.
By then, his father decided it was time for young Edward to find his way in the world, and so Villella enrolled in the New York Maritime Academy. He eventually earned a B.S. in marine transportation, lettered in baseball and became the school’s welterweight boxing champion.
But dancing was in his blood, and he returned to Balanchine’s school in 1955. Two years later, Villella join Balanchine’s company, the New York City Ballet. Balanchine was America’s most significant choreographer (he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978), and in Villella he saw a potential star.
By 1958, Villella had made soloist with the company; and by 1960, principal dancer. For him, Balanchine created a dazzling succession of ballets, including several based on scores by Igor Stravinsky.
So great was the athletic Villella’s success that he became the first American male dancer to perform with the legendary Royal Danish Ballet, the first American to dance an encore at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and the first to dance Balanchine’s repertory on television. Indeed, his appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and, later, PBS’s “Dance in America” series brought the fine art of ballet to the attention of millions. He even won an Emmy for a production called “Harlequin.”
Not surprisingly, his retirement from the New York City Ballet proved frustrating. He did famously return to the stage at the unheard-of age of 53 for Jerome Robbins’ “Watermill,” a swan song of sorts, but dancing was finally out of the picture.
Inspired by Balanchine, Villella decided to start his own dance company. Miami offered him that chance, allowing his autocratic streak and never-say-die spirit to flourish.
The result was the Miami City Ballet, founded in 1985 in a storefront and now one of the crown jewels of Florida cultural life. With its quick rise to the summit of great American ballet companies, international fame can hardly be far off.
Clearly proud of his achievement, Villella insists he has no plans to seek rewards elsewhere. “I want to finish the job here. It’s my baby,” he says. “It reflects my taste, my style. And I want to stay engaged. It fulfills my life.”