SAB Trailblazer – Edward Villella

As a dancer, Edward Villella was one of the most celebrated male stars in American ballet history and remains a true trailblazer for the art form. He is the Founding Artistic Director of  Miami City Ballet and has helped destigmatize ballet for young men and promulgate the Balanchine repertoire to audiences all over the globe.

Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. (1946). SAB students posing with Edward Villella in the center
Edward Villella with fellow SAB students in 1946. Photo by George Platt Lynes.

Born and raised in Queens, New York, Mr. Villella was first exposed to ballet when forced to tag along to his sister’s dance class. After disrupting the class, the teacher told Mr. Villella’s mother to either get him out of there or get him in tights, and the latter came to pass. A natural athlete, he quickly excelled at ballet and by age ten, he and his sister had begun studying at the School of American Ballet. As a boy in ballet, Mr. Villella faced criticism from his male friends and embarrassment from his father, who insisted he attend college rather than pursue a dance career. And so, at age 16, Mr. Villella attended the New York Maritime Academy, where he lettered in baseball and was a championship boxer. He graduated with a marine science degree and having satisfied his father’s request, immediately went back to ballet. He attributes this four-year sabbatical from dance as a root cause for much of his physical pain and injuries in later years.

“There’s nothing like throwing yourself across a stage in seemingly total abandon and feeling a sense of abandon, but at the same time have total and complete control.”
– Edward Villella

He joined New York City Ballet in 1957 and quickly rose through the ranks of the Company. Known for his impressive jump, musicality, and exuberance on stage, Mr. Villella was a performing sensation who attracted audiences and even changed his father’s opinion of male dancers. Over his years with NYCB, Mr. Villella originated roles in several Balanchine and Robbins ballets and built up an impressive repertoire. Among his most noteworthy roles were Oberon in George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the lead male roles in Tarantella, Rubies from Jewels, and Prodigal Son. He made numerous appearances on television, often performing with his frequent partner Patricia McBride, and his accessible stardom paved the way for many other young boys in blue-collar families to see ballet in a positive new light.

Edward Villella as Candy Cane in The George Balanchine's The Nutcracker® in 1958.
Edward Villella as Candy Cane in The George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® in 1958.

Watch Mr. Villella in a performance of Tarantella from the 1960s with Patricia McBride:

 

Mr. Villella was the first American male dancer to appear with the Royal Danish Ballet, and the only American ever asked to dance an encore at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. From 1968 to 1974, he served on the NEA’s National Council on the Arts and received both the National Medal of Arts and a Kennedy Center Honor in 1997. After retiring from the stage, Villella worked with and taught at a number of dance companies – often coaching dancers in Balanchine ballets – before helping to found the Miami City Ballet, of which he served as artistic director until 2012. Within a decade the troupe was recognized worldwide and Mr. Villella succeeded in bringing Balanchine ballets to an entirely new community.

Mr. Villella teaching at SAB in 2014. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Mr. Villella teaching at SAB in 2014. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Mr. Villella has returned to SAB a number of times to teach and connect with the students who follow in his footsteps and dream of dancing one of the many roles he originated at NYCB. His excitement and passion for ballet continue to inspire young dancers and his contribution to popularizing ballet in the states, especially for young men, is simply immeasurable.

To learn more about Mr. Villella’s ballet career, watch NYCB principal dancer and SAB faculty member Megan Fairchild’s recent interview with him on her YouTube channel.