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Prodigal Son

Prodigal Son

Edward Villella
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Prodigal Son
    Book Description:

    A leading advocate for the arts in America and recent recipient of the 1997 National Medal of the Arts, the 1997 Kennedy Center Honors, and the George Abbott Carbonell Award for Achievement, Edward Villella was recently inducted into the State of Florida Artist Hall of Fame. Villella also received the Frances Holleman Breathitt Award for Excellence for his contributions to the arts and to education, the thirty-eighth annual Capezio Dance Award, and Award for Lifetime Achievement, becoming only the fourth dance personality to receive National Endowment for the Arts advisory artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, which has won worldwide acclaim under his direction.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7999-9
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. PROLOGUE: JUNE 1990
    (pp. 9-12)

    Standing center stage at the New York City Ballet, I felt I had made a pact with the devil. I was an addict returning to his old delicious poison. A decade after my retirement I was dancing a role created for me nineteen years before, and loving it. The whole thing, from the actual dancing to the feeling of the lights on my body, was a turn-on, a reminder of what my life had been about. After more than twenty years as a leading dancer with the New York City Ballet, I had been forced to quit without a proper...

  2. ONE
    (pp. 13-29)

    I was a nine-year-old boy from Bayside, Queens, the block bully fast on my feet. Growing up in a tough neighborhood, I had to contend with friends who made fun because I studied classical ballet. But the best defense was a quick offense. The kids who jeered never got a chance to finish their sentences. I just whacked them and left a string of bloody noses in my wake. There were times I was bloodied and bruised myself, but I was too proud to tell my parents about the reason for my scuffles.

    I come from a hardworking Catholic clan....

  3. TWO
    (pp. 30-37)

    Fort Schuyler, home of Maritime College, was shaped like a pentagon and stood on the tip of a peninsula that jutted out into Long Island Sound. During the Civil War, it had been used to defend Northern shipping en route to New York harbor. First-year students or fourth classmen were called Mugs, and all upperclassmen and military staff had authority over them. Mugs were required to live in “compartments” inside the Fort. Each housed twenty-four cadets in six double bunks on either side of the room.

    Reveille sounded at six-fifteen, and we had to be up on our feet by...

  4. THREE
    (pp. 38-51)

    One afternoon at SAB, Barbara Horgan, Balanchine’s personal assistant, asked if I was going to participate in a New York City Ballet audition. I thought about it and decided to as an opportunity to be seen, a chance to make myself visible. After the audition, I felt that I had shown myself technically superior to most of the other dancers. I felt powerful propelling myself into the air, in complete control of my body, and knew I had impressed the ballet masters. But before anyone offered me a job, I sought Horgan out. I needed to speak to her.


  5. FOUR
    (pp. 52-60)

    I didn’t have very many male friends in New York City Ballet. Most of my pals were women. I gravitated toward them naturally because I liked women a lot, and I was surrounded by ballerinas who didn’t have any male colleagues interested in them as sexual beings. Iwasinterested in them sexually, and I was unmarried. I got asked out to a lot of parties, but I usually turned down these invitations. I didn’t want to lose sleep I needed for work. Nothing kept me from work. Maybe I thought my parents would forgive me if I became a...

  6. FIVE
    (pp. 61-71)

    Generally speaking, there are two kinds of dancers: those who can’t wait to get onstage and those who are scared, who wrap themselves up in nerves. There was never much doubt about the kind of dancer I was. I couldn’t wait to get onstage, and I couldn’t wait for the curtain to go up. I was always on. I left nothing in the stable, nothing in the rehearsal studio. And I always felt that I was commanding the stage when I stepped out on it. I wasn’t always in control of events in my personal life when I was a...

  7. SIX
    (pp. 72-84)

    George Balanchine was stimulated by the energy and vitality of America, by the vast open spaces of the country and the towering cities. He was also fascinated by the people, their daring and abandon, their straightforwardness and enthusiasm. And various elements of American popular culture such as jazz, movies, Broadway musicals, and social dancing appealed to him, too. He once told me, “You know, when I was a young man in Europe, I dreamed of coming to America because I wanted to be in a country that produced gorgeous women like Ginger Rogers.”

    Balanchine found the materials he needed for...

  8. SEVEN
    (pp. 85-99)

    Crucial to my development as a dancer, and my approach to classical ballet, is the fact that I was separated from the art form during my four college years. But these four years, frustrating as they were, paid off. They gave me another perspective on dancing and kept me from becoming too ascetic or pretentious. One problem with ballet and the discipline it requires is its distance from the world. Very young dancers are forced into a cloistered existence. My experiences as an athlete, a college student, and a naval cadet got me out into other kinds of life and...

  9. EIGHT
    (pp. 100-115)

    Early 1961 brought some excitement. I was going to danceStars and Stripesin a ceremony at President Kennedy’s inauguration in the ballroom of a large Washington hotel. A hastily erected platform in a large arena was going to serve as the stage, but adequate rehearsal and warm-up space with mirrors and a barre were not provided. We had to improvise. The security was so tight that it was difficult moving from one area to the other without a pass or badge of some kind. As the time of the performance approached, I was standing alongside the platform upon which...

  10. NINE
    (pp. 116-134)

    Sometime during 1962 a rumor spread through the company that New York City Ballet would be leaving in the autumn for an extended tour of Europe and the Soviet Union. None of us, of course, were officially informed until much later. But that didn’t stop the anticipation.

    I was ambivalent, happy to have the opportunity to dance in Russia but a little reluctant. The tour of the Pacific four years before had been hard for a lot of reasons, and I couldn’t quite get the experience out of my head. I got more excited as people tried to reassure me....

  11. TEN
    (pp. 135-150)

    When I returned to New York, Allegra and I were immediately cast in a new ballet calledBugaku.It was based on Far Eastern dances, but was pure Balanchine. He could adapt the classical vocabulary to almost any style; classical steps allowed him to make whatever statement he wanted to make. In this case, he was incorporating the spirit of a culture that was still, in 1963, unfamiliar and exotic.

    Like the work itself, the making ofBugakuwas quiet, simple. Mr. B choreographed it quickly; it only took about a week and a half. Most of the effort was...

  12. ELEVEN
    (pp. 151-166)

    By the time New York City Ballet took up residence at the New York State Theater in April 1964, I had a reputation as one of the country’s leading male dancers. Despite this, I felt that my success was a front, a façade concealing a lack of true accomplishment. I was aware of my natural abilities, and I loved being acclaimed. Everybody does. But a part of me felt undeserving. Insecurity like this can’t be acknowledged publicly. Professional decorum must be maintained. But I felt I still had to work diligently on my technique.

    The real acclaim for me was...

  13. TWELVE
    (pp. 167-180)

    Balanchine’s infatuation with Allegra Kent was over by the time the company moved to Lincoln Center. Allegra was an artist of the first order, but she was only intermittently devoted to her career, and Balanchine had already been concentrating on other women in the company who excited him. During the company’s last year at the City Center, he became interested in Suzanne Farrell, a young dancer who had been in the company a couple of years. Farrell was a young, tall, lithe, long-legged American beauty. Highly gifted, willing to work, she was eager to let Balanchine mold her. And mold...

    (pp. 181-196)

    In the 1950s, like today, dancers were always scrambling for cash—even those employed by prestigious companies such as NYCB. Ballet seasons didn’t last long, and most of us usually worked other jobs to survive. Dancers who were disinclined to dance on Broadway or in Hollywood still considered themselves lucky to find a gig in the commercial theater. It paid; most of the time they had to wait tables or become clerks. Stars weren’t guaranteed full-time employment, either. Some dancers scraped by living together in tiny cold-water flats, pooling funds in order to pay the rent and groceries. Some months...

    (pp. 197-211)

    In 1968, I turned thirty-two. I wondered if myRaymondadisaster was the result of my age. Thirty-two isn’t old, but a dancer in his thirties has lost the first bloom of youth. I tried not to obsess. Usually I was able to work my body so that my muscles didn’t misbehave so flagrantly. But because I had been dancing two or three times a program, eight times a week, for sixteen straight weeks during each NYCB season, physical problems were becoming more and more of a concern. I was never free from the pain of swollen joints and severe...

    (pp. 212-229)

    Jerome Robbins joined the New York City Ballet in 1950 as a dancer/choreographer and associate director. In the 1950s, he also choreographed and directed some of the greatest musicals in Broadway history—West Side StoryandGypsy.In 1959, he left the company to work exclusively in the theater. But early in 1969, we heard that he was coming back to create a new ballet. His timing couldn’t have been better, and we were all excited. Balanchine needed a splash of new energy. He was about to turn sixty-five, and he seemed to be feeling less vigorous, less fiery, less...

    (pp. 230-249)

    Dances at a Gatheringwas one of the biggest hits in the history of the New York City Ballet, but despite the success, the company was “in crisis.” Balanchine was still suffering from the break with Suzanne, despondent and inconsolable. His creative power seemed exhausted. We all had known what Suzanne meant to him, and now we all felt his pain and anguish. A bond existed between all of us and Mr. B, a blood tie. No matter what else we felt about him, we were connected to him in ways that were, and still are, hard to articulate. We...

    (pp. 250-259)

    I had always planned to dance until I was forty-two. I had joined the New York City Ballet when I was twenty-one, and the idea of staying with the company for twenty-one years and then retiring sometime around my forty-second birthday struck a nice balance in my mind. I liked the symmetry of it. But in 1973, at the age of thirty-six, it began to look as if I wasn’t going to make it.

    My bad back was growing steadily worse. The pain was never-ending. Over the years, Dr. William Hamilton, the company’s orthopedic consultant, had become increasingly alarmed about...

    (pp. 260-271)

    After my hip gave out, I was virtually without means of earning a living. It was a disaster. I could barely walk, let alone dance a classical pas de deux or appear on television. Before the injury had gotten so bad, appearances on the “Carol Burnett Show” and the TV series “The Odd Couple” had given me extra money when I needed it for alimony and child support payments. I’d also conceived and produced a CBS television special called “Harlequin” and won an Emmy for it. But I still had to sell the stocks and bonds I owned and the...

    (pp. 272-288)

    My new family made developing a new career even more essential. I had grown as a man since stepping away from ballet. For the first time, really, my life was about other people and their needs. I wasn’t living just for ballet anymore. I went through a long period of thinking about myself—my drive to dance, my need for approval and acclaim. I thought about Janet and whether our failed marriage stemmed from my single-mindedness. I still missed dancing desperately, but even more I wanted to make my new family and my new life work. Even with my commitment...

  21. TWENTY
    (pp. 289-296)

    I wanted to make the Miami City Ballet into an instrument that would be true to Balanchinian aesthetics, but not a duplicate of the New York City Ballet. My strategy was twofold. First, I had to select ballets for a young company that would appeal to a new audience, ballets that would point the way to even more sophisticated and complex works.

    The first ballet I staged wasAllegro Brillante,which Balanchine choreographed in 1956 to music by Tchaikovsky. This ballet made a statement. It told the world that we were a classical company with the energy of the twentieth...

    (pp. 297-306)

    I was always immensely proud to be a Balanchine dancer. It always seemed to me that dancing in a Balanchine ballet was to step into the minds of great men, geniuses—Balanchine, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and others. When I started up in Miami, I knew it was crucial to reflect on these minds, Balanchine’s particularly.

    In the New York City Ballet a dancer was constantly challenged to be the raw material for genius. I had always struggled to meet this test. No matter what I was given to do in Balanchine’s company, I did it. I translated and articulated...