Photographer: Joe Gato
Yann Trividic, Iliana Lopez, Mary Carmen Catoya, Jennifer Kronenberg, and Michelle Merrell in The Neighborhood Ballroom.
Balanchinesque Ballroom Intoxication

Be intoxicated always," are the words that strike the ears as the Cerritos Center curtain swooshes open for the West Coast premiere of The Neighborhood Ballroom.  The four-act ballroom ballet is written, directed and choreographed by George Balanchine's protégé, Edward Villella. The dancer famed for bringing virility to ballet is currently the Founding Artistic Director and CEO of the MCB - the Miami City Ballet.

Villella's MCB production of The Neighborhood Ballroom is a merry marriage of ballet and DanceSport. Borrowing from the traditions of classical ballet and ballroom, ballerinas and danseurs punctuate the aesthetics of both dance disciplines.  The dancers pirouette à la second and promenade with equal panache. Villella, in his seventh decade of life, is bringing together the art forms, which thrilled him as a youth.

Indeed, Villella was drunk with dance long before the heady stardom as George Balanchine's Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet. En route to an afternoon MCB company class, I ask the danseur about his first memories of ballroom dancing. "I suppose seeing my parents dance," he muses. "Growing up we all did the standards - Cha-Cha, Lindy. We even went to the Palladium."

In his biography, Villella writes that his mother," was a great social dancer. On Saturday nights she went to a ballroom in Corona Queens, where she met my father, who played the piano and led the band. Between the dances, she sat with him at the bandstand." (Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic is co-written with Larry Kaplan.)

When did Mercury's arrow hit Villella's heart with a blind love for ballet? Age nine. Initially, his mother dragged the boy from the Bronx to a ballet school where his sister was enrolled. "My mother wanted to keep an eye on me," explains Villella. "I'd imitate the giggling girls. And I'd make fun of them. The teacher said, 'Stop coming or put on tights.'"

Concomitantly embarrassed and "enraptured," he remembers stumbling upon a "fascinating physicality." By age ten, he was attending class at the SAB - the School of American Ballet. (A common training ground for Balanchine's stable of world-class ballerinas and danseurs.)

Villella was head over heels in love with the art form. (He still is. "Ballet speaks this separate language. Dance is not just a physical feat.") However, Villella's father insisted that his son stop associating with this "feminine" dance form. As first generation Italian Americans, academic education was a priority to realizing the American Dream. (Villella's tone holds no sign of recrimination. He simply states, "I was the only one in my family to receive a college education.")

Bachelor of Science in tow from the Maritime Academy, did Villella head for the sea of commerce? No. He made a beeline back to battements at Balanchine's barre. In fact, he began his career with the New York City Ballet during his last term in college.

His Italian papa's punishment of not speaking to him for a year did not stop Villella's body from aching for the ways of the terpsichorean.  "I have a passion, a need to be physical on a sophisticated level," he says. But his body was now literally aching. Villella describes classes with Balanchine as "fast and furious."

"But you were a Welterweight Boxing Champion and lettered in baseball," I protest. "You must have been in great shape."

"I was athletic," agrees Villella. "But, I wasn't working right. Ballet is a different use of muscle tone."

Stanley Williams, a dancer/teacher from the Royal Danish Ballet became his mentor. ("I literally started from first position - ankle up, forward. And back, to initiate movement.")  Villella credits Williams (in a speech to the International Society for the Performing Arts) as the man who, "changed my whole understanding of what dance was all about...After a performance, we'd sit at the old Carnegie Tavern 'til three or four o'clock in the morning, drinking beer, talking about where a tendu battement comes from."

Before the company class (the day before The Neighborhood Ballroom premiere at the Cerritos Center) I ask Villella "So, who are your heroes?" Within a heartbeat, he answers, "Stanley Williams."

With Williams' input and Villella's chutzpah, perhaps the rapid promotion from the Corps to Soloist to Principal Dancer was to be expected. By 1960, Villella was speeding along the stardom expressway with his role in Balanchine's revival of his 1929 masterpiece, Prodigal Son. The stellar perks of the profession included dance invitations from four presidents.

I inquire, "How did you like performing at the White House?"

Villella chuckles. "The White House is not a theatre. It's very exciting. But it's a limited facility!"

Villella's joviality is replaced with awe as he declares, "Dancing an encore at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow in October 1962 (the same month of the Cuban Missile Crisis!) I believe is one of the highlights of my career." As far as Villella knows, he remains the only American ever to receive a request for an encore at the Bolshoi.

In addition to citizens of the former USSR, Villella gifted Americans "with a slice of culture." Despite the discomfort of jumping on TV studio cement floors, Villella enthusiastically performed on programs such as Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett.  Why endure the pain? "My wish was to provide education in an emerging art form - neoclassical ballet."

Villella's sincere desire to share the enchantments of dance led to producing and directing a PBS Dance in America series. In 1975, the multitalented artist snagged an Emmy for Harlequin, an episode of The CBS Festival of Lively Arts for Young People. Besides his visits to tinsel town, Villella traveled all over the U.S.A. to spread the good word about his beloved art form. From universities to military academies (West Point!), Villella performed the rites of Visiting Artist.

When presented with the mantle of MCB's Founding Artistic Director in 1986, he balked. Villella was reluctant to bid adieu to his New York roots. Upon investigation, however, he was delighted to discover that Miami was not a "cultural wasteland."  The New Yorker figured he could "hit a homerun."  And he did!

Rave reviews came pouring in for the MCB productions.  A decade after the start of the ballet company, Clinton was handing Villella a National Medal of Arts for his contributions to the dance world on and off the boards.

The mix of artistry and business acumen may attribute to the ballet aficionado's triumph in his latest role as MCB's CEO and Founding Artistic Director. Villella insists upon pushing beyond the boundaries of classical ballet. For starters, his company class consists of exercises executed to everything from the Beatles to Beethoven! On a brief break from the hubbub of company class, he confesses, "I'm one of those crazy birds... I learn from history and try to evolve."

MCB's world premiere of Mystery of the Dancing Princesses tackled the issues of abuse, eating disorders, neglect and split personalities. Lynne Taylor-Corbett was commissioned to choreograph. Her solid ballet background and crowd-pleasing savoir-faire produced a winning piece. (Broadway audiences also appreciated the two-time Tony nominee's choreography in Swing! Visitors to Disney's California Adventure currently oo-and-ah at her choreography in Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular.)

In addition to top choreographers, Villella magnetizes the planet's most amazing dancers to the MCB. Why? Matter-of-factly, he replies, "One of my functions is to recognize talent and allow that talent to flourish with five or six different dance styles. They enjoy a wonderful horizon of Grand Russian, Romantic French, American, English, classical ballet and even some Paul Taylor pieces."  (Time gave Taylor the title of "the reigning master of modern dance.")

Building upon the enthusiastic response to experimental ballets, Villella ventured into the Swing world with choreographer, Jimmy Gammonet De Los Heros. In 1996 the company was preparing to present a Swing ballet spectacle, The Big Band SUPERMEGATROID. At the same time, Villella was researching the origins of ballroom dances such as the Waltz, Foxtrot, Quickstep and Mambo.

He enlisted the assistance of ballroom historian and choreographer, Frank Regan to ready the birth of The Neighborhood Ballroom. The world premiere took place at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach, Florida on March 2, 2001. The Cerritos Center in Cerritos, California hosted the West Coast debut on May 3, 2003.

Besides an aesthetic motivation, Villella admits that an economic impetus of "attracting ballroom and Broadway audiences" is behind The Neighborhood Ballroom.  But he reassures the ballet crowd that, "It's mostly a Balanchine ballet. It's an investigation into ballroom. The Neighborhood Ballroom reflects the changing rhythms of popular culture and life."

Indeed, the first act reveals modified versions of the full skirts worn at the end of the Belle Epoque. A dash of Argentine Tango adds kick to Act One.  (The dance was popular in Pre-World War I Paris and New York.) The centerpiece of the opening number - "The Waltz: Our Lady of Oblivion" - is a sensuous pas de deux which mingles with measures of slow Waltz.  (And the couple gazes at each other in quite the intoxicated manner!)

A whirl of excitement and enthusiasm ensues in Acts Two and Three.  The evolution of Jazz! Ballerinas clad in flapper costumes twirl. They execute jazzy jeté steps to Foxtrot and Quickstep timing. In between balancé and assemblé, dancers frolic with Lindy and Charleston syncopations of the '20s, '30s and beyond.

Slinky '50s cocktail attire cinch slim figures in the final act. "The Mambo: Mambo No. 2 a.m." reflects New York's Neighborhood Ballroom dancers' love affair with clave and Cuban motion. (Cuban motion is a hip motion flavoring Latin ballroom dances such as Mambo, Rumba and Cha-Cha with spice!) The audience approval is almost tactile. Spontaneous cheers erratically erupt from the nosebleed seats. The authenticity of the Act Four may also be attributed to Pedro "Cuban Pete" Aguilar. (Aguilar was a consultant on the movie, Mambo Kings. Life claimed that Cuban Pete was one of  "the greatest Mambo dancers ever.")

The intense celebration of dance and history decorates The Neighborhood Ballroom. However, the infusion of joie de vivre on stage is a mirror of the MCB CEO's philosophy: "Whatever you choose in life - have passion!" Villella's Neighborhood Ballroom curtain closes to a chorus of spectator bravos. And Balanchine's protégé has once again intoxicated the crowd with the beauty of ballet and being alive.