Trividic, Iliana Lopez, Mary Carmen Catoya, Jennifer Kronenberg,
and Michelle Merrell in The Neighborhood Ballroom.
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
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
"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
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