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A Dancer’s Coda

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Photo gallery

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Edward Villella in the air on March 13, 1968 at Miami City Ballet. Photo courtesy of PhotoFest New York City
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Edward Villella during his boxing days in 1953. Photo courtesy of PhotoFest New York City
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Edward Villella at barre in Miami City Ballet. Photo by Gio Alma
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George Balanchine (l.), Edward Villella and Patricia McBride in rehearsals. Photo courtesy of PhotoFest New York City
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Edward Villella in “Afternoon of a Faun.” Photo courtesy of PhotoFest New York City

From stickball games in the sandlots of 1940s Bayside to founding artistic director of the critically acclaimed, world-renowned Miami City Ballet, Edward Villella’s unique career has spanned six illustrious decades. Overcoming society’s taboos about male ballet dancers, he stuck to his guns and went after his dream. And it all started at the former Ann Garrison School of Dance on Bell Boulevard in Bayside.

Dancers, staff and friends gathered Oct. 1 to honor and toast one of America’s most famous male ballet dancers at a special 75th birthday bash in Miami, and celebrated an upcoming WNET/PBS television special, “Great Performances: Miami City Ballet Dances Balanchine & Tharp.” The trio of signature works featured in the film are by legendary choreographer George Balanchine, Villella’s teacher and mentor, and by dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp. The film will air nationwide Oct. 28.

This past July, the Miami City Ballet earned standing ovations during a spectacular tour in Paris.

“It was a real triumph! For 20 minutes, the audience screamed and yelled for more,” said Villella. In September 2010, the company celebrated its silver anniversary, with dazzling performances at the New York City Center.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s — at a time when most men wouldn’t be caught dead wearing tights let alone floating gracefully across a room or jumping in the air — a handsome, muscular dancer pirouetted his way center stage, forever changing how male dancers were perceived. Villella was “in love with the form, the line, the ‘musicality,’ the ability to speak with your body and learn a language that crosses borders.”

“Little Eddie” Villella was no sissy. Hanging out on the streets of Queens, he was a rough-and-tumble kid. But, in a twist of fate, his life would change in a heartbeat.

In a recent interview, Villella recounted a series of events that jump-started his career when he was just 8 years old.

“One day, I was knocked unconscious by a baseball. My sister was attending ballet school at the time and my mother, concerned for my safety, decided to take me along to my sister’s classes in Bayside. Well, I got bored there, started jumping around, annoying the teacher,” he said. “She told my mother, ‘Either get him out of here or put him in tights at the barre.’ So, humiliated, I put on tights. But the next day, I fell in love with what would be my lifelong career.”

“My mother was a smart person,” said Villella. After his sister auditioned with Balanchine at his School of American Ballet in Manhattan, his mother said, “Wait a minute, I have a son who also dances.” But his macho father sent him off to complete his academic studies instead. His father had prize-fighter cronies, and wouldn’t hear of ballet classes.

Eddie won his letters in baseball during college and recalled wearing his baseball uniform over his tights so his buddies wouldn’t find out he was going to ballet classes. During this frustrating time, he also became an amateur championship boxer, enjoying the “physicality” of the sport, which was similar to ballet, but didn’t require “physical intelligence.” After graduating, Balanchine gave him a job, and in 1957, he became principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.

The artistic director said, “It takes eight to 10 years to train a dancer; three to five till they can become a major performer. Ballet entails learning a new vocabulary and alphabet. Technique isn’t enough — we’re people of theatre.” He added, “Dancers have to know naturally how to speak to the audience through movements, which instinctively flow out of their bodies. We move in a manner of continuity, making difficult look easy. Passion is the essence!”

One of Villella’s principal dancers, Kew Gardens native Jennifer Kronenberg, recently penned a book titled, “So, You Want to be a Ballet Dancer?” It’s a guide for aspiring performers: a behind-the-scenes look at the challenging world of ballet based on her amazing career.

Villella was the only American invited to dance an encore at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. He danced for President Kennedy’s inauguration, and for presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford. President Clinton presented him with the 1997 National Medal of Arts, and he was named a Kennedy Center Honoree. In the ‘70s, he appeared in an episode of the television series “Odd Couple,” opposite Felix Unger.

He still teaches class every morning but will be stepping down as artistic director after Miami City Ballet’s 2012-2013 season. He will continue his seven-day work week until his departure. His wife, Linda, is director of Miami City Ballet School.

Villella said he intends to pursue other dance-related projects after his retirement.

With over 40 dancers and a repertoire of 100 ballets, MCB wows audiences everywhere.

Villella was once asked: “What is more taxing on the body, ballet or boxing?” He replied, “Ballet!”

Rumor has it he still has a powerful left hook.

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