Miami City Ballet Springs Into a Bright Future

MORNING class is under way, and Edward Villella is drilling his dancers. Lines of sweat run down the back of a young man swinging his leg at the barre. In the corner, the accompanist pounds out Scott Joplin rags on a baby grand. Mr. Villella, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, walks among the steaming bodies, snapping and clapping, jabbing out syncopations with the words ``one, two, AND three, AND four.'' Legs brush in unison.

He shows them the next step, sweeping his foot up and out, etching a sharp line with the tip of his white jazz shoes. The dancers watch, only slightly conscious of the balding, elderly man outside on the street peering into the studio through the huge picture window. Soon a mother and her little boy join the old man, the child's nose pressed to the glass.

The Miami City Ballet is used to being closely watched. After the company's first season just four years ago, word spread quickly that a precocious upstart was on the scene. Dance critics went on alert.

In the spring of 1988, when the company debuted in New York, Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times wrote that its high standard of dancing came as a ``mind-boggling surprise,'' adding that ``the Miami City Ballet is already more than a cut above most older regional troupes as far as technique is concerned.''

In Miami, the company's success has not come out of the blue. Audiences here tend to appreciate fine dance, since the city has been a stopover for traveling companies like the American Ballet Theatre and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The large population of Cuban-Americans, familiar with Alicia Alonso's National Ballet of Cuba, lend strong support to the art form.

Yet the Miami City Ballet, the area's first top-level professional ballet company, has brought a greater ``visibility to the profession of dance in this city,'' says Rebecca Terrell, executive director of the Florida Dance Association. ``The dance community here has needed to see a success story.''

Through it all, Edward Villella has been the rallying force. He danced for two decades with the New York City Ballet under the favored tutelage of the late George Balanchine. The short, wiry Italian-American boy from Queens became famous for the title role in ``Prodigal Son'' in 1960 and for such ballets as ``Tarantella'' and the ``Rubies'' section of ``Jewels.'' Having excelled in baseball and boxing in college, Villella brought a fiery athleticism and machismo to the role of the male dancer.

The recipe for success also involved good timing. ``We were on the crest of this new wave of artistic interest here,'' Villella told me in an interview after class - a wave that has included the start-up of two professional orchestras and the refurbishing of Miami Beach as an artistic enclave.

Under artistic director Villella, the company's mission is to be ``classical in the 20th century.'' ``No art form can stay where it's been, or it becomes museumlike and moribund,'' says Villella, winner of the prestigious Capezio Dance Award last year. ``We look back upon the 19th century with respect and reverence, but we look forward to invention and new vitality.''

From its homey, rehabbed headquarters in the art-deco district, the company has developed a repertoire of nearly 50 ballets, including 24 Balanchine works, and has offered 20 world premi`eres by house choreographer Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros. The eclectic band of 28 dancers has already performed in major US cities, at such prominent summer festivals as Jacob's Pillow, and in Israel, Ecuador, and Guatemala.

Despite the full houses, enthusiastic audiences, and good press, Villella is not worry-free. In February, the ballet disclosed a deficit of about $500,000 with the budget for fiscal '90 ringing in at $4.5 million. Donors have cut back on contributions, thinking the ballet is sitting pretty.

``We are becoming victims of our own success,'' observes Villella. To generate revenue, the company is gearing up for its first ``Nutcracker'' this December, a traditional audience-pleaser that Villella hopes will even the balances.

Now is not the time ``to flatten out,'' he asserts. ``We're still growing, and we don't want to loose the vitality, the momentum, and the whole spirit of this organization.''

Much of the company's uniqueness stems from the dancers. Spirited, fun, and friendly, they come from eight countries including Venezuela, Cuba, West Germany, and Italy. Several said they were attracted here by the sheer newness of the company and the absence of older dancers who tend to dominate lead roles at other companies.

Villella says he chooses dancers who can ``physicalize music,'' which means being able ``to see music emanate from your body.'' Unlike technique, no one can teach musicality - it is pure talent, he explains.

The dancers have had to learn a vocabulary of movement rooted in Balanchine style. ``The Bolshoi Ballet is fond of landings,'' says Villella, and uses a ``position-stop, position-stop'' approach to dance. ``For us, the landing is a preparation for the next step. We look to keep the line going. That's more appealing in the 20th century. We're a century about speed and technology - we're not plodding in our approach.''

Quicker, sharper attacks, constantly shifting directions, syncopation, and moving through positions off balance require getting used to by the dancers.

``The style and the speed of the steps is hard,'' said Venezuelan Iliana Lopez, a principal dancer, after rehearsal. Trained in Russian technique, she found the style hard at first, ``but I like to be open and try different things,'' she says.

Members of the ensemble have trained in such schools as the New York City Ballet, the School of American Ballet, the Joffrey, and Ballet du Nord. For these young people, their training is their security.

``You don't want to take away their foundations,'' Villella asserts. ``I try to extend them - just add to what they already have.''

Rehearsals tend to be loose and easy. ``We really feel relaxed, and sometimes we make jokes,'' says Franklin Gamero, another principal. Mr. Gamero says if he gets frustrated with a step, Villella ``tries to get me to think more positively about it. ... He's like a friend teaching you.''

Villella insists he is not just a Balanchine imitator. Nor is he following the herd of other classical companies that tend to mix modern choreography with classical dance.

``I'm not a great fan of that idea,'' he says. ``You can have a modern choreographer put his works on classical dancers, but when you get into extreme modern dance, classical ballet dancers are not trained to do it. Nor are modern choreographers comfortable working with classically trained dancers. Paul Taylor is an exception.''

Next season, the company will present some Taylor works. ``Though they're done in bare feet,'' says Villella, ``they are very classic in nature and style.''

Perpetuating Balanchine's influence is central to the Miami City Ballet. His works are now being disseminated around the world, but, according to Villella, without much in-depth understanding of the man or his methods. ``So we are making a major effort to do these works with their original intent and integrities.''

At the same time, Villella and his company hope to make their own choreographic comment. The ballet does at least two world premi`eres per season.

``I think we've achieved a style now,'' Villella says. ``But we'll constantly fine-tune it. ... We certainly have to be far more established before we can lay claim to any kind of national leadership. That's something that takes a long time.''

This summer, the Miami City Ballet will appear at the Wolf Trap Farm for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va. (August 8-9); and the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill. (August 29-31 and Sept.1).

Last in a three-part series. Parts 1 and 2 were published May 9 and 11.

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