Keeping Up With Balanchine

BOOK: REVIEW

GEORGE BALANCHINE was one of the great cultural geniuses of our time. He single-handedly transformed classical ballet with all its imperial posturing and self-conscious mannerisms into an art form suitable to the modern era. The ballets he created throbbed with the rhythm and vitality of the 20th century.

Balanchine died in 1983, leaving behind more than 400 ballets. Not every ballet company has legal access to these works, however, and even those that do may not fully understand the style and inner content the way members of the New York City Ballet did during the height of Balanchine's reign.

It is fortunate, then, that Edward Villella - a star dancer under Balanchine's tutelage for about 20 years - has come forward with his view of some of these works and what it was like to dance for the master. It's yet another addition to a rising stack of books written by ex-Balanchine dancers, but the more perspective we get on this unprecedented period in ballet history, the better. Villella's autobiography, "Prodigal Son," happens to be highly accessible and entertaining, written with dancers and nond ancers in mind.

Through Villella's eyes and ears, one senses the magnitude of what Balanchine was doing: During rehearsals, a hush descended upon the company and onlookers crowded into doorways as Balanchine moved onto the floor and began choreographing. It was something of a trick to keep up with him. His method was spontaneous, often haphazard, with some steps created just days before their premiere. Ideas spilled out of him, rarely needing revision.

Balanchine was an abstract man who favored "just doing" a step rather than discussing it. Many dancers picked up his style largely by imitating him, but Villella, who gained a reputation as a troublemaker for his stubborn individualism, wanted to know the reasoning behind Balanchine's technique and the over-arching concept behind a role. He grew frustrated. Not only that, his body reacted violently and painfully to Balanchine's regimen.

Relations grew strained. Villella always wanted more from Balanchine than he was capable of giving. When Villella bowed out of Balanchine's classes to take up study with Stanley Williams, a teacher Villella could communicate with, Balanchine grew even more distant. He resented not having full control over the lives of his dancers.

Yet, Balanchine never failed to give Villella plenty of star roles. Villella became world-renown for his portrayal of the "Prodigal Son," a piece Balanchine revived for him in 1960. The height of Villella's leaps and the daring abandon with which he plunged into his roles were his signature. But in time, Balanchine also gave him roles that required subtle lyricism, something Villella appreciated.

"Balanchine understood that he was the equivalent of a Mozart or a Shakespeare," Villella writes. "But he understood that his genius had been conferred on him, he had been ordained by God. He used to say that only God was a creator. He preferred to think of himself as a craftsman and compared the art of choreography to the art of cooking, gardening, cabinetry. He had no great airs."

While such fascinating observations about Balanchine are abundant, Villella offers them within the context of his own mental struggles and hopes. Villella was obsessed with his career, and his vivid explanations of this obsession and its personal toll (sensitively chronicled by collaborator Larry Kaplan) humanize ballet for the reader.

From his boyhood in Queens, Villella faced insults from chums about taking ballet lessons. His parents threw up roadblocks, too, not realizing his talent. Villella relented for a period, excelling in academics, boxing, and baseball, but visions of dancing never left him.

Against his parents wishes, he returned to dancing during college and joined the New York City Ballet in 1957 at age 21, considered late for a dancer. Yet Balanchine saw his potential, and Villella pushed himself relentlessly to catch up.

His dancing career was full of incredible highs and lows: from intoxicating moments of glory on stage, to stinging realizations of his own inadequacies, to terrifying days when his body simply broke down. With the company's grueling schedule of performances and rehearsals, he recounts waking up in the mornings so battered he could barely crawl to the bathroom.

A hip injury in 1975 ended Villella's dancing days, but by then he had more than succeeded in raising the standard of the American male dancer in the public's eye. The Italian-American boy who elevated male dancing to new heights went on to found his own ballet company in Miami in 1986, dedicated to perpetuating Balanchine's legacy. With this even-handed and well-focused volume, he continues in that spirit.

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