Villella: Teaching by surprise

One snowy Sunday in Boston, I watched a man who loves his work so much he doesn't think of it as work. "Work is a relative word. I'd rather do that than sit around in front of a TV set. . . ."

I sit around in front of a TV set occasionally, and Edward Villella reminds me of Columbo, without the raincoat. He bluffed the 11-and-overs in a master class at the Boston School of ballet into dancing the way Columbo tricks suspects into confessing.

Squinting and concentrating, he'd shuffle away from a dancer after a talk about how turning out the feet is not a job for the feet alone, but something that is achieved by using the thigh muscles and holding up the body straighter. Then he'd whirl around and say, "What was the hint I was going to give you? Oh, yeah!"

He'd point at her and explain some other balletic fine point.He even talks like Columbo, out of the side of his mouth, over his shoulder, so the dancer would strain to catch what he said, giving all her attention, instead of looking nervously to the side as ballerinas tend to do when lectured. All these mumbles seemed to be sinking in.

One ruse that wrings all sorts of lyrical expression out of the unsuspecting class is to catch them off guard with the music. He explains an exercise, a typical classical move at the barre, and then clicks his fingers to start. The ballerinas get ready. They point their toes, raise their free arms, face front, minding their classical line. Poised, severe in pale pink and black, they all begin at once, only to discover that they're practicing to some particularly fast ragtime piano, music more suited to opening a vaudeville act or doing a jazz routine.

Exercise skirts flutter uncertainly. Toes waver midair and students look in the mirror to see what everyone else is making of all this.

Deadpan as Columbo when he's flushing out the real criminal, Villella patrols their ranks, clicking his fingers to the burbling piano and nodding. This is no joke, they realize as the music rollicks on, and they begin to fight it, finding the beat in its midst. And when that happens, they are dancing. Maybe they are standing on one leg holding the barre, but the other leg is alive and kicking. Dancing, in fact.

But this was what he wants. "Sometimes people don't like to investigate the value of music. They just go 'Da dum de dum dom'" -- in a tedious voice he sings some sugary ersatz Chopin, waving his hands heavily over his head.

"I call it dancing in slow motion. It irritates me. . . ." He's glad if the music throws them off a bit, forces them to make up their own phrasing. "Art is investigation and invention."

His investigatory spirit is best seen when he finds someone doing something totally wrong. Instead of imperiously announcing the mistake from the front of the room in the old style -- "Stop sticking your rear end out," say, or perhaps, "Dance with the music, young lady in the leg warmers," or maybe just, "You behind the resin box, stand up straight" -- he gets the dancer herself caught up in the search for the right move.

He gets very close to her, mutters that maybe she could think about this leg and do the step with him. Looking so preoccupied with the mystery of the whole thing that he couldn't possibly be watching whoever is getting the lesson, he takes her by the hand and goes through it.

No one seems to feel silly or alarmed as he sidles up to her and peers at her with sleuthing brown eyes. Perhaps it is because the dancers are at the same level -- he is about as tall as a growing 12-year-old, I notice as he tips one of their heads in the right direction. Perhaps it is because he is undoubtedly on their side. He's just in town for a day, after all, and he really seems to be trying to make all this technique easier on them.

As he straightens out one girl's tensed shoulders, he says, "You don't want to add. You want to eliminate. Eliminate as much as you can.Dancers are the first conservers of energy."

Another time, he's crouched at the feet of a dancer, picking up her leg, waving it outward, and putting it back. Everyone watches the mirror. He demonstrates a particularly energetic kick in this manner and she tips over.

"Yeah, I know," he says, looking up and giving her a con radely pat on the hip. "I was just trying to make a point."

All this tends to make the observer forget that Edward Villella literally grew up with the New York City Ballet -- he went to the School of the American Ballet from the age of 10 till he left to go to a local college at his father's insistence. Returning with a degree in maritime transportation, he immediately joined the company. He quickly became a principal dancer, and in his 22 years with the company never lost his "boy wonder" image, based on his athleticism and charm.

If the students are at ease with him, they are also aware of who he is. As they finish the class with the combinations of footwork and long leaps across the floor he devises for them, they hold their heads proudly and keep their eyes on him as if they, too, were flying across the Lincoln Center stage.

He still mumbles, shuffles up to them, pushes a chin up or takes a hand and catapults through space with them. And at the end of the class, when the applause becomes more tumultuous than polite and rattles the steam-and-ice-encased windows of the old school of the Boston Ballet, he shakes his head and makes appeasing motions with his hands, but his eyes are sparkling brighter than theirs.

"This is how I get my jollies," he says afterward. This, and by choreographing, directing the Eglevsky Ballet in Long Island, N.Y., advising the New Jersey Ballet, lecturing as spokesman for the New York City Ballet, appearing on television, and writing an autobiography. His last appearance with the New York City Ballet was in the spring of 1979.

"I have no desire to be back in tights and dance classical roles," he says. "I've had my moments of glory and my share of injuries. The hardest thing is to leave when you're still at a prime. A lot of people watched me do this," he said, his hand describing an appropriately steep stage-by-stage rise skyward. "I don't want them to watch me do this." His hand went back downstairs.

I ask about all the work he put into his career, the hours of classes, and the dedication he put into becoming a dancer with the country's foremost dance company. That wasn't work to him, he insists. It was what he wanted to do most. In fact, to hear him tell it, he hasn't worked a day in his life.

"If it isn't joyful," he says, "I don't do it."

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