Prodigal dancer

Monday Book Review

March 02, 1992|By Joan Jacobson

PRODIGAL SON: DANCING FOR BALANCHINE IN A WORLD OF PAIN AND MAGIC. By Edward Villella with Larry Kaplan. Simon & Schuster. 306 pages. $23.

IT ISN'T surprising that Edward Villella's autobiography begins with this pronouncement: "By my count, this is at least the fifth book written by a New York City ballet dancer about George Balanchine."

About George Balanchine.

Not about Edward Villella, the brilliant dancer whose American athleticism left its imprint on 20th century ballet; whose appearances on the the Bell Telephone Hour and the Ed Sullivan Show demonstrated to a nation that men could be manly ballet dancers.

Certainly Mr. Villella's book, written with Larry Kaplan, is about his career, his family and his current direction of the Miami City Ballet.

But it is most compelling when it becomes a psychological dissection of his relationship with Mr. Balanchine and how he never quite received the approval he needed from the great "Mr. B."

Like all great Balanchine dancers, Mr. Villella struggled for both approval of and independence from Mr. Balanchine, who died in 1983. The latter was a man of few words who lured the most talented dancers in the world with his magnificent choreography, then tried to control not only how they danced, but how they lived.

As a teen-ager, Mr. Villella's fascination for Mr. Balanchine's choreography and his desire to dance only grew stronger as his parents tried to dissuade him from a ballet career. To please his parents, he enrolled in college and became the welterweight boxing champion.

But by his senior year he was sneaking out of school to take ballet classes at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. Anything to dance.

Within a few years he was a member of the New York City Ballet and already under Mr. Balanchine's spell.

He quickly learned, "Everything in the New York City Ballet existed to serve Balanchine. All his other dancers, and everyone else, were part of his predetermined structure. No one was allowed to violate or disrupt it."

And while Mr. Villella was always wary of Mr. B's power, he was also becoming a first-rate performer. Perhaps the most telling part of Mr. Villella's book is his description of learning the ballet "Prodigal Son" from Mr. Balanchine himself.

The masterpiece that Mr. Balanchine conceived in 1929 when he was only 25, "Prodigal Son" in revival became a signature piece for Mr. Villella and allowed him to show a broad range not only of athletic technique, but of dramatic ability. Mr. Balanchine gave the 23-year-old Mr. Villella little advice on how to interpret the role. "I felt in a void," he writes. "The ballet was layered with meanings, filled with references, and I knew none of them."

When a critic asked Mr. Balanchine why Mr. Villella was chosen for the role, he said, "Well, Villella, you know. He looks like nice Jewish boy."

The great choreographer devoted only two 20-minute sessions to teaching the young Mr. Villella the crucial opening and closing scenes. He "taught me the pas de deux in a half hour, and then I didn't see him again until the final rehearsal on the day of the performance."

The young dancer began to wonder if Mr. Balanchine's minimal approach to his intricate choreography was a test of a dancer's ability and commitment. Even after opening night, Mr. Balanchine said little. But later it was clear he had passed the ballet on to Mr. Villella.

"This is your ballet. I stage it this time. Next time you stage. I'm never going to stage it again," he remembers Mr. B saying.

As Mr. Villella's career progressed, dancing took a heavy toll on his body. By the time he was 32, he had a wardrobe of back braces and went to bed with a heating pad strapped to his body. The man known for his phenomenal leap would crawl from his bed in the morning. He once broke eight toes while leaping to a cement floor in the filming of the Bell Telephone Hour.

He began to defy Mr. Balanchine. He stopped taking ballet instruction from the master. The relationship soured. And here is the irony: The dancer offended the master by refusing to study with him, but he did so only to preserve his body for one purpose -- to dance Balanchine choreography.

Mr. Villella's career ended shortly after a performance at the White House in 1975, when pain nearly paralyzed him. All those years of landing on hard surfaces had worn away the cartilage in his right hip. He was 38.

He went on to give lectures, teach, meet his second wife and finally to direct the Miami City Ballet, where he still works.

This book is best when Mr. Villella discusses Mr. Balanchine and his life at the New York City Ballet. The dancer provides vivid glimpses into some of the most important moments in 20th century American ballet.

L Joan Jacobson is a reporter for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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