they didn’t teach at the Maritime College. How could I become a young
man/faun? There were no jumps, and jumps were my security. Plus, I’d
never partnered in my life and this was a pas de deux.
Why would Jerry want me to dance this role?
Fortunately, he was a brilliant coach, and hand-fed me insight
into how a choreographer developed his work. He talked about a
warm spring afternoon, a shaft
of sunlight, an empty studio, a
languid young faun and a very
young woman who later enters.
He explained and showed me the
dramatically structured ideas. He
talked about the mirror being the
audience, the fourth wall that then
added an additional challenge.
Usually when you dance with a
partner you focus directly on her,
but here the focus shifted: You
have to make the audience believe
that the interaction of the two
protagonists comes from them
viewing each other through that
(Years later, Jerry would also
tell me that once, when he came
to a class at SAB, I was leaning
against the barre in a shaft of sunlight that came through a big old
window, and began to arbitrarily
stretch. Without knowing it, I’d
been part of the inspiration for
The experience taught me that
I would need to dig deeper. From
then on, I always approached
each ballet through its ideas and
musicality. I endlessly listened to
the score until the rhythm, counts
and structure began to emerge. I
sought the portrayal of my character, my relationships onstage to
other dancers, and the period and
style of the ballet, no matter how
abstract it might be. An artist seeks
all of this.
But whereas Robbins spoke
freely about his work, George
Balanchine spoke only with his
body. This was easy for me because he was speaking a physical language
and provided within that style, demeanor, abstraction and a musicality. The first piece I got to work with him on was Square Dance, one
of his four new works during my first season. The steps were abstractions of classroom steps, which I had never experienced before. The
group dances had simple elegance and yet their own formality. When he
demonstrated to us, his body language was both subtle and obvious. He
wasn’t flamboyant. He was very clear with his physical conversation.
His gestures showed us the highlights and articulation of his move-
ments in detail.
I quickly learned to never take my eyes off Balanchine and keep
my ears open for the few words he would utter about the ballet he
was working on. For
instance, in Apollo, he
talked about eagles,
matadors, chariot drivers
and soccer players. In
Harlequinade he told
me the French commedia dell’arte clown
was a principal dancer,
but in Italian commedia
dell’arte, Pulcinella was a
dirty old man.
One day Mr. B came
up to me and said he
thought I should under-
study Todd Bolender in
Agon. My first thought
was, How do I move like
that? Todd was a fantastic, unique mover and he
left an indelible impression on everything he
did. I didn’t want to
look like a bad imitation.
Plus, the music was a
whole new ball game: If
you were counting slow
fours, Stravinsky might
then introduce a quick
seven. I stood in the
back and tried to follow,
but was totally lost.
Amazing relief ar-
rived when Balanchine
not only explained the phrasing but told me, “Don’t imitate
Todd. Attack like a male principal.” Those words allowed me
to change my whole approach. I could do the variation in a
way I naturally moved. Balanchine had given me the charac-
ter: a male principal. Listening to the music, it seemed that
attack was very much part of my character. “Agon” basically
means contest. A contest with music? Between man and
women? Both? It was in my mind, so I just made a decision.
After my first night performing it, Lincoln Kirstein came
up to me and asked how I felt I did. I said something like
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to get through.” He
leaned down to me and said, “Make your own comment.” I’ll
never forget those words—they suggested I was going in the
right direction by building my own interpretation.
The invaluable insights provided to me by these geniuses were like
a guiding template to my dance life. They taught me the importance of
understanding characterization and the danger of imitation. It has to
come from your mind. You have to understand who you are onstage in
each ballet. As Balanchine told me, dancers speak a physical language.
No matter how abstract the ballet, we have to understand what we’re
supposed to say and how we want to say it if we expect an audience to
After retiring from New York City Ballet, Edward Villella was the
founding artistic director of Miami City Ballet from 1985–2012. He is
currently working on his second book.
Villella learned the power
of characterization and
the danger of imitation.
Here and lower right,
Villella in Prodigal Son
“I quickly learned
to never take
my eyes off