Peeking into the world of dance with Balanchine's prodigal son





Edward Villella

with Larry Kaplan.

Simon & Schuster.

306 pages. $23. How do you tell, Yeats once asked, the dancer from the dance?

That question turns especially mind-tickling when the dancer is a Balanchine dancer, one of those fast, sleek thoroughbreds raised and trained to carry out the singular vision of New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine.

In part, "Prodigal Son" can be seen as Edward Villella's attempt to answer this question. The title itself alerts you that the story is going to be as much about Mr. Villella, the dancer, as Balanchine (1904-'83), the choreographer and the man that he calls his "artistic father."

Like any father-son relationship, their artistic bond was a complex one, sometimes painful, always passionate but, ultimately, enduring and enriching for both. It was a match made seemingly anywhere but heaven: the beer-drinking, one-time boxing champ turned, arguably, into the greatest American male ballet dancer, and the refined Russian immigrant who, with some seriousness, used to say men were just on stage to lift and carry the women.

The best parts of the book are Mr. Villella's intimate, insightful peeks into Balanchine's choreographic process and the rarified and artistically exciting world that is the New York City Ballet.

Most illuminating is the astonishing brevity with which Balanchine was able to explain what he wanted from his dancers: "Balinese," he would say. Or eagle on a crag, or soccer kick, or Greek icons, or the lights of Piccadilly Circus -- and it was crystal clear exactly what he'd want the arms, legs, hands or bodies to do.

Mr. Villella devotes much time to the ballet that serves as the book's title, "Prodigal Son," which Balanchine revived specifically for his emerging star. It's also an opportunity to reveal Balanchine's sly, playful side: In telling a critic why he cast Mr. Villella in "Prodigal Son," he didn't lapse into artistic, esoteric mumbo jumbo, but instead said, "Well, Villella, you know, he looks like nice Jewish boy."

But that was quintessential Balanchine, interested in results rather than process. Long before Nike thought of it, he was telling his dancers: Just do it.

This style of work, however, had its downfalls, and Mr. Villella was living proof of that. Balanchine's classes were totally whimsical -- rather than go through the time-honored process of starting with slow warm-ups and building to larger, faster movements, he sometimes wanted the big stuff right away.

Mr. Villella found salvation in Stanley Williams, a dance master who was able to fill in the gaps left by Balanchine's do-it-now method. That didn't set well with Balanchine; they had other struggles as well -- coveted roles often became a point of contention, with Balanchine sometimes using them to punish or reward Mr. Villella. Yet the dancer grew under the master's tutelage, and the master was rewarded with his dancer's often electrifying and crowd-pleasing performances.

The physical demands eventually took their toll on Mr. Villella. He frequently was plagued with broken bones and other traumatic injuries, and was able to dance only by following a regime of baths, braces, liniment rubs and, in the end, sheer will.

And so, even before 40, Mr. Villella was forced off the stage. His back was permanently injured by years of his trademark jumps and leaps, and he had actually worn away the cartilage in his hip socket.

It is heartbreaking to read how his body simply wore out. And it is maddening to read how, this artist, one of the truly great ones, was left nearly penniless once he could no longer dance -- at one point, in the late 1970s, he was living on $5 a week. It is particularly sad that his performing career ended so prematurely after he struggled monstrously to get there in the first place. His parents never believed ballet was a proper career for their son, forcing him to give up his training to attend college and then fighting his eventual return.

For all his push-pull, love-hate struggles with Balanchine, Mr. Villella has carried his torch quite admirably. As artistic director of the Miami City Ballet, a troupe that has generated genuine excitement in the ballet world in just seven years of existence, he is translating Balanchine via a new generation of dancers.

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