Balanchine (1904-1983), who began dancing at age nine in his native Russia, hurt his knee in the mid-'20s, shifting his focus to choreography. Villella grew up in Queens, took up dance at age nine, and attended Balanchine's School of American Ballet in Manhattan. Under Balanchine he became a star in the New York City Ballet, only to stop dancing in 1975, when his hip gave out.
Just as Balanchine had, Villella refocused his career. After resuscitating several foundering ballet companies, he helped found Miami City Ballet in 1986 with local dance promoter Toby Lerner Ansin. He's been artistic director since. "I have been allowed to make this organization in the manner and style in which I was brought up," says Villella.
Using his Balanchine influence and the vision of Peruvian choreographer Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros, Villella has put a new spin on neoclassical ballet. The company's signature piece, for example, is the sensual Transtangos, a ballet set to tango music.
"The South Florida community has accepted ballets in a style that they have not been exposed to previously," Villella says.
He credits the community, his dancers, and the ballet's board of directors, as well as philanthropists Dianne and Michael Bienes for the success. "Without their help and support, we would not be here," he says of the benefactors, whose name adorns the Bienes Center, the rare-book depository of the Broward County Library, where "Miami City Ballet: An Exhibition" is on view. Photos from Villella's career are on display along with Miami City Ballet costumes, scene-design sketches, set models, promotional posters, and a scrapbook of press clippings.
"We were limited by the space available," explains ballet spokesperson Vicki Vigorito. "What we'd like to do is take that [show] and use it as the basis for an exhibition in our own space" -- the new company headquarters under construction in Miami Beach.
"It's lovely to do this exhibition and to mark the history," Villella says. But he's more interested in the future. The language of ballet, he says, is the formalization of human gesture, a developed physical vocabulary. "There's always something fresh," he adds, "a new approach to the standard language."
-- John Ferri
"Miami City Ballet: An Exhibition" is on view through June 13 at the Bienes Center For the Literary Arts, Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free. Call 954-357-8692.