Bitter Departure for Miami’s Ballet
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: November 13, 2011
Morning class at the Miami City Ballet had just ended one day in late September when the dancers and staff gathered in the main studio for a companywide meeting with their founder, artistic director and patriarch, Edward Villella.
Mr. Villella spoke of his pride in them and his joy at the success of a recent Paris tour. And then, pushing down sobs, he read a news release with stunning news: Mr. Villella would leave the company after next season. The dancers gasped, wept and hugged. At a board meeting later that day they streamed in looking for answers.
For many of them Mr. Villella was the only artistic director they had ever known. For
Miami he was the force behind one of the nation’s finest regional companies, a troupe at the height of its renown. For the dance world he was a legend, one of the greatest male dancers produced by the United States.
The company’s board leadership called Mr. Villella’s departure a mutual decision. But although his age — 75 — suggests that retirement was not far off, Mr. Villella was forced out, according to recent interviews with his supporters on the board, friends and others familiar with the company.
“He’s still working like dynamite,” said Bob Avian, a board member. “Personally I’m
very upset that Edward’s been relieved.”
Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg, a veteran principal dancer, said Mr. Villella was not leaving of his own will. “All of us felt that he had more to give,” she said.
Mr. Villella’s departure appears to stem from gathering friction with key board members regarding questions of authority, the company’s financial future and who holds ultimate sway over a ballet troupe that was artistically synonymous with Mr. Villella but financially dependent on wealthy Floridians.
Mr. Villella declined to discuss the reason for his departure. He did point out, however, that he was in excellent health and full of energy. “I’m not the retiring type, shall we say,” Mr. Villella said in an interview in New York, where he and his wife, Linda, who runs the company’s ballet school, were looking for a new place to live. “But there are many, many things that I haven’t done, and I shall pursue those.”
They include writing, teaching and working on a multimedia dance project, he added. He will depart in the spring of 2013, but under an unpublicized agreement with the company he will be paid for another year.
“I love what I do,” Mr. Villella said. “I love my dancers. Will I be sad when I leave them? Sure I will be. But that’s a normal thing. These are my guys.”
His supporters argue that meddling by board members in administrative matters reached an intolerable level. Mr. Villella — who has a pugnacious streak — may have stoked resentment by turning his back on his board critics, not even greeting several of them at a gala in Miami last March.
“They don’t want it to be Edward Villella’s company anymore,” Alfred Allan Lewis, a donor, said of influential board members. “They want it to be their company.” He acknowledged that Mr. Villella made enemies. “He is not very good at playing the social games,” he said.
On the other side few board members would speak on the record for fear that controversy would harm fund-raising. Two members, while praising his artistry and contribution, suggested it was becoming difficult to raise money because donors questioned the company’s viability given Mr. Villella’s age and the lack of a concrete succession plan.
“Because he’s so wonderful, it almost becomes a liability because people say: ‘What do you have without him? Nothing,’ ” said one board member, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending Mr. Villella. This board member compared him to an aging corporate titan who created a business but did not have the perspective to know when to leave. “My only motivation is, how does this company thrive and be here for the long term?” the board member said.
The board president, James Eroncig, said he was new to the board and not involved in the negotiation of Mr. Villella’s departure. “It was a fait accompli,” he said.
Another member, R. Kirk Landon, acknowledged that he had given Mr. Villella a book about corporate transitions at a meeting between the two early this year. “It was time to start worrying about succession,” he said.
The announcement of Mr. Villella’s departure was preceded by a change in status. An agreement in April removed “chief executive officer” from his job description, said Pamela N. Gardiner, the outgoing executive director, although the title remained on the company’s Web siteas of Sunday.
On Nov. 1 the company announced it had hired Nicholas T. Goldsborough, an experienced administrator and fund-raiser, as the new executive director. He will report directly to the board instead of to Mr. Villella as Ms. Gardiner did. She will remain, with the title of executive vice president for artistic affairs. The shift was an indication of the board leadership’s desire for, as Ms. Gardiner put it, “more of a business model rather than an artistic model.”
Mr. Goldsborough’s arrival signals new ambitions. He said in an interview that he hopes to raise a substantial endowment, perhaps $30 million or $40 million, compared to the roughly $2 million endowment now. Mr. Eroncig, the board president, expressed hope for more televised performances and an annual appearance in New York.
The company has experienced a string of deficits and declining box office earnings in recent years, and, Mr. Villella said, finances remain precarious. Nevertheless, the 43-member Miami City Ballet has established itself as one of the finest regional companies, punching far above its weight, with a $14.5 million budget. A wealth of talented young dancers fill the ranks. It is coming off a recent high: its first nationally broadcast PBS special; critically praised performances at City Center in 2009, the company’s New York debut; and the triumphant three-week visit to Paris in July. In March it will perform a new work by the leading choreographer Alexei Ratmansky in a collaboration with the Cleveland Orchestra.
Mr. Villella cuts a small figure, his hair still jet black, his body manifestly creaky from the ravages of a dance career. He has had three hip replacements. “It became a habit,” he said.
In another era he was a magnetic star at George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and a personality in the popular culture who often appeared on television, a symbol of working-class grit amid ballet-world chiffon. The son of a trucking company owner, he grew up in Bayside, Queens, and attended New York Maritime College, where he was school welterweight boxing champion and lettered in baseball. He danced at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and was a rare American to give an encore at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. “I thought it was the moment of my life,” he said. “I thought I would never experience anything like that again — until Paris.”
Mr. Villella brought the Balanchine style to Miami and turned the company into a leading repository of the tradition. He also broadened the repertory to include works by Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor and others, as well as full-length ballets.
The company’s leadership insists that it wants to continue the Balanchine tradition with its next artistic leader, whom the board expects to name by the spring. But the pool of candidates with a depth of Balanchine knowledge is small.
Mr. Villella’s dancing career came to a halt abruptly because of a deteriorated hip, but he managed to return to dance briefly, ensuring that he would go out on his own terms. He declined to draw a parallel between the end of his dancing and artistic director’s phases, only saying: “It’s really about the dancers. I wanted to make a company I would have liked to dance in.”
Mr. Eroncig, the board president, said Mr. Villella would be suitably honored. He did not rule out a statue.
A version of this article appeared in print on November 14, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Bitter Departure for Miami’s Ballet Patriarch.
Les Etés de la Danse 2011 : le Miami City Ballet