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Edward Villella Named Jury Chair for 2014 USA International Ballet Competition/ Jackson, Ms.

February 20, 2013
Edward Villella

Edward Villella

Edward Villella, whose virile performances in the 1960s and ’70s were a game-changer for men in ballet, will chair the international jury at the next USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson.

“It’s an outstanding coup,” said Barbara England, a USA IBC board member who, as a teen-aged dancer with the then-Jackson Ballet, also saw him perform here in the early 1970s, “and I have never forgotten it. He was just astounding.”

“He is a legend,” Sue Lobrano, IBC executive director, said. She first saw Villella dance on television, and watched his strong, vibrant dancing open the door for a role for male dancers that moved far beyond just supporting the ballerina.

The 10th quadrennial USA IBC will be held June 2014 in Jackson. Villella will be the third international jury chairman since the IBC’s 1979 start here. He succeeds Bruce Marks, who served as the jury chairman for the six competitions dating to 1990. The late Robert Joffrey was the first jury chairman.

Villella was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton and named a Kennedy Center honoree in 1997. He’s an icon of American ballet, joining the New York City Ballet at age 21 and rising quickly to soloist and principal dancer. His background before that included lettering in baseball and featherweight champion boxing and a stint in the Merchant Marines. As founding artistic director for the Miami City Ballet, he led the company to critical acclaim for 26 years before his exit this past September. His 1992 autobiography “Prodigal Son: Dancing for Balanchine in a World of Pain and Magic” written with Larry Kaplan, is named for his most famous role.

Edward Villella

Edward Villella

Villella previously served as honorary chairman for the 2002 IBC in Jackson and has hired dancers right off the Thalia Mara Hall stage for Miami City Ballet.

“The very first competition I went to, I got four wonderful dancers” who became an integral part of his company’s development, Villella said by phone from New York, where he lives with his wife Linda, a former Olympic figure skater. “Since then, every chance I got, I would go back” to seek out more.

Villella said he was always concerned ballet competitions would challenge dancers to do tricks before they should attempt them, and that contests would focus more on tricks than the purity of the dance.

Edward Villella

Edward Villella

That’s been a common concern among dance professionals since the start of competitions, as competitors balance art, athleticism and the potential wow factor in performance. At the IBC, dancers are judged on artistry, technique and musicality, and compete in classical and contemporary ballet.

“I have nothing against tricks, so long as the quality of dance is equally important,” Villella said. There are many different approaches in dance — lyric, bravura and dramatic, for instance — and competitions bring out the bravura.

“We definitely need the bravura, but we mustn’t lose sight of the overall sense of dance and its beauty and elegance.”

Revered in the dance world, Villella is expected to have a big impact on the Jackson competition that extends into all areas. Lobrano said Villella accepted the invitation to chair the jury on one condition: that he stay busy during the IBC. That’ll include teaching competitor classes, meeting with dance students and speaking with the public as part of the Lunch with the IBC series.

“I love to teach,” Villella said. With Miami City Ballet, he designed a class for its repertoire that would provide dancers the ability to dance in any period and style — 19th century, 20th century and now 21st century.

“There’s an ongoing evolution of dance that comes mostly through emerging choreographers,” such as Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon at present, he said. “We have the 19th century as our example. It’s our tradition. But the investigations never stop, because it cannot be an art form that resides only 200 years ago. So we have to be current with all of the new challenges that emerge.”

He’s also keen to expose young dancers at the IBC to company directors and choreographers. “I think all of this should not just be about winning, but about achieving a position in a professional company.”

Ballet Mississippi artistic director David Keary credits Villella for the spark that ignited his career. Keary was 12 when NYCB’s Villella and then-15-year-old Gelsey Kirkland danced here. “At that performance, I looked at my dad and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do’ because he was so athletic.”

Three years later, Keary was at the School of American Ballet in New York City and three years after that, he was living in Villella’s brownstone in New York and doing performances and lectures with him.\

“He presented a dynamic and a masculinity that inspired just hundreds of male dancers,” Keary said. For the IBC, “I think it’s a phenomenal choice.”

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