The dancers of the Miami City Ballet do George Balanchine better than anyone else. Joan Acocella, singling out their mastery of the late great choreographer's work in a New Yorker review, heaps the credit on the Ballet's founder and artistic director, Edward Villella, a short, raven-haired stage icon from Queens, NY, whose blue collar roots and superior skills endeared him to Balanchine when the two men ruled the New York City dance scene in the sixties. Back then, Villella was a hit with crowds as much as he was with colleagues. Acocella says Balanchine even dreamed up a "butch" chase sequence in the 1967 ballet "Rubies" just to cater to the strength that put Villella, an ex-boxer and Maritime College graduate, so at odds with other principles.
Dogged by hip injuries, Villella went on to found the MCB 29 years ago. Now, at 75, his persuasive powers seem undimmed. His dancers and donors praise his energy and vision -- he ushered the regional troupe to the historic stages of Manhattan and Paris to great acclaim -- and maintain he's the reason the Ballet can bill itself, as it does on its web site, "Florida's internationally acclaimed company."
So why would the Ballet's board force such a phenomenon into early retirement?
It's mysterious, but it seems that's what's happened. Next spring, Villella will step down from his decades-long reign, despite the fact that he doesn't seem to want to. His successor, a middle-aged ballerina-turned-director whom Villella expressly opposed, will take over. The details surrounding the sea change aren't clear, but they're plenty dramatic: tears, million dollar promises and insomnia all play a part. Some say Villella's vision was indulgent and cost the company too much. Others say he snubbed important donors. Filling out the story are ego battles and generational shifts. Was Villella too old? Too stubborn? Too good?
HuffPost Culture sifted through all the reports we could find to see if we could get any closer to an answer. We drew heavily from the ongoing local and national coverage of the fall-out, as well as an investigative piece published in yesterday's Miami Herald. The result, we think, is a rundown of the story's most salient twists and turns. Read on, and let us know if you have any insights into one of the biggest and more mysterious shakeups in modern ballet.
Point: Villella wanted to leave.
The press release that appeared on the Miami City Ballet website last September announcing the news of Villella's exit is worded in such a way that the choice seems mutual, with no hard feelings. The release refers to Villella as an "artistic genius," with a single explanatory line that reads: "[He] is leaving to continue his professional life."
Counterpoint: Villella was pushed out.
Reports characterize "the usually affable and chatty Villella" as "angry," "withdrawn," and "estranged from some formerly close supporters." He is reportedly "gaunt, haggard," and unable to sleep. Yesterday's Herald piece includes a quote from a dancer about Villella's attitude when he delivered the news to the company last fall: "He was choked up, swallowing back tears. Everyone was in shock. It was very apparent this was not his choice."
Point: The board "meddled" too much.
Last fall, the New York Times referenced a claim by unnamed Villella supporters, that "meddling by board members in administrative matters reached an intolerable level." The Herald piece also paints a picture of a community naturally resistant to Villella's ways, due to a lack of "deep generational support found in established northern cities."
Counterpoint: Villella was hard to work with.
That same Times article recounts Villella snubbing board critics at a gala in March, turning his back on and "not even greeting several of them." He is alternately described as "pugnacious" and oblivious. One donor told the Herald that "Villella made enemies. '“He is not very good at playing the social games.'"
Point: The Ballet was promised money if Villella left.
The Herald piece cites unnamed sources claiming a longtime donor withheld a "major cash infusion in 2011 unless Villella promised to leave." The donor himself, R. Kirk Landon, would not comment.
Counterpoint: The Ballet was promised money if Villella stayed.
Donor Harriet Pownall went very much on the record with a high society Miami publication this January, giving an angry, exclamation point-strewn interview. Pownall said she and her husband promised the MCB $1 million shortly after the news of Villella's exit, on the condition the board president induce him to stay. In Harriet's words: "He didn't accept the money, but the company is strapped for cash!"
Point: Villella was truly out of his depth.
According to the Herald, some of Villella's staunchest supporters started to doubt his ability to "manage the chaotic finances," including the troupe's co-founder. Landon (the money withholder from before) even admitted to handing Villella the passive aggressive gift of "a book about corporate transitions" at a meeting, because "it was time to start worrying about succession." Another member, speaking on anonymity, compared Villella to "an aging corporate titan who created a business but did not have the perspective to know when to leave."
Counterpoint: The board is out of its depth, in terms of running an artistically significant company.
Four board members have so far threatened to leave now Villella's gone. ("Here we have great art," one said, "and we're throwing it away.") “They don’t understand what has made Miami City Ballet so special and different,” said an anonymous longtime dancer to the Herald. “How Edward has taught us to think about dancing...how it’s driven by your mind."
Point: The company is already headed towards a better financial future.
Top board members are reportedly expecting a Knight Foundation grant worth $5 million, intended to pull them out of debt.
Counterpoint: Unless it isn't.
From an email Knight President and CEO Alberto Ibarguen wrote to the Herald: “No grant has been promised to MCB; no such grant has been authorized by KF trustees. Whatever moves the MCB trustees have made have been made on their own.”
Point: The board's choice of successor was spiteful
Back in January, Villella supporter Henry Pownall predicted the board would ignore Villella's choice of successor, with the statement: "I have a horrible feeling that the company will be destroyed. I also fear they will be petty and purposely not let Edward pick someone.” Indeed, the vote was 9-2 in favor of Lourdes Lopez -- opposed only by Villella and a dancer.
Counterpoint: The board's choice of successor was near-perfect.
In January, Harriet Pownall's primary worry was that the board would disregard the Balanchine tradition in their choice of successor. Lopez, however, is a Balanchine disciple, a fact that caused the The New York Times to assert "it seems hard to imagine someone with a better resume for the job."