Edward Villella was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies and a center for independent policy research.
In the humanities and arts category, the Academy elected Edward to join others such as Civil War historian James McPherson; biographer Robert Caro; author Thomas Pynchon; choreographers Trisha Brown and Bill T. Jones; actors Dustin Hoffman and James Earl Jones; mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne; singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris; and jazz musician Kenny Barron.
The Academy, established in 1780 by founders of the nation, undertakes studies of complex and emerging problems. Current projects focus on science, technology and global security; social policy and American institutions; the humanities and culture; and education. The Academy’s membership of scholars and practitioners from many disciplines and professions gives it a unique capacity to conduct a wide range of interdisciplinary, long-term policy research. Members who have been inducted into the Academy in the past include George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the twentieth. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.
At the induction ceremony on Saturday, October 10, Edward gave the following speech:
THE ART OF LIFE
I can divide my life into two distinct periods: life before my exposure to “The Arts” and life after my exposure to “The Arts.” Before the Arts, I was a feisty kid with an abundance of physicality from the blue-collar community of Bayside, Queens. I channeled my physicality into sandlot baseball and high school and college varsity athletics. While attending the New York Maritime College, I gained a higher education in commerce and the military that was added to my constant need to move and be physical. However, it wasn’t until George Balanchine invited me to join his company, New York City Ballet, that I had my first serious exposure to art and a completely different kind of physicality. And what I experienced and learned there utterly transformed my life. I discovered a mind-driven physicality – dance – what Balanchine called “the poetry of gesture.” Once that discovery crossed my horizon and I began my sojourn as a dancer in Balanchine’s singular world, my life was unalterably changed and I never looked back.
As a dancer I could live the Greek ideal of a balanced life of the mind and the body. And I had the rare privilege of working with two of the 20th century’s greatest creative minds – George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. Their collaborations produced masterpieces, and when I had the opportunity to approach these works as a dancer, I knew I was in the presence of their minds and an articulation of their remarkable genius. That opportunity was both exhilarating and terrifying.
When Balanchine gave me the extraordinary role of Apollo – his and Stravinsky’s Apollo – to prepare for performance, I could not have achieved what I did without first absorbing the wealth of information and experience that he had to impart about his creation. In the time-honored custom of our field, passing knowledge and experience from body to body and mind to mind, the genius thus conveyed to the neophyte his insights and thoughts about the role. Imagine what it was like for me as a young artist, filled with an enormous desire to learn, to be the beneficiary of what the master had to teach me about his Apollo. He provided his points of departure, made sense of abstract gesture, and then, helped me to understand it. During this transmittal of knowledge, Balanchine demonstrated one gesture that was completely revelatory, a gesture that both built a characterization and defined the character of Apollo. A characterization of a choreographic master’s Greek God, ripe with his images of swooping eagles, matadors, chariot drivers, soccer players, and bicycle riders. This process of teaching and learning, giving and receiving, provided me with an artful approach to preparing for my future roles.
As an athlete I could lift. As a dancer I had to lift, but more particularly, to partner and look after another dancer colleague. Partnering is an intimacy of physical conversation. A mutual exchange of dependence and trust – two bodies and two minds working together as one whole.
For the past fifty years, I’ve devoted myself to the art form of dance, particularly classical ballet, first as a dancer, then as a teacher and artistic director. Dance has taught me so many lessons and enriched my life in more ways than I can ever describe. It gave me the ability to speak in silence, to animate movement in the most sophisticated ways, to physicalize music, to see the honesty of Art, to know what is correct, the one possibility that is right. Dance inspired me to seek what is ideal, what is unattainable – perfection. Dance required me to understand human behavior and develop the ability to express it theatrically and to express human relationships in the context of historical period and style and then to link this understanding back to line and form. Dance showed me how to swim in time through designated space with gestures of integrity. Dance taught me how to respond to music with a keen understanding of the intimacies of timing in relation to the architecture of the score. Dance illuminated how abstraction is an idea reduced to its essence and how the physical expression of that essential idea through qualitative entertainment can produce human pleasure. Dance revealed clarity by teaching me to recognize what is not necessary and how to be economical with gesture. Dance taught me how to portray emotion, and in the process, I learned a way to be aware of and help control life’s emotions. Dance gave me discipline and formal structure, but it also gave me the freedom and knowledge to move with artistic ease, removing all tensions in both body and mind. A good life lesson.
Time eventually deprives us of the pleasure of active portrayal. This inevitability, however, provides us with a different type of pleasure and an opportunity to re-pay an accumulated debt. I have traveled a great distance from the position in which I started – that of the neophyte receiving precious information from the master – to one filled with an enormous desire to preserve that information as authentically as possible and to pass it on to the next generations of dancers.
Twenty-five years ago this desire, coupled with my desire to repay a debt to a genius and the teachers and mentors who gave me a life, a life of art, led me to create another entity, Miami City Ballet, as a vehicle to continue sharing with the world what these masters taught.
Fifty years ago, when I started my career as a dancer, it seemed clear to me, as it still does now, that to live with an understanding of music, dance, art, elegance, and nobility could be a point of departure for a life role. The art of life.