It’s not every day that a famous ballet dancer is given a lifetime achievement award by SUNY Maritime Academy’s alumni association.
But then again, the group boasts world-famous ballet dancer and director Edward Villella as one of its own, Class of 1957.
Villella, who danced with the New York City Ballet from 1957 to 1975, was honored by the association Thursday, Feb. 6.
“I’m flattered that the Maritime college would give a lifetime achievement award to a ballet dancer,” he said.
Baseball to ballet
Villella’s illustrious career started while playing baseball in Bayside, Queens. One day at age six or seven, a baseball to Villella’s head led his friends to deliver him unconscious to his doorstep and run. After that, his mother said he had to accompany her and his sister to ballet class instead of playing in the streets.
He continued dancing for the next decade, following his sister to the School of American Ballet. He completed high school in three years so he could join the New York City Ballet sooner. But his parents insisted on college instead of ballet. Villella had a friend whose brother attended SUNY Maritime, and so he agreed to go visit the school. “I was impressed,” he said, by Fort Schuyler.
Villella describes Fort Schuyler as “not an easy place,” but said the college created a unique camaraderie among classmates. Villella was on the baseball team and was welterweight boxing champion.
“I was so frustrated about not dancing I used to go to the gym and bang on the heavy bag,” Villella said. “One day the guy who ran the program asked if I wanted to box.”
“I’ll never forget watching him box, I can see him today vividly,” said his company commander, Dick Bracken. “He’d hit people and they’d go down like a cut tree.”
Boxing and beer
Villella said ballet was always on his mind. He started to sneak out of Fort Schuyler to take classes, but he had no money for transportation, classes, or the tights and slippers he needed. He started bringing a duffle bag with him when he snuck off-base, buying a case of beer and selling it to his classmates.
“That’s how I financed returning to ballet,” he said.
After graduation, Villella joined the New York City Ballet and danced with it for almost 20 years. In 1985 he founded the Miami City Ballet, creating a world-renowned company from scratch.
Back to NY
After 27 years in Miami, Villella and his wife Linda returned to New York just last year.
“Miami is not New York,” he noted, “although Miami likes to think it’s New York.”
Although he’s no longer dancing or directing, he still influencing the world of ballet through teaching, coaching and speaking, which he says he loves.
“I’m at that lovely place that I can do what it is that I’d like to do,” Villella said
He called his time at Fort Schuyler a distinct experience. “It was truly a coming of age experience.”
Villella’s classmate Ted Mason, former president of the Alumni Association and a member of the award committee, suggested that Villella receive this year’s award.
“When you talk about lifetime achievement,” said Mason, “his achievement started at 6 or 7 years old and continues to this day.”