Picks and Pans Review: Prodigal Son
This memoir by former New York City Ballet dancer Villella might as well be called Controlling Father because it is largely about the demanding and difficult NYCB cofounder and choreographer George Balanchine, Villella's boss and, he says, surrogate parent for most of his career. Like other dancers (notably Gelsey Kirkland in 1986's Dancing on My Grave), Villella both adored and feared "Mr. B," and his book is an attempt to analyze their relationship. Unlike Kirkland, though, Villella takes a conciliatory tone—as if, nine years after Balanchine's death, he still wants to win the great man's approval.
As dancers go, Villella—now artistic director of the Miami City Ballet—was always unusual. An athletic kid from Queens, N.Y., Villella tended to get himself into trouble if left home alone; his mother kept him out of trouble by dragging him along to his sister's dance classes. But when he began to show some aptitude, his working-class parents were horrified. Ballet was no profession for a boy, they said, and their relationship with him soured further when he quit college to study dance and perform. But that rejection only further fueled Villella's passion to succeed. "Maybe I thought my parents would forgive me if I became a star," he writes. That he managed to do just that at the esteemed NYCB is particularly amazing because he was shorter and more athletic than the Balanchine ideal. He was also rebellious, dating women in the company (a practice of which the protective—and jealous?—Balanchine vocally disapproved), studying with outside teachers and performing on Broadway and TV.
It hardly takes a balletomane to appreciate Villella's perseverance. (While in physical pain, he continued to perform, and eventually needed hip replacement surgery.) Understandable too is his struggle against authority, wonderfully illustrated by an encounter in which Balanchine tries to make him wear a humiliatingly unflattering costume. But the long descriptions of specific ballets (Prodigal Son was his most famous performance) and use of technical terms can be offputting to the uninitiated. Still, given that dancers are notoriously single-minded about their art, it makes sense that the behind-the-scenes portions of this memoir—Villella's two marriages, the births of his three children, his reconciliation with his parents—should be sketchy. Villella gives the impression that those things mattered to him less than the pas de deux he performed—onstage with ballerinas or backstage with his mentor. (Simon & Schuster, $23)