Featured image: Peter Boal as a student, courtesy Peter Boal

Edward Villella, mid-air leap,
in costume for his role as the Peppermint Stick in Tschaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” as performed by the New York City Ballet at City Center (LOC Archives)

Edward Villella

  • In Edward Villella’s Prodigal son: Dancing for Balanchine in a world of pain and magic, the dancer talks about performing as gloriously fun, but also a baptism by fire, as, for example, in his early years with New York City Ballet, when he was thrown into a principal role in Agon. For Villella, there are only two kinds of dancers, those that can’t wait to get onstage and those that are terrified to do so, who wrap themselves up in nerves. Known for his power and athleticism, his “en l’air” being as George Balanchine called him, Villella was clearly the former—all the time managing injuries and crippling spasms while fighting with insecurities. Villela’s partnering, what he called a physical conversation, a delicate discussion, was an impeccable example of collaboration—giving his partner freedom and support (without letting the audience see how hard he was working on stage).

The author discusses dancing as a powerful drug, in which muscles come alive. But performance also can be like running a stamina-draining marathon, tapping into stores of energy, then needing to manage an adrenaline rush that can take hours to relax from.

All of this experience, sensibility, and sensitivity, he brought to his stage productions, as a principal at New York City Ballet, then as director of the Eglevsky Ballet. At Miami City Ballet, the company he founded and directed, he saw his role as one of injecting life into ballet productions, working with dancers on style and musicality, and fostering a coherent artistic vision, all the while managing the financial side of running a company—budgets, contracts, public relations and marketing.

Peter Boal

Peter Boal, too, also a principal dancer with NYCB who went on to head a major baller company, Pacific Northwest Ballet, offers profound insights in Illusions of Camelot on his own mental and physical wellbeing, as an artist and performer. His story begins with a critical look at his privileged life in Bedford Connecticut, and later his performances at the School of American Ballet. The book is a deep dive into dancer psyche and sexuality, reflecting on a life of many moments of utter bliss—the thrill of immersing oneself in Balanchine in both the school and in the company, punctuated by tragic losses of beloved partners and family,

  • Boal’s notes on performance are more subtle, packaged as factual anecdotes. He talks about ballet classes, about their focus on physicality, technique, music. Like Villella, Boal raves about certain teachers who developed dancer artistry—Stanley Williams, in particular, known later as a well-respected teacher in the School of American Ballet, coaching dancers in such a way as to make limbs more defined—with the roundness, expression, and intensity of music living in the dancers’ bodies. Williams worked with dancer’s expressivity in performing melodies and meters in the piece, and in showcasing the artists’ bravura. This meant investing meaning and shape into dancers’ steps, and at the same time, prioritizing the dancer’s’ intelligence and taste in musical phrasing.

These two must-have books, in different ways and from different perspectives, showcase the grit, skills, and determination necessary to deliver thrilling dance. Dance artists and teachers most certainly will enjoy Boal’s intimate look at performance in Illusions of Camelot and Villella’s timeless narrative in Prodigal Son, that describes how he powered through the most challenging of roles, at the same time seeking the necessary help to train and condition in ways that enhance performance.

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