In 1964, George Balanchine set his vigorous new pas de deux “Tarantella” for New York City Ballet’s principal dancers Edward Villella and Patricia McBride.
Now Villella, a visiting guest artist at the University of Arizona School of Dance, will set “Tarantella” on four pairs of students, passing this ballet torch from “body to body, mind to mind, just the way Balanchine intended,” Villella explained.
“It’s seven minutes of total fury,” he added between bites, taking his lunch break during a day of rehearsals. In Italian folklore, the victim of a tarantula spider bite can avoid death only by dancing wildly to expel the poison.
“Tarantella” is the centerpiece for the dance school’s upcoming Premium Blend showcase of work by UA faculty and friends at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre.
“I’m having the time of my life here,” said the 77-year-old native New Yorker, whom the Kennedy Center calls “America’s most celebrated male dancer.”
“I love doing the Balanchine canon because it is so stimulating to be in the presence of such genius,” the master dancer continued. “Plus I feel like I have a responsibility to look after these ballets that have looked after me.”
Villella talks about Balanchine’s choreography with a compelling intimacy, enhanced by his gritty New York accent. You can hear his descriptions and see the ballet wheels turning, the machinery of a piece moving in space, lifting the dancers to a higher level of artistry.
“What makes this dance a Balanchine dance are the intricacies,” Villella went on. “This tiny little piece is full of hundreds of connections, there are layers of departure points.
“I had to study each of these subtle inside points myself when I first learned ‘Tarantella,’ The piece is known for its complicated rhythms, too, but if you break the rhythms down they are simple juxtapositions of related ideas.
“Balanchine didn’t try to make difficult steps,” Villella concluded, smiling. “He made the appropriate steps.”
It’s this inside knowledge that the veteran passes along to the UA students. His approach proved its worth when Villella founded the Miami City Ballet in 1986 and in less than a decade took the company to international acclaim. During a three-week showcase in Paris two years ago, the MCB enjoyed triumph after triumph.
Villella parted ways with the Miami City Ballet last year. He’s happy now to continue passing along his knowledge and experience to those who seek it.
“The kids here are so willing,” he said, amazement in his voice. “They have such great spirit and humor. They appreciate the sunny, joyous emotion of this piece.”
Also on the Premium Blend concert program: guest artist Larry Keigwin’s large ensemble piece “Megalopolis” (2009), a physical tour de force of modern dance that marries classical with pop, both in movement and music; a collaboration of the UA Dance Ensemble and the Arizona Choir setting selections from Brahm’s “Liebeslieder Walzer” to choreography by faculty members James Clouser and Melissa Lowe; additional dances choreographed by faculty members Douglas Nielsen, Michael Williams and Lowe, with staging by Amy Ernst.