Dance Deja Vu – Edward Villella and Three Generations of Ballet in Miami

When Edward Villella first performed Tarantella, the rocket-powered pas de deux that George Balanchine made on him and Patricia McBride in 1964, he had to drop to his hands and knees to catch his breath every time he shot offstage. Today in Miami he watched, smiling, as Eric Pikieris and Claudia Lezcano, of Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami, finished a run-through of Tarantella. Pikieris was flat on his back, Lezcano was bent over leaning on her knees, laughing and panting. “I’m surprised they can still talk,” Villella said. At 81, he’s stoop shouldered but lean, restlessly prowling the edges of the studio. Jennifer Kronenberg, who danced for Villella at Miami City Ballet for over 20 years and now co-directs Dimensions, watched, bright-eyed and beaming with pride. “When Claudia first saw Tarantella she said “I don’t think I can move that fast,” Kronenberg said. “It’s amazing how the dancers have evolved since he’s been here.”

“Ballet is body to body, mind to mind” was supposed to be one of Balanchine’s aphorisms. Today that dictum came to life, with three interconnected generations of ballet dancers rehearsing in Miami, their dancing and their lives circling back on each other in a single studio. It was deja vu and the past merging with the future, all at once.

The lynchpin was Villella, the all-American star and masculine muse of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet in the 1960’s, who went on to found Miami City Ballet in 1986 and make it into one of the most exciting companies in America, famous for (among other things), the energy, vitality, style, verve and depth with which it danced Balanchine’s genre-shifting repertoire. Edward, formed and perpetually inspired by Balanchine’s genius, made sure of that. He left MCB on Labor Day Weekend 2012, after an acrimonious year of clashes with board members and donors, returned to his native New York, and never looked back.

But for the last week and a half, he’s been back – to work with Dimensions, led by two of his best and favorite dancers at MCB. Jennifer Kronenberg, who joined MCB at 17, and her husband Carlos Guerra, who joined soon after he left Cuba, were a principal couple, beloved not just for their dancing, but for their onstage chemistry and real life love story. In 2016 they left MCB to start Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami, which in just under two years has become an unlikely (who starts a ballet company these days?) success, with a major grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a performing home at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center (where they perform this Saturday), debuts at New York’s Joyce Theater and Jacob’s Pillow which earned them standing ovations and a glowing review in the New York Times. In Miami, they’ve got a growing audience for their young, eager troupe. Which, at 16 dancers, is similar in many ways to the young, eager, 18-member Miami City Ballet when it started out.

“It’s terrifically reminiscent,” said Villella. “History has its way of repeating itself. But you have to know history to know how to move forward.”

Edward Villella rehearses Tarantella with Yanis Pikieris and Claudia Lezcano

This July, Kronenberg and Guerra brought their mentor down to coach their troupe’s first Balanchine works, the radiant, exquisitely crafted Tchaikovsky pas de deux, and Tarantella, a rollicking, rowdy/charming, rocket-fueled duet of almost non-stop leaps and jumps, a marathon compressed into a six-minute, tambourine shaking sprint.

Which gave Villella plenty of opportunity for his favorite directions. “Up! Up! Move!” he urged Lezcano, as she raced through a crackling sequence of stabbing pique arabesques. At the keyboard Karl Moraskie, Miami City Ballet’s first rehearsal pianist, pounded out the Gottschalk score. “I’ve been playing slow tempos, and then I played yours yesterday,” Moraskie said, grinning. Villella, who was famous for teaching fast-moving, rhythmically unexpected classes for his company, grinned back, shimmying his shoulders, bouncing and bopping, stabbing his hands in the air, conducting the dancing and the music.

Edward Villella and Karl Moraskie, an early rehearsal pianist at Miami City Ballet

More layers – Miami Youth Ballet, where Dimensions rehearses, is owned by Eric Pikieris’s parents Yanis Pikieris and Marielena Mencia, who were MCB’s first star couple. Yanis, injured and on crutches, watched his son from a corner, beaming and looking like he might burst. He was the first to dance Tarantella at MCB, one of the first Balanchine ballets the company staged. “I learned it from him,” he said, pointing his chin at Villella.

Edward Villella and Patricia McBride dancing Tarantella

And now the next generation was learning Balanchine from Villella too. The dancers were wide-eyed and smiling, crowding around Villella on brief breaks. In a pre-rehearsal class, they seemed nervous and eager, trying their best for their legendary teacher. As Josue Justiz, partnering Mayrel Martinez in Tchai pas, whirled through his solo, Villella urged him on, approving. “Show us! Open! Move!” Justiz glowed. “It’s like a different ballet from when they first did it,” Kronenberg said. Younger students peered through windows into the studio, just like children used to peer through the big windows to watch rehearsals at Miami City Ballet.

Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami performs at 8 pm Saturday July 21st at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211 St., Miami 33189, 786-573-5300. Tickets are $25 to $45, or $75 VIP. Program includes Tarantella, Tchaikovsky pas de deux, and dances by Yanis Pikieris and Leonardo Reale. Pre-show talk with Edward Villella, Jennifer Kronenberg, Carlos Guerra and Yanis Pikieris from 6:30 to 7:30pm.

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