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Encounter with an Athlete

Sept. 27, 1971
Sept. 27, 1971

Table of Contents
Sept. 27, 1971

Knockout
Tigers
Quack, Quack
College Football
Boxing
Horse Racing
Golf
Villella
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Encounter with an Athlete

It was an odd place—the ballet—one the author had always found discomforting, but Edward Villella displayed an astounding quality of movement that sport could not equal

It could have been that I first became aware that there was something called ballet through one of those pictures occasionally seen on sports pages, the massive Polish tackle and the fragile ballerina at a barre on the field. Or maybe it was in a short just before Buck Jones galloped through one of his many thin diversions at the Saturday movies. Then, some time later, while cooling off in the library on a hot summer afternoon, I came across a book defending boxing from those who are always railing about how the sport savages the fighter's brain. Ending his defense quietly, the writer asked: "Who hit Nijinsky in the head?"

This is an article from the Sept. 27, 1971 issue Original Layout

At the time, the mystery for me was not who hit the gentleman, but just who was Nijinsky? The tailor down the street? I did not know for a long time, until one evening, out of curiosity and severe intimidation by a young girl I never saw again, I found myself in a theater gallery, which was, so I was told, the sanctuary of true scholars of ballet. As I watched, I could not help feeling much like the woman who once commented on the easiness of Rodin's work, to which the sculptor replied: "Yes, it is easy. All you have to do is take a large piece of marble and with your chisel knock away all that you don't need." The engrossed eyes, the motionless bodies nearby failed to change my mind, and when the performance was over I was convinced that ballet was easy. Even more, I found it offensive—sharply so.

While leaving, I became more agitated by what seemed to be the audience's trenchant vivisection of the evening and then, stroking my ignorance and looking about at the mother-of-pearl cigarette holders tilted in the air like lances, the good looks and easy confidence of a world I never knew, nor wanted to know, I wondered something: What did these people understand about the real world, say, Mays making a catch in deep center field. Like a whip cracking out, the question had come, shaped by a waterfront atmosphere in which a badge of acceptance was a blue work shirt, and dented beer kettles were old school steins, and there were people who would ask—if they had read any literature of the '30s—what the hell was so romantic, so human, so noble about having your skull baked near an open hearth, sweating on a dock, raising a large family. Indeed, what was so noble about surviving?

Such things as romance and art belonged to others, the frivolous ones with money who ran things so badly and then always stooped down to the rabble, the proletariat, to bail them out. The word art was never heard in the language of the neighborhood, and if the subject was thought of at all it was in relation to the prints of one saint or another looking patronizingly down from the walls of dim kitchens and gray bedrooms, or to the fluttering octaves of the choir at High Mass. It was through sports that the people found expression, and they devoured the seasons like chunks of raw meat, insensitive to essences: the esthetics of movement, the myriad of delicate lines to each sport. It was the catch by Mays that counted, not the brilliance of his flight.

Their minds belonged to the quantifiers. They were locked into a scoreboard attitude toward life, from the grim mathematics of factory production to the simplest of recreations. It was not how you did something, it was the result that mattered, that and the look of one's exterior which, when swept aside, covered dark storms of anxiety, bitterness and a true sense of defeat. It was just a matter of time before it all would blend into the worst sort of cynicism—into craftily bungling plumbers, weight-manipulating butchers, gouging TV repairmen. It was, though, not their true spirit. Once they had been an inquisitive people with creative, rowdy style, with an infectious feel for life and the zest for making their lives count in some special way. But that was before they learned that nobody put any of this up on a scoreboard.

For an artist of any stripe to come out of this environment, this thinking, no matter how sympathetic his parents might be, is a long, long bet. To connect ballet with this backdrop is blasphemous, and to connect with it one of the greatest dancers in the world is beyond credibility. I could not believe that Edward Villella could be from Queens, N.Y. The incongruity of Villella and Queens, a cut above a waterfront area but still a fortress of convention and practicality, started me thinking of ballet again. I then learned that Villella had been a welterweight boxing champion at the New York Maritime College, a better than average infielder, and that he had worked summers pushing racks over the chaotic streets of the garment center. He could also brawl if he had to, and once it nearly cost him his life. Set upon by several young marines, he ended up in a hospital with a badly lacerated face and a concussion.

It seemed an ordinary background, that is for anyone save a ballet dancer. By now I had become curious. Who were these people, where did they come from and what were they like? I read of Nureyev, the mysterious Tartar whose name is synonymous with ballet, an artist many believe is without equal but one others view as "too pretty, too cornball." I tried not to allow a quote from a ballerina to influence my remote picture of him. "I spend all my offstage time," said the ballerina, "pinning up his hair and spraying it. He feels it is very poetic." I did like, though, the way he answered his critics: "I am Nureyev, dancer, nothing more than that. I am on sale. It is free enterprise. If you like, you buy. If you don't like, you leave alone."

Of all the dancers I read about, it was Nijinsky who struck me. At 19 he had captivated Europe and was often referred to as "the man of whom birds are jealous." Ten years later he went mad, and he spent the rest of his life in institutions, where he painted pictures of strange bugs, distorted masks and faces with staring eyes. The story of his life is engulfing, but above all I came away from it with a sense of the human body, something I had never thought much about before. "It was not the transference of an inert mass from one position of balance to another," wrote a friend of Nijinsky, "but the supple alliance with weight, like a wing on the air, of all that machine of muscles and nerves, of a body that is not trunk or statue, but the complete organ of power and movement."

I decided to see Villella perform. I was told he was the complete embodiment of athleticism, and maybe the finest athlete in the country. I did not dismiss these opinions, but I did remain skeptical and, even though I was no longer ignorant enough to think ballet was easy, I fully expected much of what I felt many years before—the solemnity, the glibness of balletomanes who seemed to transmit the impression that ballet belonged in a cathedral. Instead, the opposite was obvious in the lobby of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. The lobby had the familiar look and sound of a ball park, the crowd had a natural feel, and even the elegance, blending with unkempt young people and the drab uniforms of the street, seemed real and stately, rather than contrived for a moment. It could have been that I was looking at it all with new eyes, but it is more likely that dancers like Villella and the choreographer Balanchine are chipping at the jewel-encrusted veneer of ballet, bringing it to the people, making it human.

I find it difficult to communicate what I saw on this night, except to say that I had never seen such sheer human force generated before, never seen the physicality of a body expressed so completely as it was done by Edward Villella. For 40 straight, relentless minutes, he used every muscle, every fiber in his small body, leaping (at times over six feet), jumping, twisting, running, all of it with a constancy of grace and control that in sport is seen only in fragments. He developed every movement admired in athletics and brought to each one a quintessence of its beauty: the balance of a pivot at second base; the timing of an over-the-shoulder pass reception; and surely every move you have ever gaped at on a basketball court. I left feeling exhilarated, but inwardly confused.

The confusion, the result of a flash of distrust, of guilt for having enjoyed the ballet, I could not attribute to the mores of my old neighborhood. Surely, I no longer found it offensive, but why was I so uncomfortable, why did I feel like the epitome of a type described once by a curator of a French museum? "It's all in their walk," said the curator, claiming he could single out American men in a crowd. "The moment the American male steps through the doors, he assumes a truculently self-conscious half strut, half shamble that tries to say, 'I don't really want to be here. I'd much rather be in a bar or watching a ball game.' " The U.S., he seemed to think, had culturephobia, and American men secretly viewed any appreciation of the arts as somewhat subversive, un-American and quite unmanly.

Certainly, it is admirable to know the difference between a Doric and Ionic column, pleasant to hear Italian laborers singing arias on the streets, but the absence of such in a city hardly indicates a lag in culture, an estrangement from civilization. Yet, right or wrong, it has been popular opinion abroad that there is a certain barbarism to our attitudes, and much of it is linked to our heritage, the climate of the frontier and the uncouth character of those who tamed it. Then there are others who reason that we are still chained to Calvinist doctrine, which repelled all that was not simple and coldly functional, specifically, much of art. Art was licentious, if not downright evil.

Having no trust at all in public or parochial school history and being somewhat inclined toward hedonism, I dismissed all of the above as being at the bottom of my unease following the ballet. And I decided it might be therapeutic to talk to Villella himself. I arranged to meet him at his town house, and while walking there I could not chase thoughts of powdered wigs, of Nureyev having his hair pinned up, of sweet perfume. Villella came to the door accompanied by an excessively grumpy German shepherd, the best weapon of defense on the West Side of New York City. He has a good face, not pretty, but it is a dramatic one, with sharp expressions and dark Gothic eyes. He talks for a time about the approaching Ali-Frazier fight and then, putting his draft beer down, he says:

"O.K., go ahead and ask it. You'll get around to it sooner or later. They all do. I always see it in their eyes."

"Ask what?"

"Whether I'm straight or not?"

"Well...."

"Don't worry. I'm conditioned to it. It's something I've had to live with from the start. It doesn't bother me anymore. The ballet is too marvelous an experience for me to care what people may think, what they may say about a male dancer. Homosexuality is a reality, whether in dance or anywhere else. I don't care what a person does offstage, just what he does while out there. I don't know why people have to raise an eyebrow at a male in tights. It doesn't bother them in basketball or in the ring. The increasing sexuality of football and baseball uniforms—you know, very tight pants—doesn't seem to upset anybody.

"But it bugs them, even the high school kids. It's changing some, and kids, all kinds, are making ballet a big thing in this country now. But when I go to some of these schools, sometimes the worst kind where the teachers are driven out of patience and the kids look and sound like they are going to tear the place apart, I find that once I begin to talk to the youngsters in their language, once I begin to tell them why I dance, they fall silent and listen. When I change into dance clothes they break out again, screaming and laughing because it's funny to them to see a man in dyed long underwear. I ask them to wait and watch what my partner and I are going to do. They quiet down, look at the dancing, listen to the music, and you could hear a pin drop. Afterward, I tell them that this is what ballet is all about. Usually I reach them.

"Homosexuality in dance is just a tired old idea and it's diminishing. Take Jacques d'Amboise, one of the fine performers in our company. He could pass for a halfback, and he's as tough. Look at the kids in the ballet classes these days; they are about 12 or 13 years old and sort of cocky like. They bounce around, snotnoses, wise guys, and that's the way it should be. It's a lot different from when I started, maybe because parents are aware of more now. It was difficult for mine to accept ballet. You have to remember that then they had set ideas about conduct in life, what success should be, what a man should be, and ballet didn't figure into any of it, especially for my father, who was a Friday night fight guy and a hard poker player. My mother was very practical. I got started in ballet through her. I was beaned playing ball when I was a kid and for some reason my mother felt guilty. My sister had been taking lessons, and so my mother started taking me along.

"From the start I loved it. It was such a physical thing. It did something to me, and except for four years of college when my parents put their foot down, the ballet has been all of me. I love the excitement, the feeling of moving with power quickly, to move with speed and to feel speed and to be in full control of it. I enjoy movements that are space-consuming. In some ballets I really have to cover ground, and there is no feeling like it in the world—to feel the air racing past your ears when you're soaring and jumping. Dancing is about movement. I don't like a dancer being overly poetic, flitting and flapping around the stage in far too soft a manner. That offends me. I don't suggest that a male dancer should just fling himself around the stage either. But he has to have so much technique and control that he can afford to throw himself into the movement and simply dance.

"It is imperative, too, that you have strength, but you must have mobility at the same time. It's not brute strength. To move another body, to be moving with that body means mutual sensitivity, being attuned to each other's way of moving. The man does not simply take an object and balance it. He takes a live individual and finds where her balance is; he anticipates her blur, putting her line back into focus and making it clear. To have a muscle, to feel a muscle, to have a muscle warmed up and toned and ready to do something. Then, to feel and sense the quality of a movement, to have it inside, absolutely in the middle of your muscles, so that it can emanate and move and come out."

Several weeks later Villella, who had gone to the Ali-Frazier fight, considered Ali's future. He was amazed by Ali's physical condition, which he believed was the result of his casual approach to his body while he was in exile. "I stopped dancing for those four years," Villella said, "but I just had to move. I had to use my body. I boxed, played baseball, ran and even so I was in a state of total frustration. Nothing could match dancing. It's so great to be sitting in a chair and know what your body can do. But Ali didn't feed his body. He was about in the same shape I had been. I may have-looked and felt all right, but I was not ready for the dance. I made a bad mistake on my return. I threw myself, much like Ali, into the dance, and I paid for it. Every part of me was so tender. My feet got so blackened and bruised that I lost both big toenails at once."

Villella said he would take Ali completely apart and put him back together again. He said that running and skipping rope is not enough for the legs of a fighter. He would construct an entire barre for Ali so that he could become aware of every part of his body. Villella would begin slowly, simply with Ali working his foot. "Just to stand," he said, "brushing your foot along the floor and pointing the toe, uses the whole body, and the variations are infinite. Then you raise it off the floor and you know exactly where the other leg is, you feel the balance shift. Then, there are the knee bends. I'm sure he does knee bends, but I don't mean simply dropping down and getting up. Your foot is turned out, you try to put your knee over your ankle, you push your buttocks forward, you feel your pelvis exactly between the feet. The movements are endless, and from them you gain a total understanding of the body. The body becomes one big punch in the dance. It can be the same in the ring.

"The closest thing to ballet, I guess, is the ring and basketball. But being a dancer is a lot different. My parents could never see where the winning and losing is in ballet, but it is there, only it is just not visible and it is much more elusive. The athlete can accomplish his feats in any way best suited to him. The dancer has to win within the framework of a technique, of a musical phrase, of a dramatic idea. He has to make what he does alive and beautiful through the power of the movement and the delicacy of the control. When I hit my dressing room after a performance and stand in a hot shower for 15 minutes, stretching my muscles with my metabolism racing, I am certain that there is nothing else I want to do with my life other than dancing, and I know that I could never find a way of being more fully alive, no matter how much people persist in thinking how effeminate it is."

Those who do, of course, only see a man wearing make-up, a cloak and a costume coming onstage with an armful of lilies. They might agree with V.S. Pritchett, who called ballet the most foolish of arts, yet might not comprehend what he meant when he added that it was also the most cruel. The pain, the constant draft of energy from a body, is implicit in ballet, and it is written on Villella's face and obvious in the way he sits or stands in relaxation; he forever looks weary, drained, and he appears in great discomfort when not dancing. His very life for the last 15 years has been consumed by dance: daily classes (like a boxer's gym work) that he rarely can afford to miss; sessions with his chiropodist, osteopath and masseur three or four times a week, sometimes all in the same day; and those nightly performances that would devastate the bodies of most athletes.

Sit backstage and watch him, and you quickly realize that there is nothing pretty or genteel about what he does—only sweat and torture that somehow blend into an odd beauty. The curtain falls and he seems to disintegrate. His breath comes in sobs, rivulets of sweat from his face drop on the stage, a foot seems to bother him, and then the curtain rises for another round of applause and all the agony in his face fades into a wide smile. It was, he said later, an ordinary night. His chronic back condition did not hassle him. His feet did not bleed and his legs did not "feel like chopped liver." It could have been worse, like the night when his whole body convulsed into a spasm—"My thumb was even stuck to my hand"—and he crashed to the floor into a frozen heap. "I somehow crawled offstage," he says, "and all I kept saying was, Megs, speak to me.' I finally returned to finish the performance, but it was a frightful moment."

How many such moments he can afford, how long such mental dedication can be endured, are questions that he considers often. His back or a torn Achilles' tendon could end his career abruptly. He is not in fear of one day losing desire or motivation, even now at the age of 35. He earns $100,000 a year, most of it from television and grinding tours when he is not appearing with the New York City Ballet, but the life has cost him more than pain. It cost him a marriage and the heavy financial consequences of its nasty collapse. "I even had to buy my own town house back from my wife," he says, shaking his head. The sting of news coverage during the marital break has made him more distant than ever before, though to many he had always been reticent, an elusive man who lived as he danced, like quicksilver. "I don't have time for any personal life," he says. "A few girls, a few beers, a dinner party occasionally, not much else, nothing of intensity."

What is much more visible is the luminous contribution that he has made to ballet. Even the Russians were struck by him at the Bolshoi, where he received calls for an encore at the end of a variation. Villella's rise with the New York City Ballet is in itself rare, simply because Balanchine, its guiding force and sort of the Vince Lombardi of ballet, is not fond of the star system. He once told Nureyev, who wanted to join him some time ago: "Come back to me, Rudi, when you are through playing the prince." Aspiration to royalty or celebrity, on or off stage, is of no concern to Villella. He is not certain he has brought anything special to his art. "When people ask me what I think I've brought to the image of dance," says Villella, "they want me to say virility, a certain manliness. I don't. Because that's not what I believe."

His opinion is that he and a few others have proven that ballet need not be a deficit career, that it can be a richly practical pursuit. He also hopes that he has reached the minds of parents who cannot connect dance to reality, and maybe even one day that he can change the attitude of the mother in a little story he likes to tell, from a talk once given by the black writer Claude Brown. It was about a small Harlem child who had gone with her class and teacher to the ballet. She returned home, and excitedly said: "Mommy! Mommy! You shoulda seen it. There was this man and he jumped across the stage and landed on his toes. You shoulda seen it!" The mother answered: "That's nice. Now go out and find the number."

Despite real progress and the fact that a Villella could come out of Queens, it seems improbable that ballet will ever command vast interest and be treated by our masses as other than frivolous. But then again my own conversion was unlikely after such solid resistance. I still do not understand it, and I'm not sure I want to take the purity out of what I felt and tear it into shreds of knowledge. Besides, it is much more important to feel a thing than to understand it, and what I felt at the ballet and in Villella was an athleticism that does not require a Webster's definition of that word to support it. I felt sort of a poem of the body written on the air by a man who was made to move.

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPHILLIP LEONIANPHOTOPHILLIP LEONIAN