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."
"Whether I'm straight or not?"
"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.