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"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."