The great survivors of dance

The artistic directorship of a dance company is a perilous place to be.

Yes, there is the exceptional Alicia Alonso, still at the helm of Ballet Nacional de Cuba at the age of 90, and John Neumeier in Hamburg, (coming up to his fourth decade as artistic director), but many artistic directors of dance companies don’t survive at the top for as long as a decade due to exhaustion, or internal politics, or boardroom struggles.

I’ve been thinking about longevity ever since the Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David McAllister, marked his tenth anniversary in the job last month.

He is by no means the longest serving dance artistic director in Australia with both Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move (retiring this year) and Francois Klaus of Queensland Ballet having spent, respectively, 15 years and 13 years at the top.

(Klaus has announced that he will leave the company in 2013.)

Graeme Murphy wins the Australian longevity race. He was artistic director of Sydney Dance Company for 31 years.

Worldwide, one of the great stayers is Edward Villella, who will turn 75 on October 1.

The former New York City Ballet star in the Balanchine years founded the Miami City Ballet in 1986 and still remains as its artistic director and chief executive officer. He teaches a daily, 90-minute class and has no plans to retire.

“I’ll work as long as I’m productive”, he says.

Villella is tough. He had to be where he grew up in Bayside (in the borough of Queens), New York.

In the true Billy Elliot style he had to contend with a father who hated the idea of his son in tights. Villella’s promising dance start was put on ice when he was forced to complete a degree in marine transportation.

In his spare time, he became a boxer, winning a championship as a junior welterweight.

When he was asked recently what was more taxing on the body, ballet or boxing, he replied that it was dancing. “No question.”

“It takes eight to 10 years to train. You use your entire body. You seek perfection. It’s the feet, the legs, the upper body. So, if you’re going to move, you have to move the entire body.”

Villella joined New York City Ballet in 1957, and became a principal three years later. Among his famous roles were the Prodigal Son and the Rubies section of Jewels. As a “virtuosic extrovert”, as the writer Marcia B. Siegel described him, Rubies suited him perfectly.

He retired from dancing in 1977, the survivor of nine broken bones, an artificial hip, stress fractures in both legs, a bad back and arthritis.

Miami City Ballet, like San Francisco Ballet and Pacific North West Ballet carry the flag for Balanchine but this year, Miami’s repertoire also includes a work by Christopher Wheeldon and, next January, a new ballet by up and coming English choreographer, Liam Scarlett.

While six years younger than Villella, San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, is another very long stayer having taken up the artistic directorship there in 1985. Tomasson, born in Iceland, is another Balanchine dancer, described by Siegel as a dancer as “a reserved, impeccable aristocrat”.

The third Balanchine protégé still holding the reins is Peter Martins, 64, who in 1983, became co-artistic director with Jerome Robbins of New York City Ballet after Balanchine’s death.

But, discounting Alonso, the longest serving ballet boss in the world is I think John Neumeier, 69, artistic director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet.

As David McAllister recently told me, “the whole feeling of Hamburg Ballet is very much about John’s aesthetic and ideas. He is very devoted to the company and they’re very devoted to him”.

As for McAllister himself, his contract has been extended until 2014.

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