MIAMI CITY BALLET BOARD UNDER FIRE ABOUT VILLELLA RETIREMENT —
The rumblings grow louder and angrier in and around Miami City Ballet as donors and board members express their outrage at what they feel was the forced retirement of Founding Artistic Director, Edward Villella, who was and is, by all accounts, at the top of his game.
The retirement was announced after many recent successes for the young company: its first nationally broadcast PBS special; the New York debut at City Center in 2009, where the company’s performance was critically praised; and three-weeks of sold-out houses with rave reviews in Paris last summer.
According to confidential sources close to the ballet, they say the public has been snowed and does not know the real story. Several members say they have been led to believe Villella is old and wants to retire and insist that nothing could be further from the truth.
Observers question the ethical choices of the Miami City Ballet board. A board member said that they were never told about Villella’s retirement; it was never discussed nor brought up for a vote and many say they are shocked and angry.
Then there is the $1 million donation that Henry and Harriet Pownall offered to the MCB shortly after Villella’s announcement this fall, but with one condition. Pownall says, “I told the board president, ‘convince Eddie [Villella] to stay, if you do that I’ll give you a million dollars immediately.’ He didn’t accept the money but the company is strapped for cash!” Pownall added, “a board member also told me that ‘the money would flow if Edward would leave’ but that’s impossible, people donate because of him.” Pownall’s wife Harriett stated, “I never thought this could be so ugly.”
Pownall is the retired owner and CEO of Imagination Farms, a large dairy farm (formerly Velda Farms) in West Broward. The couple began studying ballet and ballroom dancing about 12 years ago. After watching a performance of Villella’s work, “The Neighborhood Ballroom,” they were smitten.
They joined the Artist’s Circle, a donors group, and soon sponsored “The Golden Section” and “Baker’s Dozen,” two Twyla Tharp ballets. They also pledged half a million dollars to co-underwrite the performance of a new work by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky premiering at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts with the Cleveland Orchestra at a Miami City Ballet event March 1.
The Pownalls say, they had lunch with then board president and current chairperson, Ana Codina Barlick, last spring but were not told there were plans to oust Villella. “We didn’t know he was being asked to retire. Ana must have known it was in the works. But she asked if we would support the Ratmansky ballet, so we decided to sponsor it as the lead underwriters,” says Harriet Pownall. “If we had known he was leaving, we would have reconsidered. We feel betrayed.”
“Edward brings in the right people, he’s trained them and this board does not understand that. They think they can bring in someone from the outside and do the same,” says Henry Pownall. “I have a horrible feeling that the company will be destroyed. I also fear they will be petty and purposely not let Edward pick someone.”
The dancers, according to the Pownalls, did a study of three different companies that changed artistic directors. In each case, they say, even in the one that had the most time for the switch – three years – the new person, the outsider, changed the company dramatically. “It changes the dynamic of the company. Being that this is Balanchine, the dancers are worried someone else won’t know what do to,” adds Harriett. “It’s disrespectful. It’s because of his vision and direction that the company has run so well artistically. One thing is to set up a business model but without Edward’s creative work it wouldn’t have such acclaim.”
Francinelee Hand has been a member of the Board of Trustees for over 14 years and has been very outspoken about her displeasure with how the board handled Villella’s retirement. Like the Pownalls, she is equally shocked that the process was kept secret from the board. Hand is a member of the MCB Jewels Society which recognizes donors according to how much they have contributed to the ballet cumulatively. Hand estimates she has donated somewhere over $250,000.
Hand described the board meeting she attended last September, the day Villella announced to the dancers that he was retiring. “The dancers were weeping at the board meeting. They were begging the board to tell them why he was leaving. There were met with a wall of silence. I was so humiliated, I stood up and told them [the dancers], ‘you came here looking for answers but you won’t get them here. The people who have the answers are ashamed to tell you what has transpired because their behavior has been underhanded and shameful.’” Hand added, “If you’re working together on a team, you don’t have secret meetings. The people who asked Edward to step down behaved very badly without respect and honor. This enrages me!”
“It can never be just one issue to retire someone,” says Hand. “The real problem is people who control the money wanted to control the whole show, the creative path, the production, what was being danced. When you contribute money to a creative enterprise, you want them to profit, to budget intelligently, but it is not the province or responsibility of the board or donors to control the creative part. If they could do the creative part, they would not be paying Edward Villella to do it. Creative people deserve a very wide berth, to try to control them is coarse and vulgar. He has incredible talent, experience. Where the hell are you going to find someone who has his background?”
“You shouldn’t do things in an underhanded way and if I contribute money every year and the board is looking to close down Edward’s job, I think it’s the responsibility of those board members to discuss what is going on with the rest of us, who are also members.” Hand adds that the issue was never discussed with her. “I immediately thought ‘this must be a violation of the bylaws’ because we never voted!”
The usually affable and chatty Villella refused to elaborate on how his sudden retirement came about and tersely stated, “I’m not at liberty to discuss this because I’m prevented by a legal agreement from doing so. I’ve previously said I’m not the retiring type and will continue to do what I love – I want to continue with my life’s work.”
Ana Codina Barlick, former MCB board president and Jim Eroncig, the current board president, refused to comment for this article and repeated calls went unanswered. Roberto Santiago, Public Relations Manager at the Miami City Ballet sent an email stating that Codina Barlick and Eroncig “cannot do an interview at this time.”
PHOTO: The Daisy Column archives – In happier times, Septime Webre, Christina DePaul, Edward Villella, Jacques d’Amboise at NFAA gala