A San Antonio native, Mauro Villanueva moved to Connecticut at age 16 to study at the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. One of his teachers convinced him to audition for The Joffrey after graduating, so he hopped a train to New York and ended up dancing directly in front of Artistic Director Gerald Arpino for the entire audition. In the ten seasons since, he has danced for Joffrey. Villanueva, now 28, has made quite a name for himself working his way up from a young apprentice to leading roles like the Prince in Cinderella and the Cavalier in The Nutcracker. I sat down with him at the Joffrey Tower studios right after the company wrapped their run of the All Stars program.
Q: Did you have Joffrey on your radar after you graduated from Nutmeg?
A: No. There were some New York companies and I though about going back home to Houston Ballet at the time. Joffrey just kind of came out of left field.
Q: And you’ve been here ever since.
A: Yes and that’s a good thing. I didn’t realize I would like the mixed repertoire we do here. It’s nice.
Q: You were going for strictly classical?
A: Nutmeg is a Vaganova-based school, so they’re all about the classics.
Q: What do you like about the mixed rep?
A: It makes you explore yourself. It’s always interesting to see where you can get yourself to go, as far as how to approach something or where your motivation is coming from.
Q: Is it exciting having all of these new choreographers coming in and setting things on you? For instance, Crossed was so different from what we’re used to seeing Joffrey do.
A: I thought it was really different and I liked it. Jessica’s (Lang) process was very interesting. It was relaxed, but she was informative as well. Some choreographers are very vague. She was very straightforward. She probably had the longest audition process. We were all in the room for a good week before she cut down. I think she wanted to give us time to be able to assimilate ourselves with her movement.
Q: You had a big season last year with Othello, Crossed, the prince in Cinderella…what was your favorite part?
A: I would say Othello was the best, which is interesting. It’s not me. I’m not a dark person, but once we went on to the rest of the season, it was like “that was really fun”. It was such a big leap as far as my character as a person and the character of Iago. That was the most challenging and the most interesting.
Q: What are you looking forward to this season?
A: The Merry Widow. I’m looking forward to the spring show. We’re starting with Ed (Liang) today and I’m very much looking forward to that. Yuri Possokhov was here already and I will be in his piece, but I wasn’t a part of the creative process.
Q: What parts are you doing in The Nutcracker?
A: Cavalier, Nutcracker doll, the Rose pas de deux in Waltz of the Flowers. I’m old enough now that I don’t have to do snow.
Q: What would your dream part be?
A: The lover in Lilac Garden or Romeo. I like the tragedies.
Q: How was it dancing with Suzanne (Lopez) for her final show?
A: Stressful and emotional. You know, it’s the last time she’ll be on the stage and you want to make her look the most amazing, as she always does. For that responsibility to be in your hands…it’s quite…it was heavy. She was fine. I was crying and she said I was silly. It was an amazing moment in my life for sure.
Q: Do you have any pre-show rituals? What do you do on a performance day?
A: It kind of depends on what I’m doing. Sometimes I don’t eat very much. Sometimes I eat a lot. During Nutcracker I jam out to some sort of heavy, intense stuff. Nutcracker is such a ritual you can get into a rut, so you have to sort of jump yourself out of it.
Q: What would you jam out to?
A: Sometimes…Beyoncé all day or something like Green Day or My Chemical Romance.
Q: Do you guys jam out in the dressing room?
A: Sometimes. We try not to step on each other’s toes.
Q: Do you get nervous before you go on stage?
A: No. I feel like I’ve learned now that nervous energy doesn’t help you do any better. That’s not true. I give myself like eight counts at the beginning to be nervous and then I tell myself that after this phrase, you can’t be nervous anymore. It has to go away and it does usually. It’s so mental.
Q: What would be your last meal?
A: Pizza and ice cream. I like meatball and mushroom pizza. I’ll eat anything Ben & Jerry’s. I’m so spoiled; I won’t eat any other ice cream.
Q: If you weren’t a dancer, what other profession would you like to be?
A: My other passion in life is interior design. When I eventually stop dancing, that’s what I want to do.
Q: What’s your favorite part about living in Chicago?
A: The 18-month long winter season. Summers in Chicago are my favorite, but I go to Texas (to teach at the Joffrey workshop in San Antonio). I love movies and music in the park, all the free stuff you can do and eating outside.
Q: Do you have a favorite story or memory of Mr. A?
A: In Nutcracker, in the finale, he used to always yell bravo! from wherever he was. Even in my head, I still hear his voice whenever we get to that part. It’s so weird. It’s not the same without it. I think we have a recording where you can still hear him in it.
This interview will also appear at The Joffrey Ballet’s blog, J Pointe.