Victor Castelli was too young and much too vital to the dance community to die of cancer at 52, with only a few months’ warning. A former soloist with the New York City Ballet, he was one of the ballet masters responsible for teaching and grooming the Balanchine and, more especially, the Robbins repertory—staging works by both around the world.
Castelli danced some important roles in Balanchine’s ballets, taking on the hero of Prodigal Sonand the Poet in La Somnambula. I remember him best in the 1981 Mozartiana—his subtle wit rampant, his slim legs flicking through the intricacies of the solo “Gigue.” He also had a gift for oddness, creating a role in Balanchine’s noir little drama Gaspard de la Nuitand taking over the part of the wormlike creature in thrall to a femme fatale in Variations Pour une Porte et un Soupir (both made for NYCB’s 1975 Ravel Festival).
It was Robbins, I believe, who first plucked him out of the corps de ballet. Returning in 1969 to the company after an absence of some years, Robbins was interested in showing off the prowess of the company’s crop of young men (as Balanchine was not). I first noticed Castelli as one of three spirited male dancers flying through Robbins’s 1972 Symphonie Fantastique, along with Gelsey Kirkland and Bart Cook. He also had a prominent role in the choreographer’s Watermilland was one of the five men in Une Barque sur l’Ocean(the ballet was forgettable but the guys were not).
I knew how important Castelli was to Robbins in later years after he retired from dancing—and not just as a répétiteur. There exists a scrap of film that shows Robbins in a studio, working out (emphasis on working) ideas for a never-finished male duet to Bach’s music). Castelli, a little out of dancing shape, is standing in for someone else, doing the movement alongside Peter Boal—being game, being useful, being smart.
His family will miss him, and so will a much larger family of dancers at home and abroad.