When Angel Corella walks into Cafe Mozart near Lincoln Center for his interview in mid-May, it’s a blustery, rain-soaked afternoon that has kept most New Yorkers inside. But one look at the American Ballet Theatre superstar, and you’d think it was a perfect spring day. In person, Corella bursts with the same effervescent sparkle he displays onstage: He can hardly wait to share the details of his new company, Corella Ballet.
The dancer and budding artistic director has just returned from Spain—and Corella Ballet’s first month of rehearsals. The 70-member troupe has been preparing for its official debut at the Teatro Real in Madrid in September. And while he was looking forward to dancing in ABT’s Metropolitan Opera summer season, Corella was also heartbroken to be away from his dancers at such an important time.
“I’d love to be there,” he says wistfully. “It’s a different atmosphere when the director is there, but I have a whole team.” He has a lot of faith in his staff, particularly Karemia Moreno, the woman he left in charge. In addition to being his childhood teacher, Moreno trained stars like Tamara Rojo, Joaquin De Luz and Lucia Lacarra.
Starting a company in his native Spain, which hasn’t had a classical company in nearly 20 years, has been an arduous seven-year process. The dream began when Corella was a teenager at the Victor Ullate School of Dance in Madrid, and realized he had few professional options. “Technically I could do anything, but there were only two companies in Spain and they were both modern,” says Corella. “I lost interest. I wanted to do modern too, but the reason I started dancing is because I wanted to be a classical dancer.”
By age 19, Corella was ready to hang up his shoes for good when a friend convinced him to compete in the Concours International de Danse de Paris. Not only did he win the gold medal, but he also caught Natalia Makarova’s eye. She set into motion a series of events that culminated in a soloist contract at ABT. A year later he was promoted to principal. Since then, he’s become one of the ballet world’s most illustrious stars.
“Of course I was very lucky that ABT took me,” says Corella. “But at the same time it was not a choice. I had to leave my friends and family if I was going to be a classical dancer.”
Corella’s exodus is a familiar story. From The Royal Ballet’s Rojo and Laura Morera to New York City Ballet’s De Luz, Spanish dancers are employed in some of the finest companies in the world. “There are a lot of dancers representing Spain in other countries,” says Corella. “They’re principals, soloists, even corps de ballet, and they have to leave their country to dance.”
In 2001, Corella decided to do something about it. He started the Fundación Angel Corella to lay the groundwork for a school as well as a company of the same ilk as ABT—a company with a classical repertoire that would also perform works by neoclassical and contemporary choreographers like George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, Jirí Kylián and William Forsythe. In hopes of convincing the Spanish government that there is an audience for ballet, he also began touring Spain with a group of international stars including Wendy Whelan, Maria Kowroski, Irina Dvorovenko, Maxim Beloserkovsky, David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes.
“The shows became a huge hit,” says Corella. “Everywhere we did it, two or three months in advance the show was sold out. We had standing ovations every night, and we had to do extra codas because people kept clapping.”
Having shown that a demand for ballet exists in Spain, Corella’s next step was to get funding. After five years vying for government financial support in Barcelona, Corella was approached by a foundation run by the Spanish royal family. (Spain is a parliamentary monarchy under the rule of King Juan Carlos I.) The foundation donated a palace in Segovia, a tourist destination 45 minutes outside of Madrid that is being reinvigorated as a seat of culture. Full of palaces, cathedrals and historic architecture, Segovia makes an idyllic, bohemian setting for company headquarters. “It’s beautiful—like Versailles,” says Corella. “The palace is right at the entrance of town, in front of the lake, and behind is the mountains. It’s like scenery from Swan Lake.”
The royal family’s foundation will fund 70 percent of the company’s annual budget, with the remaining 30 percent coming from private sources. The buildings are currently under renovation to accommodate rehearsal space and facilities for a ballet boarding school—all scheduled for completion near the end of 2009. In the meantime, Corella has no intention of leaving ABT. He plans to divide his time between the two companies for as long as possible.
When it comes to the company name, Corella sheepishly concedes that it’s about lending star power. “For now, it’s Corella Ballet,” he says, explaining that he hopes one day it will become the National Ballet of Spain (a title conferred by the government) or the Royal Ballet of Spain (bestowed by the royal family). “My name as a person and a dancer is only there for the moment, but eventually it will be a company for the country and dedicated to the country.”
In the meantime, Corella Ballet has hit the ground running. In July, it danced a triple bill in an outdoor theater in Segovia that included Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, Stanton Welch’s Clear (which Welch originally created for Corella and ABT principal Julie Kent) and Clark Tippet’s Bruch Violin Concerto. In September at the Teatro Real, the company will make its official debut in Makarova’s full-length La Bayadère, with Corella and guests Paloma Herrera and Gillian Murphy. Corella is scheduled to dance in three of the seven performances. Following the Madrid engagement, the company will embark on a national and international tour.
If there was any doubt that Corella could meld an entirely new group of dancers into a solid performing entity in only a few months—while also dancing in NYC and Japan with ABT—the company’s rapid cohesion has put that to rest. A brand new company has no tradition to draw on, but Corella reports that the group gelled within the first week, and he’s delighted by how hard the dancers are working.
“We started rehearsals for La Bayadère, and everyone stayed in the room,” he recalls. “It was amazing that everyone stayed from 10 to 7 trying to learn everything that everybody else was doing. The kids are like puppies, trying to learn with their eyes really open. It’s very exciting.”
While Corella stresses that he isn’t anxious about the logistics of running a company, he admits that at first, the responsibility to his dancers was a bit overwhelming. “In your hands are the lives and careers of all these young dancers,” he says. “But at the same time, I take it with so much strength. I’m still a dancer. I know what it’s like to be in both positions, and it makes you understand both worlds—what you can let pass and other things you can’t let pass.”
For dancers, interest in the new venture has been massive. More than 1,500 hopefuls showed up at auditions for Corella Ballet in Madrid and Barcelona last February. The result is a company roster that includes dancers from the United States, Japan, Italy, Russia, Denmark, Canada, Korea and England, and Corella is still getting letters and e-mails from others who want to join. Along with full-time members—including Corella’s older sister and former ABT soloist Carmen Corella—he has also tapped international stars like his brother-in-law, Herman Cornejo, to be regular performers.
Though he hopes to add 10 more spots in upcoming seasons, Corella is more than content with the group he has now. “They are very disciplined, their work ethic is incredibly good,” he says. “In rehearsal for ‘Shades’ from the second act of Bayadère, they were all exactly the same after only a week! I was shocked. I stopped the rehearsal and said ‘Wow, I have to clap because I’ve seen other companies doing this and it’s one of the hardest things for the corps de ballet to do,’ and they did it perfectly. I was very proud.”
The next hurdle will be starting a ballet school for dancers ages 11 to 18. After that, Corella hopes to solidify the company’s place in Spain’s artistic consciousness. But whatever happens, Corella remains optimistic.
“Always in my career and throughout my life, it’s been full of surprises. I never expected that I was going to come to ABT, I never expected that I was going to become the dancer that I am, and it’s been more than a dream,” he says. “Whatever is on the road, it’s more than welcome. There are always ups and downs. And if there are downs, I’ll be ready.”
Kristin Lewis, a former editor at Dance Spirit magazine, is a writer in New York City.