Angel Corella has been shaking things up at Pennsylvania Ballet ever since he took over as artistic director in 2014. His new production of Don Quixote, which premiered last weekend and runs through Sunday, March 13, features a slew of young corps and apprentice dancers in leading roles. Perhaps most surprisingly, Corella paired first-year apprentices Kathryn Manger and Peter Weil opposite each other as Kitri and Basilio in last Saturday night's performance. Pointe spoke with Manger, 20, and Weil, 19, before their second performance tonight at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
When did you find out you were dancing Kitri and Basilio, and how did you react?
Peter Weil: It was a Friday afternoon [laughs)]…
Kathryn Manger: Yeah, maybe a month ago. We didn't have much time to put it together. I was shocked. Angel's really good about giving opportunities, so I thought we would be doing a lot of corps work or maybe a demi-soloist role at most.
How did the other company members react to the casting? Was it awkward?
PW: A little. I'm sure it was surprising and confusing to a lot of people. But everyone has been really supportive—it's nice to go onstage and know they have my back.
What has the rehearsal process been like?
KM: Brutal. Kitri and Basilio have to support the whole three-act ballet. We're in and out of rehearsals all day, with a one-hour break.
PW: A lot of the partnering was a learning process for me—luckily I had good help and a good partner.
KM: And the stamina for Kitri and Basilio is hard. They say the first act is the killer act because it's just nonstop dancing. But that's part of the process—building up the physical stamina so you can get through the ballet. And then you have to worry about the technical aspects of it and actually looking pretty!
Did you work one on one with Angel Corella?
PW: All of the couples usually had an hour a day with either Angel or ballet masters Samantha Dunster and Charles Askegard. Those were great rehearsals—you get all the details you don't get during a full company run.
So it's not like you had to rehearse behind a bunch of more experienced couples.
PW: Sometimes it was like that, and understandably so. But the one-on-one rehearsals helped us get a lot done.
KM: With Peter and I being so new to this—being new to the company, being new to a full-length ballet—having our own rehearsals was really important for the process.
How are you handling the pressure?
PW: I've definitely worried about it.
KM: Me, too! I'm not going to lie. It's unheard of for an apprentice to get this opportunity. All eyes are on you. But you have to then take it to the next level and prove that you deserve to be doing it. So Peter and I were making sure we knew everything backwards, forwards, eyes closed, character, choreography—everything.
Directors often pair a young dancer with a more experienced partner. But both of you are so young. Does that give you an advantage or a disadvantage?
PW: It's nice to work with a newer, younger dancer…
KM: Because they know how you're feeling.
PW: We're on the same page the whole time, and we're friends, so we can talk to each other.
KM: We can be more honest like, “Oh, I need you to be more on your leg here," or “Okay, can you put me here?" Communication is important in a partnership.
Whereas with a principal dancer, you may be more deferential—the power dynamics would be totally different.
KM: Yes, I'd feel like I'd have to do everything perfectly or risk letting him down or making him angry. I still want to do really well for Peter, but we're more understanding of each other.
Did you lean on the older dancers for support?
KM: If something wasn't going right—for example, Peter and I were having trouble with a lift—they gave us pointers. Also, we learned a lot just by watching them—you don't always need to talk. Especially with how they interpret the characters—you can take what you like and make it your own. That's why it's great having so many inspirational dancers in this company.
How has this experience helped you grow?
PW: Angel told me that with great talent comes a lot of responsibility, and I've definitely noticed that in this ballet. Even when you're having an off day, you still have to be there and be present.
KM: And while nailing the technical things—the pirouettes, the fouettés—is important, communicating the story to the audience is really challenging, too. Principal dancers already have the experience and artistry, so I have to really thank Angel for trusting us with this opportunity. I feel like I've grown 10 times from this!