Pennsylvania Ballet's new leader has 'a lot of plans'

Angel Corella. Photo by Pablo Hojas.
Angel Corella. Photo by Pablo Hojas.
Posted: July 25, 2014

The Pennsylvania Ballet, once a major national dance company, turned 50 this year and was in need of a makeover. It got an immediate jolt Tuesday when it named Angel Corella its new artistic director, effective in September.

Corella, 38, a former principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, is an international star who has performed with every major company around the globe. He's modeled for Rolex watches and appeared in ads for champagne with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Most recently, he ran his own company, Corella Ballet Castilla y León, which became the Barcelona Ballet but which has since folded. He's still dancing - a bit - but come September, he'll be all about running the Pennsylvania Ballet.

"I've been following the company for quite a while," Corella said in a phone interview from Hartford, Conn., where he is running a summer program. He visited often when his sister Carmen Corella danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet from 1996 to '98. "And, actually, when I thought about coming back to the States, [Pennsylvania Ballet] was one of the companies I dreamed of coming to," he said.

The Philadelphia dance community dreamed of such a notable artistic director, as well.

"I'm thrilled that he is coming to Philadelphia and to be the artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet," said Lois Welk, director of Dance/USA Philadelphia, the local chapter of a national dance support group. "I think he will attract international talent and I think he has a strong curatorial eye for selecting repertory."

Corella, who was born in Madrid and spoke little English before joining the American Ballet Theatre in 1995, now speaks with little accent and great enthusiasm. As a dancer, he was known for a positive attitude and great technique and bravura.

He will bring that same energy and excitement to his new job.

"I have a lot of plans," he said, including closely coaching the dancers, touring more, giving outdoor public performances, organizing outreach programs with schools, and bringing in new choreographers. He listed Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor, Justin Peck, and Liam Scarlett as possibilities.

He also wants to reassure his dancers and artistic staff.

"I think that before anything changes, the people and the environment have to feel secure," he said. "We're not going to become a completely different company; hopefully, we can always make it better."

He has heard from outside dancers eager to work with him, but he said it was important to nurture the current crop and to promote from within.

"It's easier to bring people from the outside and say, 'Wow, you have a great company,' but there are a lot of dancers who have been overlooked."

Randy Swartz, artistic director of the Dance Celebration series presented by Dance Affiliates, said the biggest surprise with choosing Corella was that the Pennsylvania Ballet - a Balanchine-style company - hired a director who was not bred in the Balanchine technique. Corella did not come up through any single school.

Swartz thinks that's a good thing. "I think the ballet needed to do that [loosen the ties to Balanchine] from a perspective of where they are viewed internationally."

Corella said the great choreographer, who guided Barbara Weisberger to form the Pennsylvania Ballet, would still be a pivotal part of the company.

"I'm planning in at least every program to plan a Balanchine ballet, to have the understanding that it is a Balanchine-based company," he said.

After Hartford, Corella will spend the rest of the summer teaching in Spain and Prague. In September, he plans to show up in Philadelphia with his golden retriever and basset hound and look for a small house with a patch of green. And then he'll be fully committed to the Pennsylvania Ballet.

"I'm going to throw myself into the company and they're going to get tired of me," he joked. "I'm a person that when I do something, I do it 200 percent. I'll be in the studios, in meetings, always with a very positive energy. Dance is energy. When your dancers are not happy, that shows in the dancing. I love what I do, and I hope they do the same."

Swartz said the ballet was in desperate need of a change.

"The company is very competent," he said. "For people to spend $100, you need to have more than an OK time at the theater. Pennsylvania Ballet obviously felt that way in terms of making the move. It's a dramatic move in its 50th anniversary season."

In Barcelona, Corella's sister Carmen and her husband run the school associated with the former Barcelona Ballet. Corella said people wondered whether his sister would come back to Philadelphia, but that it was unlikely.

People also wondered what happened with the Barcelona Ballet.

"I always say that it was a money crisis problem, but I think it's more the values of the country," he said. "Focused only in the sport, especially soccer. They took the support away.

"I'm Spanish. You learn and you share. That's what the focus of life should be. I wanted to share it with the people from where I was born. They didn't want it."

And will Corella dance in Philadelphia? He still has a few gigs lined up this year, but he expects to be in the studio more than on stage.

"I don't know if they want me to dance, but I don't necessarily need to dance. Focus should be on the company, not on Angel Corella."

From there, Corella hopes to breathe new life into the company and build new audiences.

"Hopefully, the audience will see the difference in the dancers, a different kind of energy.

"They can be the best they can if they see that their director is really passionate about it, and I'm a passionate person. If they do their best, I can look good. Dancing on stage is not executing steps.

"The art of dance connects directly with the soul of the audience."



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