LIFT-OFF

ANGEL CORELLA'S NEW TURN | July 15th 2008

Ross MacGibbon

Spain has ballet stars, but no major ballet company. Now one of those stars, Angel Corella, is launching his own. Julie Kavanagh watches it take shape ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2008

Spain's dance heritage dates back to Carthaginian times, when castanets were seashells, but its classical ballet tradition is 30 years old, if that. Since 1978 small ballet companies have started up and petered out, and yet half a dozen international stars--American Ballet Theatre's Angel Corella and the Royal Ballet's Tamara Rojo among them--owe their fabulous techniques to Spanish training. It was because there was no native company for him to join that the 19-year-old Corella was forced to go abroad, leaving home in Madrid and joining ABT, with only a few words of English, in 1995. Rumours of his gifts sparked such a buzz that he was profiled in the New York Times before making his American debut, and today you have only to Google "Corella pirouettes" to see why. YouTube has clips of his trademark multiple turns taken from a single preparation, his 1994 gold-medal-winning solo, his reinvention of hackneyed old variations from "Don Quixote"; and "Le Corsaire".

However, no filmed evidence gives any idea of the thrill Corella generates on stage. "Dancing is communicating," he says. "It's all to do with energy. I want people to come and have fun with me, to feel part of what I'm doing--to feel that they're up there dancing themselves." I'll never forget a Royal Opera House matinee of "Don Quixote" in 2001 when Corella partnered the 20-year-old Romanian Alina Cojocaru, known more as a lyrical than a virtuoso ballerina. Cojocaru, challenged by Corella, began risking feats way beyond her range, producing the kind of mass adrenalin rush in the audience that occurs once in a decade.

Corella heard screams, whistles and whoops, and afterwards learnt that a party of Royal Ballet School (RBS) pupils was responsible. When asked by their director, Gailene Stock, if he would give a masterclass in pirouettes, Corella immediately agreed--because he's that kind of guy, and because he saw a visit to White Lodge, the junior school located in a royal hunting lodge in Richmond Park, as an opportunity to research a project close to his heart.

For some time he had been considering starting a residential academy as a first step to establishing a major ballet company in Spain. Only years of consistent and rigorous training in a vocational school can produce dancers with a homogeneous, national identity. (In 1933, when the Renaissance-style patron Lincoln Kirstein invited George Balanchine to form a classical company in America, Balanchine cabled back: "Yes, but first a school.") This priority was not an option for Corella. The government was not prepared to fund another dance venture on top of the Compañía Nacional de Danza, a contemporary group run by Nacho Duato and Ballet Victor Ullate. Deciding to "do it the American way", Corella started a foundation and spent the next seven years--"seven years of hell"--raising money from wealthy individuals and corporations. His backers, many of them American, expected to see something for their money, and so a company had to come first.

Auditions began in March 2007, attracting 750 candidates from around the world. Apart from a sound schooling and technique, the qualities Corella sought were youth and attack--the right attitude, even more than the right look. Helping him make his choice were two world-renowned dance figures: the ABT ballerina Cynthia Harvey, appointed as Corella's assistant, and the ex-Bolshoi star and director Vladimir Vassiliev, hired to coach the men. "It was extraordinary", Corella recalls, "because after class when we compared notes we found we'd picked exactly the same people."

Among their choice of 54 dancers of eight different nationalities, 20 were Spanish, and half a dozen RBS trained--almost all there, they claimed, "because of Angel". "I grew up watching and being inspired by his videos," said Russell Ducker, an RBS graduate of 20. "This is an amazing opportunity to be close to Angel and learn from him--to share in his dream."

The first real breakthrough came in 2006 when Patrimonio Nacional offered Corella a former royal palace, Santa Cecilia, at the foot of the Guadarrama mountains near Segovia. Close by is the town of La Granja de San Ildefonso, famous for its spectacular, Versailles-inspired palace and gardens, created in the 1720s as a country retreat for Philip V, who had fallen for the region while out hunting. Santa Cecilia's wooded, lakeside setting has retained its twilit atmosphere--the kind of place you might expect swan maidens to appear.

The decision was made to house the ballet school in the palace itself and to create an adjacent contemporary space--two blocks of glass incorporating five studios, a cafeteria, gym and computer rooms. But as the construction of what Corella predicts will be "one of the best dance installations in Europe" is scheduled to take three years, a temporary base in La Granja was necessary. A garage used for storing fire trucks was donated by a local multi-millionaire, and while this was being renovated the dancers began rehearsing in the sports hall of the new Parador Hotel.

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It's 10.15am one April day and the company, just under two weeks old, is assembled for class. Posters of Corella brighten the concrete walls, but this is a makeshift arrangement with temporary barres and no canteen--not even a coffee machine. Their director is in Chicago with ABT, but has left a mafioso stronghold in place: his ballerina sister Carmen, a tall, serene beauty with the same huge, dark eyes, and her Argentine husband, the diminutive but dazzling ABT virtuoso Herman Cornejo, who has begun dividing his time between New York and La Granja. Carmen begins barre wearing snowboots and gradually peels off layers as the temperature rises. After half an hour the fug in the windowless studio is so intense that one dancer fetches a windscreen squeejee to wipe the mirror. The two stars take their place at the front, flanked by uniformly petite girls and a mixed bunch of males. (Several principals have yet to arrive, including Birmingham Royal Ballet's Ian Mackay and Joseph Gatti from Cincinnati Ballet.)

In charge of class is the impish Kazemia Moreno, a Cuban ex-dancer trained in Havana and Moscow, who taught the Corella siblings as well as Tamara Rojo at Victor Ullate's school. She proudly calls Angel her "realisation", while he says he owes her his career. "She gave me that power. Her classes are so strong that she gave me the freedom to go on stage and not think about technique but just exude energy." Moreno had been on the verge of retiring when Corella asked her to come on board. "She was in heaven."

Flitting between at least five languages in a barely audible whisper, she is clearly a character. She crumples to the floor to warn a dancer about a defective landing, and turns up the volume when she wants to make a point. "It's not only heel... Les cuisses, les cuisses-rotado!" There was one long, passionate rant about something I couldn't catch at all. "I was trying to give them the spirit," she explains later. "In Russia, even at the barre, I was taught to dance." Several members of the company, though, unaccustomed to such taxing classes--more like fluid, choreographed variations than academic exercises--are struggling to cope.

"The lads were a little concerned and I had to reassure them," Corella told me later. "I said, 'Just calm down and trust. It will come with time.'" The ABT ballet mistress Susan Jones, who had watched Moreno teach for the first time the previous morning, was full of admiration. "She's an amazing teacher, and I think her effect on the company is going to be enormous."

Jones had arrived for a week at La Granja to teach Natalia Makarova's full-length "La Bayadère", Ballet de España's inaugural production, which will be performed at the Teatro Real in Madrid on September 5th-9th. A theatrical masterpiece combining high melodrama and spectacle with an exquisitely poetic "white" act that distils classical dance to its essence of purity and control, it could not present more of a challenge to a hybrid new company. When Nureyev was first asked to mount his version of the minimalist Kingdom of the Shades act for Paris Opéra Ballet, he refused. "It's not a ballet you get, it's a ballet you grow into," he said, meaning that the individualistic French dancers would have to learn "to breathe like one". I wasn't surprised to hear that Jones had received an anxious phone call from Makarova after the first rehearsal quizzing her about the company's ability. "It's wonderful she's doing this for Angel; she's totally supportive," says Jones, adding that conversely, "La Bayadare" will help form Ballet de Espana, allowing dancers from different schools, who are still strangers to each other, to bond. "It provides such a foundation for a company. There were lessons the ABT corps learnt from the process of doing "Bayadare" which filtered into every other work they went on to perform."

On her second day, Jones is teaching the girls the legendary Shades entrance when a long, single file of corps de ballet hypnotically repeat the slow arabesque sequence that seems to last into eternity. It's fascinating to watch it take shape: the regimental lines fixed by strips of tape stuck to the floor--"If one girl passes the tape, it messes up for everyone else"--and by each dancer keeping the two beside her in each corner of her eyes. Their first attempt is just for spacing, and Jones has suggested they mark through the positions, but they instinctively go all-out as if they're already on stage, their expressions rapt and utterly focused. As Jones says, the intensity of the Shades scene is almost metaphysical. "It's the power of unifying everything, of making those 30-odd dancers become one."

If I'd thought at first that "La Bayadère" was an insanely ambitious statement to make, my mind was changed not only by this rehearsal, but by the discovery of La Granja's Palacio. The scale and grandeur of the interior with its long, straight vista of one state room after another, the classical formality of the Le Nôtre-style gardens, the spectacular fountains and choreographed clusters of tritons and cherubs must stand as the ultimate inspiration to Corella and his company. One of the young dancers agreed. "I still get a shiver when I walk past the palace from my apartment to class. It's the symbol of everything Angel hopes to achieve."

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The town of La Granja itself is pretty nondescript, heaving with day-trippers in the summer but half-dead for the rest of the year. The company tend to hang out at Rinthin, a tiny restaurant with a daily £10 ($20) menu, and Haiku, a lively bar with free internet access. "The whole town is changing for the dancers," claims Corella, who has bought a house nearby. The mayor, he says, is eager to re-establish La Granja as a centre for music and the arts, "like it was in Philip's time". It helps that Madrid is now only half an hour away by Bullet train, direct to the brand-new Segovia station; and there's also the modish Parador--a tourist attraction initself. You sense that La Granja will soon reflect the vibrant cultural expansion that's happening in Madrid. With Richard Rogers's funky airport terminal, the new Prado extension, and Herzog & de Meuron's miraculous £60m CaixaForum art centre, Madrid now rivals Bilbao as an arena for modern architecture.

Corella has arrived in La Granja, his hair still slicked back from a photoshoot in Madrid for the new Spanish edition of Vanity Fair. As he sits in a corner of Haiku enthusing about his company's plans (mid-July's preview performances of a mixed contemporary bill in the gardens of La Granja, the new work he hopes to commission from Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor), he is almost as animated as when he dances. But at company class the next morning, at what would be 3.15am Chicago time, I witness a display of Corella voltage that could have set the Parador ablaze. With most of the dancers going through the motions with blank expressions, and a couple of the English boys stopping halfway through a manège and staggering off, their director had clearly decided to lead by example. Although he's almost a decade older, Corella's entrechats were higher and neater than anyone else's, and when he leapt he danced, his head thrown back, his face alive. At pirouette time he really let them have it with a gazillion spins, so fast that he blurred like a skater, sinking down, pulling up, ending with textbook control. I'd never seen anything like it, nor, apparently, had the dancers, who burst into spontaneous laughter and applause. But sensitive to the fact that some of the kids might be feeling inadequate and demoralised, Corella's pep-talk at the end was gentle. "This is the kind of class we want for the company. I understand that it's hard, but don't get frustrated, it's just been one week and a half..."

Ballet de España has until September to form a cohesive company. Susan Jones returns for most of August, and Makarova will come to add the final touches. "La Bayadère" is the company's audition piece--"All the government and everyone is going to be there"--as Corella seeks official permission to become the Royal Ballet of Spain with Teatro Real as its base. Queen Sofia has already pledged her support, but a possible obstacle is the fact that Tamara Rojo, a strikingly intelligent ballerina with powerful connections in Spain, has plans of her own to head a national classical company. This spring she launched a bitter attack on her country's failure to support creativity, its subtext undoubtedly her own frustration at the government's failure to make this happen. Rojo refuses to comment on Ballet de España, but Corella wishes her well. "It's competition that creates a buzz." Spain may, as Rojo insists, have let down its home-born dance talent, but when it comes to establishing the country's first major ballet company it's a case of who dares wins--and Corella has got there first.

(Julie Kavanagh is a biographer of Nureyev and the former London editor of the New Yorker)

Image Source: ROSS MACGIBBON