Ballet’s ‘Twister’

Jordan Levin is an occasional contributor to Calendar

It is close to the end of American Ballet Theater’s two-month New York season, and in the company’s daily class in the bowels of the huge Metropolitan Opera House this June morning, the dancers are yawning and groaning jokingly. But Angel Corella, a 20-year-old soloist from Spain, is dead serious. He is slight, dark-haired and unobtrusive, watching quietly from the side wall, working intently.

As the dancers warm up, they start to add little playful flourishes, laughing with each other, but Corella’s face never cracks. Then, he starts to jump.

It’s as if someone has turned on a light inside him: Corella flashes into the air, a foot higher than the larger, stronger looking men around him, seems to float there, to expand and relax in the air. Only then does he smile, as if, delighted and slightly surprised, he has finally found his place.


His name, after all, is Angel.

His is a Cinderella story. Only two years ago, Angel Corella was languishing in a small company in Madrid, consigned to the back row of the corps, watching leading roles go to other dancers. He was so frustrated and confused that he almost quit dancing. In December 1994, with the help of Riccardo Cue, a former director at the National Ballet of Spain who had also managed Maya Plisetskaya, Corella went to the Concours International de Danse competition in Paris, and won the Gold Medal. One of the judges was Natalia Makarova, who told ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie that she had seen “the most wonderful boy from Madrid.” McKenzie contacted Corella and invited him to New York to take classes last April, and after two days, signed him as a soloist.

By that June, Corella was dancing the fiendishly difficult lead in George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” to an adoring, sold-out Metropolitan Opera House. He was only 19, and he had never even seen a major ballet company. Since then, he has earned critical raves, been on the cover of Dance magazine and become a favorite with ultra-demanding New York ballet audiences.

This April, Corella opened ABT’s season in the leading role of Basil in the full-length Don Quixote, opposite a more experienced baby star, 20-year-old Argentine ballerina Paloma Herrera. The pair will repeat the performance Friday evening and at the matinee next Sunday for the second half of ABT’s week of performances in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; Corella also dances in “Brahms Symphony” on Wednesday and Thursday.

“It was very good,” Corella remembers of that April night. He smiles his shy, radiant smile. “Very very good. I felt like a . . . "--he searches for words, and roars softly in his throat--"a tornado.”

Corella’s dancing can indeed seem like a force of nature. “A dancer capable of turning performance into sensation,” said Elizabeth Kaye in the New York Times last May. He can turn 20 pirouettes and stop with an astonishingly effortless balance. He can kick the back of his head in jete. His jump takes your breath away; he rockets off with impossible speed and then floats up there in a way that brings your heart to your throat. His dancing is larger than he is. When he is still, Corella is almost invisible, but when he moves, he explodes into flashing clarity. But his appeal is more than pyrotechnics; he also has a warmth and charisma that spreads to the farthest reaches of the theater. When Corella dances, you feel his tremendous joy in dancing, an answering kinetic surge in your own body that very few dancers can communicate.

“I think it’s all tied into his personality,” says McKenzie. “He has an amazing ability to turn and a natural jump, but a lot of that comes from his positive outlook. He can envision it, so he can do it. That’s a rare gift. . . . I think the reason he can jump and turn like that is he’s got this all-embracing love of what’s happening, of dancing.”

“He has a very honest soul that shows in his work,” says ABT Ballet Master David Richardson, who has coached Corella in almost all his roles. “He has flaws in his technique. But what makes Angel so special is his sheer love of dancing. I think he is already a great dancer.”

When he first arrived at ABT, Corella was overwhelmed by New York, homesick for his family and afraid that he would be buried in the corps again. But now, he says, he is “a different person.” In rehearsal, he laughingly trades attempts at Spanish and English with the other dancers and teases Paloma Herrera to “come down already!” as she shows off a long arabesque balance. This polyglot American company suits him.

“In America, everyone’s different, everyone works differently, you can have dancers that look different,” he says enthusiastically. “If they’re all the same, it’s so boring.”

Corella still seems like an eager teenager who can’t quite believe what has happened to him, hungry for every bit of information, ready to try every step. During a rehearsal for Twyla Tharp’s “Americans We,” an energetic piece to American traditional music, the other dancers save themselves, just marking the steps and the time to the music. Not Corella. Twyla Tharp has rechoreographed the lead for him, giving him a spectacular and demanding series of jumps. He flies through them at full throttle, including one move where he scissors his legs in a perfect 180-degree split leap to change direction midair.

As he dances, he smiles delightedly. While he waits for his entrance, he keeps turning pirouettes on the wooden margin of the rosin-dusted rehearsal floor, whirling off 10, 13--a “tornado” again--then complains to a visitor, “I can’t turn on that floor, it’s sticky.” He looks up and adds slyly, ‘But this floor I can--20 or so.”

That Corella is only just learning to believe in himself is due largely to his experience at Ballet Victor Ullate in Madrid. Despite his obvious talent--he studied at the company’s school from age 8, was taken into the troupe at 14 and won first prize in the National Ballet Competition of Spain at 16--the ballet kept him hidden.

“They made me less than corps de ballet, less than everyone,” Corella explains in the Met cafeteria. “They put me in the back line behind everyone, hardly moving.”

He almost quit dancing. “I began to think I didn’t know how to dance, or that I wasn’t that good. Because if they teach you something, and you do it perfectly, and then they contract someone else, you think to yourself why? I begin to think maybe I have technique, but I don’t dance well.”

What saved him was his natural desire. Corella remembers dancing around his house at age 2, pacifier in his mouth, while his mother played classical music. He says he always wanted to be a dancer, and before he ever took his first ballet class, he could turn in second position. “I don’t know how I did it,” he says, looking down. “I could just turn. There are things I can do that nobody ever taught me.”

His father, a beverage distributor, was not enthusiastic, although Corella’s mother was more supportive. The family (Corella has three sisters, one of them also a dancer), lived in a small town outside Madrid, and Corella was soon taking the train into the city for ballet class, returning late at night, which often left him isolated and teased by other boys.

He claims that if he had to do it over, he wouldn’t be a dancer, but somehow one suspects that he wouldn’t be able to help himself. “I couldn’t live without dancing,” he says. “I express myself better dancing than talking.”

But even in talking, Corella displays an instinctual and profound understanding of his art. “In classical ballet, you can see how the person is inside. It’s like glass, like a mirror--you can see how they really are,” Corella says.

He understands that his instincts can guide him. In the complex art of partnering, for instance, in which he is relatively inexperienced, Corella says, “When I touch her, I try to imagine that someone is touching me like I am touching her. So I can feel how she is in balance, feel her whole body with my hands. I try to be her.”

McKenzie smiles approvingly when he hears this. “That’s a sign of a great partner.”

Hard as Corella works on his technique he also knows how to let go in performance. “I don’t think of anything, only of dancing, and of the music. I simply dance. If you think too much, it’s not natural. The way you have to move is in the music, inside the rhythm--I can’t explain it. The music is inside you, and it moves you inside.”

McKenzie is taking great care with Corella, casting him in smallish, virtuosic solo roles that showcase his technical gifts, like the Bronze Idol in “La Bayadere,” and stretching him with larger parts, like the leads in “Theme and Variations” and “Don Quixote,” that still fit his youthful energy.

When McKenzie rehearses Corella and Herrera, his frequent partner, in Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” the director mostly leaves the confident and experienced Herrera alone. But he pushes the alert Corella constantly, coaxing ever more precision from him. ‘You only have to tell him something once,” says McKenzie. “He’s like a sponge, from performance to performance he gets better and better.”

McKenzie has every reason to appreciate that fact. ABT is finally on its way up after a low period in the wake of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s departure as artistic director in 1990. Finally, there is a new generation of dancers attracting attention--Susan Jaffe, Julie Kent, Julio Bocca, Jose Carreno, Herrera--and a buzz around the company right now, which in this New York season set an all-time record for ticket sales. There has been a dearth of stars in ballet, and Corella, with his youth, charisma and spectacular natural gifts, is already being whispered about as one of the great ones.

McKenzie is somewhat concerned about too much hype turning Corella’s head, though he says the dancer is taking it well. “When it starts that early, where do you go from there?” McKenzie asks. “He should be allowed to be a 20- year-old boy.”

Besides, says McKenzie, the hype isn’t what counts in the end. “People don’t make other people stars, a critic doesn’t do it, audiences don’t do it. A dancer does it.”

And it really seems as if Corella is doing it. When, the evening after the rehearsal, he and Herrera perform the “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” they are magnificent, beautifully matched in their virtuosity and youth, making the dance exuberantly their own. Corella’s flashing sequence of pirouettes and turns in second position seem inhumanly fast. Their performance gets more applause than any other piece on the program.

Afterward, damp-haired from a shower, he looks tired, another creature altogether. “Sometimes onstage you do something that surprises you,” says Corella. “That’s why I have to be onstage. That’s the way I learn.”

It looks as if he will get plenty of chances to learn everything he can from being in the spotlight. ABT’s newest angel has found his heaven.

“I’m happy here,” says Corella. “I have everything I want.”


American Ballet Theatre performs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Wednesday to Sunday, 8 p.m., and Saturday, 2 p.m. $15-$60. [213] 365-3500.