When it came time for Angel Corella to choose his first full-length piece as The Ruth and A. Morris Williams, Jr. Artistic Director of Pennsylvania Ballet, the decision was obvious. “There was really only one option,” laughs the Spaniard. “It could only be Don Quixote.”
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Miguel de Cervantes novel (the source material for the ballet) in Corella’s home country. Although Don Quixote was published over four centuries ago, the comic narrative of a knight-errant and his fantastical chivalry is still a staple of Spanish classrooms. “It’s a very funny book,” says Corella. “Although I didn’t know that until I reread it as an adult.”
The ballet, originally by French-Russian choreographer Marius Petipa to the music of Austrian-Russian composer Ludwig Minkus, focuses on a love story recounted in Cervantes’ novel between an inn-keeper’s daughter, Kitri, and a poor barber, Basilio. “The great thing about the very famous ballets is that they still feel like they were made a few years ago,” says Corella, “because they focus on things humans are never going to get rid of: love and relationships.”
The ballet was created in Russia, but Corella sees “a real Spanish feel” to the work. “It’s in the Spanish blood: we love very intensely and hate very intensely,” he says. “That’s the good and bad thing about the country. In Don Quixote, the characters are guided with their heart not their head.”
In casting for the Pennsylvania Ballet production, Corella looked for dancing ability and a physical appearance which fit the character, but he also looked for that Spanish passion. “I prefer a dancer who falls down but takes a risk to one who is clean and doesn’t,” he enthuses. “The performances you take home with you are by the dancers who took a risk.”
His assembled cast hail from all corners of the world: Spain, yes, but also Cuba, Russia, Ukraine, and of course the United States. “They all come from different cultures and all have a different feel on what dance should be.”
Whatever their background, the core dancers faced a multiple-month rehearsal period, spread across three studios, to prepare for their challenging roles. More than most directors, Corella understands the necessity of this grueling preparation.
Born and raised in Madrid, Corella moved to the United States at the age of 19 to join the American Ballet Theatre. Before long, he was a principal dancer for the company, acclaimed as perhaps the finest ballet artist of his generation.
His talents made him a hot ticket throughout the world, taking him as a guest dancer to the Royal Ballet in London, La Scala Ballet in Milan, and Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, among countless others. Over his danicing career, he performed in nearly two hundred productions of Don Quixote, a number rivaled only by his appearances in Giselle and Romeo and Juliet.
“For the male lead, Don Quixote is one of the hardest ballets by far,” he recalls. “You are constantly turning and lifting your partner with one hand while pretending that it’s nothing. The first time I did it my right half went into spasm because I was turning so much on demipoint. I finished the third act with my calf in a severe cramp.”
In training his dancers and shaping his production, Corella drew on his experience working on so many different versions of Don Quixote at some of the world’s leading ballet companies. “I didn’t copy any of them in particular,” he says. “I bring something from the Bolshoi version, something from the Royal Ballet, some things from other versions. But this is different. It’s a version that I have never done—that no one has ever done.”
“Some of the dancers might think I want them to do it just like I did,” he laughs. “But you try to find in each dancer the personality of the character—everyone is going to bring a different flavor to it.”
His training starts with mastering the complex steps. From there he moves to the “mime”: the gestures and body language which communicate the characters. While Corella focuses on the core dancers, other ballet masters work with different sections of large ensemble, before the moving parts come together to create an elaborate whole. As the process evolves, a director imprints his own vision on the ballet—even one as timeless and popular as Don Quixote.
Corella’s production plays heavily with the Spanish setting of the ballet .”I was very particular in finding the perfect set,” he says. “I wanted people see that we’re in a real place in Spain. I’ve seen some backdrops that look more like Istanbul than anywhere in Spain.”
To make sure his dancers looked the part, Corella spent several afternoons during his last trip to his homeland going around stores in Barcelona “buying headscarves and other pieces for the costumes.”
The Spanish influence extends to the dance itself. “Growing up I had to learn flamenco, how to use the castanets, how to dance the Sevillanas,” he recalls. “Everyone in the country knows how to do that.” So whereas some productions depict the Gypsy camp scene of Don Quixote in broad stereotypical brushes, Corella insisted that the choreography in this section include touches of real flamenco dancing, with a live flamenco band playing “proper flamenco music,” including interpretations of some of Minkus’s original score.
Touches like this are the reason Corella chose Don Quixote as his introductory full-length for the Pennsylvania ballet. Because wherever he has traveled, Corella has taken Spain with him. “It’s the country that I hold in my heart,” he says.
Before coming to Philadelphia, he spent six rewarding years in his birth country with Corella Ballet (later Barcelona Ballet). “There’s a saying in Spain when someone is a dreamer,” recounts Corella. “We call him a Don Quixote. I was a Don Quixote going back to Spain and creating a ballet company there. I thought if I achieved all I did I should share it with people.”
What Corella gives to audience, as a dancer or as a director, with Don Quixote or with any production, is a sense of the energy and joy of the ballet. “I want people to have a blast,” he says. “Dance and the arts are meant to be enjoyed; they are not meant to be understood.”
Corella may be a dreamer, but as he puts it, “Don Quixote was a dreamer; the world will always need more of those.”