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Ballet's 'Twister'

In a dance company in Madrid, things were going poorly for Angel Corella. Two years later, the leaping, spinning tornado, at age 20, has become the toast of the American Ballet Theatre.

June 23, 1996|Jordan Levin | Jordan Levin is an occasional contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — 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."

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