SEGOVIA, SPAIN — Corella Ballet's location doesn't bode well for its relevance in the dance world. It is miles from Madrid and tucked into a former warehouse for firetrucks, where on a recent morning 43 world-class dancers began languorous plies to music from a small prop piano.
But the modest circumstances are in contrast to artistic director Angel Corella's lofty ambitions. When the American Ballet Theatre principal and Spanish native started his company a year ago this month, his goal was to create a top-notch classical ballet company on a grand scale: 60 dancers under yearlong contracts and a repertoire of classics such as Natalia Makarova's "La Bayadere." And so far, even though "the crisis" -- as the Spaniards call the global economic collapse -- endures, the company is humming along toward that goal.
But will Corella be able to make a lasting mark on classical ballet in Spain? He's trying, but the company has to contend with a country where ballet hasn't ever found its footing.
More than 20 years ago, Spain had a thriving classical ballet company, the Compania Nacional de Danza de Espana, but the country's attitude toward dance was in flux. After the fall of Franco, there was a resistance to traditional ballet. The Spanish government hired Nacho Duato from Nederlands Dans Theater to lead the company, and it became known for performing avant-garde and contemporary works by Czech choreographer Jioi Kylian, improvisational pieces by William Forsythe and Duato's own modern choreography.
It wouldn't be so strange for Spain to lack a national classical company except for the fact that it is known for exporting high-caliber ballet dancers. Madrid-born Corella has been compared to Baryshnikov; the Basque Lucia Lacarra dominated at San Francisco Ballet and now at the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich; and the bird-like beauty Tamara Rojo stepped in for Darcey Bussell and is now one of the stars of the Royal Ballet.
When Corella left Madrid at age 19 in 1995 to join American Ballet Theatre, he quickly realized that he "wanted to give dancers who left Spain an opportunity to come home and also create a company for pure, classical dance."
Beginning in 2000, he and his sister Carmen, also an ABT principal, returned to Spain every summer with other ABT dancers, performing at small theaters across the country. In 2001, he created a foundation to create a small-scale company that he could present to the government as an example of what he would do with public money.
Corella negotiated with the Catalan government for five years before finally decamping to the region of Castilla y Leon. There, the government offered 1.3 million Euros in funding -- available instantly -- and an administrative group that manages properties once owned by the Spanish crown promised the use of a historical castle in Segovia named Santa Cecilia (which will require renovation).
Before a single dancer had been hired, Corella's mother booked the 1,742-seat Royal Opera House in Madrid for five nights in September 2008. The Corellas auditioned 750 dancers, formed their company and premiered "La Bayadere" to sold-out Madrid audiences.
Getting a company started is one thing, but keeping it in business is another.
"I was petrified when I joined the company," says Iain Mackay, who left England's Birmingham Ballet to become a principal with Corella. "You hear about it all the time. Companies start, they do one show, and then boom . . . nothing."
Corella has shown a surprising ability to create a company filled with happy dancers that is also financially viable.
Torrance native Ashley Ellis revels in the positive atmosphere. "He gives everyone chances, but not in a way that gives you pressure," she says.
"We even get year-round contracts with vacation," Cuban principal Adiarys Almeida adds.
In return, Corella asks his dancers to "double bunk" on tours (which union contracts for some U.S. companies do not allow) and to take only as many pointe shoes as they need. Under most union contracts, dancers receive as many pointe shoes as they like, an allowance that is sometimes abused by the dancers. "I try to make the dancers understand it's OK to share a room . . . if you want to dance," says Corella. "And some dancers at other companies could run a pointe shoe shop at home with all their extra shoes."
Those little things allow the company to run with a budget of less than $4 million: $1.7 million from the Castilla y Leon government, $530,000 from the federal government and the rest from private donors, sponsors and ticket sales.
The Corella family pitches in as well, and the company looks for ways to keep costs down. Angel's father is the company handyman and father figure to the dancers. Carmen and her mother are involved on the business end.
This week, four dancers introduced new works for the company, which may become part of the regular repertoire.