Lifting Spanish ballet

MADRID, Spain — Angel Corella lights up the stage with soaring leaps and dazzling turns, his joyful dancing and radiant smile among the wonders of modern day ballet But to become a star, he left his native Spain in 1995 to join American Ballet Theater in New York. Classical ballet has no roots in Spain and every attempt to start a top-flight ballet company had always foundered.

Unwilling to accept the status quo, in 2001 Corella set up the Fundacion Angel Corella to lay the groundwork for a ballet school and a company in Spain. He wanted new generations of Spanish dancers to enjoy the opportunities that were denied him. The Corella Ballet Castilla y Leon made its debut in Madrid in September 2008. Thanks to the support of the Castilla y Leon regional government, which contributes 60 percent of the budget, the 45-member company now calls home the Royal Palace of La Granja, near Segovia and only an hour from Madrid. The royal family donated the palace to the foundation and a school will soon take up quarters in a new building on the grounds. Situated on the edge of a lake near the mountains, the palace resembles Versailles. “It couldn’t be more idyllic for my dancers,” said Corella, “ it looks like the setting for `Swan Lake.’”

Since its debut, the troupe has toured Spain, drawing excited crowds in every city. The Spanish may not have a ballet tradition, but they know Corella and came out to see what the world has been talking about for 15 years. But for him, the test would always be New York, his second home. He brings the company to the City Center March 17-20, with a varied and demanding repertory, including his first ballet “String Sextet,” inspired by Tchaikovsky’s "Souvenir of Florence," Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV,” a meditation on travel set to Michael Nyman’s “MGV : Musique à Grande Vitesse Musique,” and a flamenco-inspired piece by Maria Pages. “I vowed when I was young,” he said, “that I would do this. It took a crazy amount of work but here we are and I’m incredibly proud. I feel like I am bringing my child home to show my parents.”

With choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s recent departure from Morphoses, the company he founded in 2006, and the severe economic times that have hit even the most successful modern dance and ballet companies, Corella needed a lot of courage to bring his dream to fruition. “I have huge admiration for Angel,” said Wheeldon, “especially to begin on such a large scale. He’s filling an enormous void, for there are so many talented Spanish dancers. It helps that unlike American-based companies, he won government support.”

With government support for the arts fast disappearing in the United States, it is ironic, if not disillusioning, that even in difficult economic times — and Spain has been harder hit than the United States — that government support in some European countries can still be found for artistic endeavors. “We are a popular region with tourists,” said Maria Jose Salgueiro, who heads up the culture and tourism department in the Castilla y Leon Autonomic Government, “and we felt we could become even more popular with a great ballet company located here. We support our big talents, and Angel’s company is one of them. He has already proven that he is a great director with the quality of his productions. Spanish dancers now have a destination in their own country.”

It didn’t take long for word of Corella’s project to spread — 1,500 dancers, about half of them Spanish, turned up for the first audition. “What I like most about the company,” said Ashley Ellis, who previously danced with American Ballet Theater, “is how close people are here. The atmosphere feels like family. We also do a nice mix of traditional like `Swan Lake’ and contemporary like Wheeldon.” For Adiarys Almedia, who danced with the Cincinnati Ballet, just sharing the stage with Corella is enough. “It’s an amazing experience,” she said, “Angel’s energy infects you.”

Many major players in the dance world have come out to support him. Though concerned her production of “La Bayadere” would be too technically, physically, artistically and theatrically demanding for a young troupe, Natalia Markaova agreed to stage it for the company’s first season.

“Despite my initial concerns,” she said, “I feel that it was a great start. Everyone thought it was such a historical event in Spain. The company performed successfully and rose to the occasion. Angel brought dancers together, dancers of different education, schools and experience and unified them. I’ve known him from the beginning of his career. No one has his kind of fire.”