In Motion
In Motion With Ángel Corella at the helm, the Pennsylvania Ballet evolves with contemporary flair
by Bill Donahue

The Pennsylvania Ballet is used to making headlines locally, but one recent news story appeared in the unlikeliest of places.

The Philadelphia-based ballet company starred in a late December story published on Sports Illustrated’s website,, involving, of all things, a lackluster Philadelphia Eagles’ season in which the city’s beleaguered football team not only failed to make the playoffs but also sacked its high-profile head coach. When one frustrated Eagles fan posted a Facebook missive suggesting the team “played like they were wearing tutus,” the Pennsylvania Ballet responded in fine form.

On its Facebook page, the ballet company disagreed with the fan’s derisive assessment and countered by underscoring the troupe’s athleticism and dedication to its craft. Specifically, it noted the troupe’s performance of its signature wintertime ballet, “The Nutcracker,” 27 times in 21 days, with many of its tutu-donning ballerinas having done so without an understudy—or, in gridiron terms, a “second string.” The rebuttal concluded, unapologetically, with: “So no, the Eagles have not played like they were wearing tutus. If they had, Chip Kelly would still be a head coach and we’d all be looking forward to the playoffs.”

The exchange speaks to the evolution of a cultural institution whose roots stretch back to 1963. The Pennsylvania Ballet entered 2016 with a lineup of programming designed to build relevance among younger audiences, yet without alienating its bread and butter, meaning the faithful patrons who revere classic ballets in the Balanchine tradition. This delicate balance is perhaps best embodied by Ángel Corella, who in September 2014 took the reins from longtime artistic director Roy Kaiser.

“Sometimes when things are run in a certain way for too long, things can get too comfortable,” says Corella, a native of Madrid, Spain, widely regarded as one of the greatest male dancers of his generation. “My goal has been to bring in new excitement and turn [the Pennsylvania Ballet] into an international company. … We’re getting more and more audience involvement, especially among younger people.

“With our program ‘Speed and Precision,’ which ran right before ‘The Nutcracker,’ we saw a lot of young guys and girls in the audience,” he continues. “I think they were drawn to the fact that it wasn’t your typical ballet; it had the White Stripes’ music played by the orchestra. We do stay true to our tradition and where we come from, but we also we have much to offer to the new generation, and we have to because it’s our future audience.”

Corella believes blending the traditional with the progressive—or even “unusual,” to use his word, referring specifically to “Strength and Longing,” a program that played at the Merriam Theater early this month—will resonate with audiences of all ages. This also applies to Corella’s interpretation of the classic comedy “Don Quixote,” which will run from March 3 to 16 at the Academy of Music. Incorporating “real flamenco flavors,” as Corella says, he expects audience members will appreciate a fresh reimagining of one of ballet’s most recognizable works.

Corella’s career has been rife with “pinch me” moments: dancing for Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Sophia of Spain and three U.S. presidents; starring in a Rolex marketing campaign; even making it all the way to “Sesame Street,” appearing in segments in which he danced with animated letters of the alphabet.

“Throughout my career, I’ve had one surprise after another,” he says. “To think that you’re going to be able to do what you like to do, to have the opportunity to have a career like I had, I always tried to make every single performance as if the president is watching. Anyone who comes to the theater deserves as much love and respect as you can give them.”

His story is made better by the fact that his career as a dancer almost never was. As a toddler, he used to “dance like John Travolta,” his parents told him, but dance as an art form became part of his life almost by accident.

“The typical thing [in Madrid] was for girls to go to ballet and the boys would go to soccer or karate,” he recalls. “Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee were big then, so I wound up in karate. I liked it because of the flexibility it required, but [at some point] I said I didn’t want to go back, so they took me to ballet class with my sisters and told me to ‘Be quiet and sit down.’ I was a hyperactive child, but I would just watch calmly. … Eventually I started to stand up and do the turns, and people were saying, ‘It’s amazing he picked it up just by watching.’”

Corella’s interest in dance, along with his skill level, grew by the year. By age 18, however, he was considering ending his career because he “wasn’t achieving what I wanted to achieve.” Instead, he committed to participating in competitions, and something clicked. In 1995, at the age of 19, he joined American Ballet Theatre in New York, and a year later he was promoted to the youngest principal dancer in the troupe’s history. After a 17-year run, he retired from the troupe in 2012 to devote his time to Barcelona Ballet in his native Spain, which he founded in 2008 and ran as director till it closed its doors in 2014.

Upon relocating to the Philadelphia area for the full-time post with the Pennsylvania Ballet, Corella made a home in Media. Shortly after the start of 2016, however, he moved into the city proper.

“I love it here [in Philadelphia],” he says. “It has everything New York has to offer, only on a smaller scale.”

What’s next for the Pennsylvania Ballet? Says Corella: “We’re working with the greatest choreographers, investing in marketing and community engagement, and doing everything we can to attract a new audience, as well retain the people who have been coming to us for years. I want people to feel connected to this company. I want them to feel like this is their company, like this is their house.”

Photograph by Jeff Anderson