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'On Edge' with Pennsylvania Ballet's Artistic Director Angel Corella

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Nov 8, 2017

Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Angel Corella titled his upcoming contemporary program this month "On Edge," a concert of three new ballets by American choreographers Helen Pickett, Matthew Neenan and Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman.

Corella gave the city a peak early this fall of Ekman's "Episode 31" with the dancers tooling around the city and dancing amok. The work has the propulsive energy of a tribal urban dance that represents the kind of new aesthetic that Corella wants in the Pennsylvania Ballet's repertory to complement their classical ballets.

In an interview in the company studios late last month, Corella spoke to EDGE about the choreographers and his current season that he sees as "a turning point" for the 53-year company.

Corella, still looking like he could step on the dance stage at any moment, said he had to take a breather to regroup after the company closed their very successful 10-day run of "Sleeping Beauty," which he choreographed. In the last two years he also presented his versions of "Don Quixote" and "La Corsaire," which had never been in the PAB rep.

For "Sleeping Beauty" Corella streamlined the Marius Petipa-Lev Ivanov 1890s version, but did not dilute the technical artistry with its still shimmering but daunting Russian classicism. Corella also tested the company's artistic mettle and stamina by rotating six lead casts, giving dancers an opportunity to tackle different roles. It was also a chance to showcase his dozens of newly hired in the principal company, as well as in PBII, the increasingly impressive junior company.

There has been much publicity about the changes that Corella has made since becoming PAB's artistic director in 2014. He has fielded much public criticism, in the press (and on social media) for the fast departure of more than two-dozen dancers during his first two years as director. Some exited on their own, but many because their contracts were not renewed.

Another concern with some Pennsylvania Ballet's longtime devotees is what may be the company's diminished identification with the technique and ballets of George Balanchine, who was vital in assisting his protégé Barbara Weisberger in establishing the company in 1961.

Corella assures that he is fully committed to Balanchine's artistry but also wants have a roster of dancers ready for any contemporary idiom or dance fusion that many choreographers might require. And he feels that the he has the company of dancers he needs in place to continue to artistically strengthen the company.

Corella was one of the celebrated principal dancers of his generation at American Ballet Theatre. He also for eight years ran Barcelona Ballet, a company he founded, where he brought in top dancers from around the world, many of whom went on to have their own celebrated careers. He disbanded the troupe owing the lack of government funding the year before he came to Pennsylvania Ballet.

Funding, of course, remains a challenge for the company, despite the fact the that attendance is up. "The challenge is always the budget," Corella explains. "But we cannot diminish in the quality of our repertory for our audience or the dancers." In a direction to his choreography, he is in the studio coaching the dancers all the time, insuring "that every cast (member) is mentally and physically ready," as well as "artistically enjoying what we are doing."

Corella said that when he saw Ekman's "Episode 31" at the Chicago Dance Festival last year, he immediately wanted to bring it to Philly. "It was so great because our company hadn't been invited to the festival before and we danced Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco." "Then we got to see 'Episode 31,'" (created for the senior graduation class at the Juilliard School in 2011 before being picked up by the Joffrey Ballet) "and I was completely blown away."

Corella wanted to tap into the ballet's energy by having the dancers do flash mob pop ups at seven different landmarks around the city in order to see how the public would react. He also staged a preview excerpt at the company gala dinner this year with a lot of older patrons attending. At the event the dancers were seated at tables before they tore into the ballet. "It was so out there from what we usually do at a formal gala dinner. I didn't know how they would react," he says. In fact, Corella reports, "they were ecstatic."

Even though there are still too few women commissioned to create ballets, Helen Pickett has created 35 for companies in Europe and the US. "Tilt," set to a score by Phillip Glass, is a ballet Corella describes as exemplar of her ballet artistry with a "clever and poetic style." Her engagement in the studio with the dancers, he says, is just as impressive, "Helen knows what she wants, but also always wants to understand the point of view of the dancers."

Matthew Neenan is PAB's resident choreographer and also, with Christine Cox, co-founded BalletX. His ballets has created many hit ballets for PAB, including "11:11" set to music by Rufus Wainwright (Rufus attended its premiere) and his interstellar reimagining Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" that ends with a near nude cast during its explosive finale. His work for this program, "It Goes That Way," features eight dancers and is set to a song cycle by Laurie Anderson.

"Matthew really knows the company, even though there are a lot of new dancers, he always makes a unique connection," Corella says.

Pennsylvania Ballet's "On Edge" runs November 9-12 at the Merriam Theatre, Merriam Theater, 250 South Broad Street Philadelphia, PA. For tickets and performance times visit the Pennyslvania Ballet website orthe Kimmel Center website.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.


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