FOR YEARS, mobs have lined up at stage doors in London, Paris, Madrid and New York to get a peek at the brilliant Spanish ballet dancer Angel Corella. After a 1994 gold medal at the Concours International de Danse in Paris, this legendary dancer, knowing no English, joined American Ballet Theatre as soloist at 19. He became principal dancer in 10 months and stayed for 17 years until retiring in 2012.
Corella also founded the Barcelona Ballet (originally known as the Corella Ballet) in 2008, but the lack of national arts funding in Spain caused its demise early this year. In the Pennsylvania Ballet's search to replace Roy Kaiser as artistic director, Corella was the right person at just the right time.
Though he's eminent enough to make commercials for Rolex, for a champagne with Gwyneth Paltrow and to judge the Spanish version of "Dancing With the Stars," Madrid-born Corella is a very down-to-earth and exuberant presence.
He's wise enough to choose three brilliant principal dancers from the company as staff - married team Julie Diana and Zachary Hench as ballet mistress/master and Arantxa Ochoa (who shared a class with Corella as children in Madrid) as director.
The company opens its 51st season Thursday at the Academy of Music to classic works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky (through Oct. 26).
After a grueling daily 90-minute ballet class before rehearsal - ending with Corella's dizzying pirouettes - he took time to chat with Daily News arts contributor Tom Di Nardo.
Q Was changing the first scheduled program meant to demonstrate your artistic signature?
Yes! The opening Balanchine piece, "Allegro brilliante," begins with the cast already dancing, like moving into the future with a display of our energy. Balanchine said that everything he knew about dance is there in 13 minutes. Wheeldon's pas de deux is a masterpiece, and the Robbins estate doesn't allow many companies, even with big stars, to do his intimate piece. The rest of the season was what I would have chosen.
Q Why did you choose this company?
They decided to choose me, after a process of 35 candidates. I have had a connection because my sister danced here, and I came down often on weekends. It's the company I have seen the most, and is the right size to manage, to have responsibility for. I couldn't have been received with a more positive welcome. But, believe me, being a director is not as easy as it looks.
Q Will we get to see you dance?
Well, at the gala on Oct. 2, I pulled Amy Aldridge out of the audience and we did a swing dance. I'm doing my last dancing in Spain on Jan. 4, but wasn't planning on doing any here. The dancers need to know that I'm not taking space from them.
Eventually, your body can't retain any more, and this transition is a way to stay connected, sharing, encouraging. If I have to, I might - maybe as a showcase. But I don't say no, I don't say yes.
Q Is it true that you have photographic memory about all the steps in a ballet?
It's a curse. I'm going through them all the time constantly. In bed I can't get them out of my head and it's hard to go to sleep. I've always learned the steps for every single person, it's impossible for me to forget. I did the Balanchine piece a long time ago in London and still remember every step.
Q Will you schedule more premieres, or more standard major works, and will you do any choreography?
I want to balance the full-length pieces like "Romeo and Juliet," "Swan Lake" and "Don Quixote," with new, edgy choreography. And we have Matthew Neenan, who knows the dancers intimately, as choreographer-in-residence, and I hope to extend his contract.
I did some pieces in Spain with music by Electric Light Orchestra and some swing, but I'm not going to make the dancers suffer.
Q What are your first memories of America?
I loved movies, especially Gene Kelly. He did what is our aim, to make the audience feel like they're dancing with you. The way to do this is to make each dancer feel as though they have something unique, and your job is to bring it out of them. You know what you can do, but you have to gain their trust to find how much they are willing to achieve.
Q What are your impressions of Philadelphia?
I have been mostly in the studio and trying to find a place to live since I arrived, but I love the feel of the city, big but not overwhelming. I'm overwhelmed by all the murals, which include the society and make them feel like they're part of the mural, like what we're trying to do.
I haven't gone to any Spanish restaurants - want something different than home in Madrid!