As he begins his fourth season as artistic director, Angel Corella is standing perched between two points. He can either become known as the leader who shook the Pennsylvania Ballet from a certain amount of institutional inertia, or the man who gave the pink slip to the Sugar Plum Fairy at Christmastime.
Hero and villain are not mutually exclusive. Corella says he was brought here to remake the company, which opens its 54th season Thursday with The Sleeping Beauty. For him, this has meant hiring dancers who share his vision and firing those who don't. As soon as the dancers' labor contract allowed it, he did not pussyfoot. More than half of the ballet's roster has turned over since he got here. Some opted to leave on their own.
"It's a very tough profession. If you're not on the top of your game, you can't be in a professional company," Corella said recently at the ballet's North Broad Street studios. "We are here to run a great company and to make it an international ballet. And to make it an international ballet company, you need the best of the best of the best."
If ballet is a game, Corella says he looks at dancers and sees cards, each representing a skill. One card is for a good physique, which allows the dancer not only to look good, but also to do the physical work required, "because actually you are an athlete." Another card is for flexibility, "to be able to turn, to be able to jump, to have great artistry." The last card is for a great work ethic.
"When you have dancers with all those cards, you have a winning team," he said. "When I walked into the company, at first I thought, well, there are dancers with one card, maybe they have two cards, some of them pushing it a little bit, they had three cards. But I was coming in with all of my force and all of my energy [and thought], 'We're going to turn it around. I'm not going to fire anyone — everyone is going to be wonderful. We are all going to be in this together.' "
On the way to becoming hero and villain, Corella suggests he has sometimes also felt like the victim. He seems stunned that anyone should interpret his actions as anything other than wanting what is best for the art form. In his first extended interview on the subject of letting go so many dancers — technically, they weren't fired, but their one-year contracts weren't renewed — Corella said enthusiasm from the dancers lasted about a month after he started.
Then he showed what direction the company was going to take.
"People started to put their arms across and say, 'This is not going to happen.' I heard that some dancers said, 'The same way we got rid of the previous artistic director, we're going to get rid of this one.' Dancers were laughing at my face. A dancer even insulted me in front of everyone, just called me an [expletive]. You had people who didn't even show up to class — I didn't see them for three or four months — others that were injured for a very long time. I thought it was really unfair to stop the talent. People from all around the world were knocking on the door — we had 2,000-something people sending in audition tapes."
Dancers are not contractually obligated to attend class, but skipping sends a message, says Amy Aldridge, who now teaches class for the company, and whose career as principal dancer spanned both Corella's start and the era of his predecessor, Roy Kaiser. "I only missed class if I was working through an injury," she said. "For a dancer to not show up for a couple of months with the new director is basically saying, 'I'm not going to stay. It's not what I want.' "
On the question of injuries, one former dancer who declined to be named said injuries would sometimes prevent dancers from participating in certain pieces but added: "Every ballet would push a specific injury more than the next, and when one of us would have an injury that would prevent us from excelling in one ballet, yet unaffected in another, he would accuse the dancer of lying and 'picking and choosing,' and it was either you do all of it or nothing."
Words from the board: ‘Make the change’
The Pennsylvania Ballet was hardly slouching before Corella got there. The troupe has been well-reviewed for decades in national publications, and just before Corella arrived in 2014, a New York Times critic included a Pennsylvania Ballet dancer on his top-10 list of male performances for that year. That dancer, Alexander Peters, has since left the company for the Miami City Ballet.
After a couple of years of urging improvement from the dancers he had, Corella said, he sought guidance from the board. "The board said, 'We brought you here to make a change in the company. Make the change.' "
More change is on the way. The ballet board is preparing to proceed with a project to finish its North Broad Street headquarters, augmenting the studios, offices, school, and community spaces with an addition or new building. Finalists have been interviewed for the executive director job now held by interim leader Elizabeth Warshawer.
As for seismic shifts in the roster of dancers, none is anticipated, said David Hoffman, chair of the ballet's board of trustees. "I think the company is where Angel wants it be," he said. There is always some turnover, he said, "but the major changes like we saw are absolutely over, in my opinion." (Roy Kaiser's departure from the company, Hoffman said, had nothing to do with what the dancers wanted. Kaiser has served as the company's emeritus director since 2014 and was on Thursday named the new artistic director of Nevada Ballet Theatre.)
Corella, 41, who grew up in a small town outside Madrid, was named artistic director in 2014 after his own company in Spain folded. He came with a starry resumé: principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre and guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London, the Kirov Ballet (now called the Mariinsky Ballet), and the New York City Ballet.
Talkative with a generous well of charm, Corella has become the face of the company, which several years ago hired arts consultant Michael M. Kaiser to help figure out how to lift flat ticket sales and fund-raising. "When I became artistic director," Corella said, "it was very obvious that the company was a really strong Balanchine company. They could do Balanchine really well. But when it came to all the other ballets, it wasn't the case."
In 2015, he brought in new ballet master Charles Askegard — a member of the American Ballet Theatre for a decade and soloist and then principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for 14 years — "so he knows the essence of Balanchine and also the full-lengths."
Samantha Dunster was made ballet mistress in 2014, just after Corella came on, and then assistant artistic director (and is now also interim principal of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet).
"She really knows how to polish and develop dancers in a way that they are neutral," says Corella. "It's like a blank slate that a painter can come in and paint on. What was happening with previous dancers is that they had already been painted, and the paint was really sloppy. So we needed dancers who could do everything: One day they were rolling on the floor and doing this really modern piece, and then the next day put their pointe shoes on and tutus and look like the perfect princess or the perfect prince."
"And the corps de ballet here needed a lot of work," said Dunster.
"It was really uneven," said Corella. "You had very, very tall girls with very, very short guys. Which was hard to understand. The guys couldn't lift them. It didn't look right."
Aesthetics matter in ballet. One dancer, Sara Michelle Murawski, the Sugar Plum Fairy in last season's production of The Nutcracker, elicited an outpouring of support when she took to social media to suggest the company was cutting her loose because she was too tall. Her height is north of 5-feet-10 — taller on pointe — which is tall for a woman who must often be lifted by a male partner.
For their part, artistic staff members were willing to say little about the episode.
Corella called her a "gorgeous dancer" but added that the troupe didn't have the right repertoire or partner for her.
"It wasn't a good fit for the company," said Askegard.
It’s his company now
Corella says the dancers' reaction to the way he shook up the company was a "shock to me." He said he was "incredibly respectful to the dancers, even until the very end," offering letters of recommendation and calls to other artistic directors. "I said, 'I'll do anything for you to move on to a company where they are going to use you.' It was hard to understand that after you've been so incredibly nice about the situation that they — I mean, I can understand, but at the same time, it was hard to digest."
Warshawer contextualizes the artistic changes like this: "Angel needed his own team. When a new leader comes into an organization — whether it's a corporation or a nonprofit, an arts organization or a sports team — a key responsibility of leadership is surrounding yourself with the right people to do the work that you want to do to accomplish your goals for the future of the organization."
Corella says the future is there for all to see.
"After those two years of finding ways to reshape the company and to move forward, we got to the turning point of last year, when we opened the curtain for Cinderella, and it was very obvious where the company was going. You had all the dancers all in the same style with the same look with the same energy. They were young, energetic dancers with a very strong technique, but with a great approach of artistry, and really fresh."
Critics have been mixed. Of last season's setting of Ben Stevenson's choreography of Cinderella on the company, Merilyn Jackson, writing in the Inquirer, said much of the dancing lifted the piece to a higher level. In the waltz section, "11 couples danced the deconstructed waltz as if their lives depended on it."
New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay has been attentive to the Pennsylvania Ballet, but at the end of last season, he wrote that "despite Ian Hussey's elegance and Lillian DiPiazza's movie-star glamour, the 'Tchaikovsky pas de deux' lacked brilliance," and he warned that "there's a strong danger that Mr. Corella's company is becoming a hackneyed assortment of ballet clichés."
The evolution continues as Corella imprints his vision onto the larger institution, which also encompasses the school and a good deal of community outreach. After all the comings and goings and his zeal for controlling all the details — "It's not always normal that the artistic director is in the studio as much as Angel is," says Dunster — the company is now emerging as a perfect mirror of his artistic taste and choices.
"I said to the dancers, even your eyeballs, they have to be looking in the same direction," Corella said. "It feels like it's not important, but it is. Because the eyeballs catch the light. You have to create a harmony of the corps de ballet. Every single head, every single eye, every single even fingertip."
Ballet Season Begins
Pennsylvania Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty runs Thursday through Oct. 22 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.
Information: 215-893-1999 or paballet.org.