Angel Corella and Pennsylvania Ballet: Pumping up the 'Spanishness' of gala 'Don Quixote'

What's Spanish about the Pennsylvania Ballet's new production of the full-length Don Quixote, premiering Thursday at the Academy of Music? Most obviously, Miguel de Cervantes' classic 17th-century novel of the same name, which has inspired myriad adaptations of this tale of a delusional knight-errant. (Cue Richard Kiley singing "The Impossible Dream.")

Ángel Corella, the company's artistic director, creator of this version of Don Quixote, is Spanish - born, raised, and trained in Madrid. As he made clear during a recent interview, Corella wants to enhance the Spanish aspects of this 19th-century ballet - created, ironically, for a Russian troupe by a French choreographer (Marius Petipa) and a composer from Austria (Ludwig Minkus).

For Corella, being Spanish means being as authentic as possible.

"It needs to feel like Spain," he said.

For example, he said, people tend to think of black, white, and red as Spanish colors. They show up in the costumes of Spanish variations in ballets such as Swan Lake. Corella insisted, however, that "the color of Spain is yellow, for the sun. . . . When you get off the plane there, everything is brighter - there's a different kind of light. All the buildings, and even people's clothes, come alive."

Posters and banners advertising Corella's Don Quixote, and the corps de ballet's costumes, therefore, stress yellow - plus orange, blue, and other unexpected hues.

As Corella explained, to prepare for this production he went all over Barcelona (where Cervantes' book is set), buying the gorgeous, hand-embroidered shawls that will be used in the fandango of Act 3. Corella also bought elegant peinetas (ornamental combs), fans, and various types of hats. These costume pieces will enhance the ballet's beauty, and its Spanishness; they will also put Corella's personal stamp on the production.

Corella is proud of being only the second Spaniard (after José Carlos Martínez) to mount his own production of Don Quixote. Petipa's steps are still there, along with the ballet's beloved show-stoppers (including a spectacular, one-handed overhead lift and the final grand pas de deux). But Corella has also added his own, consciously Spanish, choreographic touches.

During two decades as a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre - and as a guest artist all over the world - Corella came to know Don Quixote well. He has danced in productions by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, and Kevin McKenzie. But it's still exciting, he said, to "add my own input."

One of the most obvious differences between Corella's Don Quixote and other versions will be the gypsy encampment scene in Act 2. The main gypsy lady will dance a flamenco solo - to the accompaniment of two onstage guitarists and a cajón player. In this sequence, the half-dozen Pennsylvania Ballet performers who will alternate in the role must look convincingly Spanish. A similar number of artists - including two exceptionally talented apprentices - will share the pivotal role of Kitri, the headstrong young woman who refuses her father's order to marry Gamache, a wealthy French fop, and runs off instead with Basilio, the local barber, whom she loves.

Ana Calderón, a corps de ballet member from Madrid who will play one of the gypsy ladies, went through training at the Madrid Royal Conservatory. This program requires mastering classical ballet and several types of Spanish dance, including flamenco.

Truth to tell, though Calderón was excellent during the rehearsal of the gypsy camp scene I saw, Corella was the best flamenco dancer in the room - all proud carriage and elegantly lifted elbows. It was especially instructive to watch him teach the gypsy ladies how to circle their wrists, keeping the fingers gracefully apart. This movement is difficult to coordinate with actual steps - especially when those steps are being created, and learned, on the spot.

Luckily, Corella's company members are excellent technicians, with exceptional stylistic and dramatic range. All this is needed for Don Quixote, a technically challenging ballet that also runs the gamut from slapstick comedy to ethereal tenderness and sheer joy. In addition, these people are fearless. Not many principal dancers would be eager to learn a movement style they'd never tried before. Yet Amy Aldridge, who has held this rank since 2001, was there with the other gypsy women, working hard to master flamenco-style turns and those pesky wrist-circles.

Besides Calderón, three other recent ballet recruits will share Don Quixote's leading roles. Interestingly, all of them (Mayara Piñeiro, Etienne Díaz, and Arián Molina Soca) are Cuban. During a pre-rehearsal chat with Calderón, Molina Soca and the ever-virtuosic Jermel Johnson, Molina Soca volunteered that portraying the swagger of Basilio isn't that much of a stretch. After all, he pointed out, these characters aren't ballet princes, but regular guys, and, as he said, "I'm a Cuban guy, from the streets."

On the other hand, Johnson expressed concern about dancing the role of Espada. "It's not easy," he said, "to coordinate the capework with the choreography . . . while playing such a superconfident, macho character." But Molina Soca said, reassuringly: "You already look like a real matador."

Not everything intriguing about Corella's new Don Quixote is Spanish.

He is also tapping non-Iberian talent from the back office, and old friends, for this production. Ballet master Charles Askegard, a former New York City Ballet star, will be Don Quixote. Gamache will be played by the company's choreographer-in-residence, Matthew Neenan, a master of comedic timing. Colby Damon, a longtime member of BalletX, will play Sancho Panza.

As he makes his new work more authentically Spanish, Corella seems to have lost some of his own Spanishness. Perhaps that is inevitable, after spending half his life in Manhattan and several years in Philadelphia. But he seemed genuinely surprised, as he commented: "When I go back to Spain, I have to slow down the pace. It's much, much slower there."

DON QUIXOTE

Thursday through March 13 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.

Tickets: $29-$135.

Information: 215-893-1999 or www.paballet.org