Is the Pennsylvania Ballet developing a Latin flavor? Since last year, fans of this 50-year-old institution have wondered what form the company would take under its new artistic director, Angel Corella. It's still early days, but the influence of Spain and of other Spanish-speaking nations is definitely on the rise.
Meanwhile, the superstar dancer-turned-administrator-and-teacher already has fulfilled several of his promises.
Corella has enlarged the company to 37 dancers, plus four apprentices. He also pledged to present more innovative new choreography, and the 2015-16 season, which begins Thursday at the Academy of Music, includes work by rising stars Justin Peck and Liam Scarlett, plus a host of midcareer and established luminaries; there's even a piece by postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown. (This week's program includes Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, Wayne McGregor's Chroma, and Christopher Wheeldon's DGV.)
Company members say they're working harder than ever in classes and rehearsals, and the results are evident in the increasingly high caliber of their performances, which has attracted the attention of audiences and writers, including the New York Times' chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay.
Corella never said he was planning to "Latinize" the ballet and, when asked during a recent phone interview about the current prominence of personnel and repertoire from Spanish-speaking countries, he maintained that this was purely accidental.
Still, there does seem to be a trend. Corella is a native of Madrid, and Arantxa Ochoa, director of the company's school, is also from Spain, as is newly hired corps de ballet member Ana Calderón. This year's programing includes a piece by the noted Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, plus Corella's new production of the venerable Don Quixote, based on Cervantes' celebrated novel. And then there are the Cubans - three new dancers, one in each rank (principal Arián Molina Soca, soloist Mayara Piñeiro, and corps member Etienne Díaz).
To be fair, this phenomenon is not new. Before becoming school director, Ochoa had a long run as a principal; company fans fondly recall Cuban ballerina Riolama Lorenzo, who retired in 2012; and Corella's sister Carmen danced with the company in the late 1990s. Also, as Corella points out, the current roster includes dancers from England, Thailand, Israel, the Philippines, and 15 U.S. states.
As he notes, every nation's approach to ballet "has something great, and if you're smart - as a dancer or an artistic director - you try to include the best of it all . . . and make it your own."
Although known for producing excellent ballet dancers, Spain hasn't had a classical troupe for them to enter in many years. As a result, Spanish artists typically work elsewhere. That's why Corella came to the U.S. It's also why he left New York, after two decades with American Ballet Theatre, to establish the Barcelona Ballet. That troupe closed in 2012, but the experience gave Corella the opportunity to work with Ana Calderón, first in Spain and now in Philadelphia.
Cuba also has a long history of training dancers through its National School of Ballet, founded by Alicia Alonso, who is now 93 and still a force to be reckoned with. However, as new PAB soloist Mayara Piñeiro explained (by phone, between hectic rehearsals), until recently, Cuba was like the old Soviet Union: All ballet was classical, and to perform contemporary work, Cuban dancers had to leave home. So, after winning fistfuls of prizes at international competitions, Piñeiro danced with troupes based in Romania, Italy, and Wisconsin.
It was in Hartford, Conn., at a summer ballet program directed by Corella, that the two first met. Corella recalls: "She was so spectacular, I said that, if Pennsylvania Ballet had an opening, I'd like her to join. She did, [as a member of the corps] and less than a year later, she was promoted to soloist."
(Principal Arián Molina Soca has a better story: As Corella said, "I met Arián through Facebook.")
After considering the Latinizing question further, Corella allowed that this year, PAB "may be a bit more Spanish, perhaps. But next year, probably not." Meanwhile, along with its roster, the company's profile seems to be increasingly international. Corella says: "We've been getting a lot of resumés from Spanish-speaking countries and elsewhere - almost 3,000 resumés, from all over. It's really overwhelming."
According to Piñeiro, "Working with Angel is a great experience. We learn a lot from him, every day." She also notes his infectious energy in the studio, and his myriad of ideas for the company, pronouncing it all "very exciting."
Corella echoes Piñeiro's enthusiasm, noting, "This is going to be a defining season for us; it will mark the future of the company." He has already planned the schedule "up through 2018" and notes that "more and more people are reconnecting with Pennsylvania Ballet - from Philadelphia, from other parts of Pennsylvania," and beyond. He adds: "People now come here from New York and Boston, instead of the other way round. That's very good news."
Nancy G. Heller writes about dance for The Inquirer.
Speed and Precision
Thursday through Sunday at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St.
Tickets: $29-$135. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.paballet.org.