The World’s Greatest Dancer: Ángel Corella

He’s danced for the Queen and Presidents of America. Yes, that’s Presidents, plural – and now he’s added the Institute of the Arts Barcelona to his resume.

Critically-lauded as “The World’s Greatest Dancer”, Ángel Corella’s head-spinning career has taken him from his home city of Madrid to being Principal Dancer at the age of nineteen to providing superlative inspiration to the whole world, not just dancers. As the American Ballet Theatre’s award-winning Spanish star who once got a fifteen-minute standing ovation for his ‘Swan Lake’ , Ángel built his company Barcelona Ballet in a country with no history of classical ballet. Now internationally famed for his stellar dancing and multiple pirouettes (twenty-four, but who’s counting?), it’s the dancer’s unusually charismatic personality that provokes awe-filled gushes of “He’s so nice!”

Last week the IAB Dance students had the pleasure of learning from him in a masterclass that proved it is possible to be talented, disciplined and successful, whilst maintaining an incredible attitude and sense of humour. Watching him move with effortless grace, I wondered if the aptly-named Ángel might be superhuman. After he took the students through their ballet technique (stressing the importance of their fifth positions), I chatted to the legend about being a human spinning top, dancing with Muppets and his ability to provoke gasps by simply entering a room – all the while determined to discover if “the charming one” lives up to his name.

Do you have a Hyde to your Jekyll, a bad cop who emerges in place of your charming side?  Do you try to break students?

Yes! It’s even more shocking when students see me coming out as a tough teacher, because I’m always so nice. At first it takes them by surprise and then they think I’m joking. When they see that I’m not, the impact is doubled. I just taught the IAB students for over three hours without a break in a tough class, with a lot of information for them to try to digest for the first time. It’s good to have workshops like this every once in a while for new inspiration in your movements. Even so, it’s the teacher who is there with you every day who matters the most, so really listen to them.

But you’re not just “someone else”, you’re the Greatest Dancer in the World. That’s intimidating.

I sense intimidation all the time – including within the dancers that I teach in my school. When I walk into a room people gasp. Even if I walk into a company like the Royal Ballet or American Ballet Theatre, people react like that. I don’t know why. It’s a good thing that you’re respected for who you are as a dancer, rather than your personality (especially if you’re a very nasty person.) I try to make it relaxed and fun, because it’s a very difficult profession. If you make it even harder on them, most will give up.

 “Do you have any questions?… About this, not politics!”

In today’s workshop, firstly you explained that you were going to take the class through American, Russian and Cuban ballet. Why the different methodologies?

As the barre was going, I could see the students’ different levels, so I used more of one technique or the other. I observed their fifth position and then mostly did American work, which is quicker, as the legs have to be closing in fifth constantly. I could also see that they were very tight, so I did a little more Balanchine neoclassical. It’s practically impossible to teach a whole style of technique in one class, but at the same time I tried to make them understand all the very important points.

“You look like a dog peeing – or have you plugged yourself into a socket?!”

They won’t forget your masterclass for the rest of their lives. Who made their mark in your youth?

There have been a lot of great dancers throughout my history, like Mikhail Baryshnikov or Rudolf Nureyev. Then there was Karemina Moreno, who used to be a teacher at the National Ballet of Cuba. She was very tough, but made me blossom into a very happy, musical dancer. However, it wasn’t a teacher, but various people who came through my life who impacted on me most. I’m not talking about all the famous stars that I was very lucky to meet, like Meryl Streep, or the Presidents of the United States, Bush (three times), Clinton, Obama, and the Queen of England (twice)…it’s usually the people who surround you and your family.

When you were the same age as these students, did you ever imagine you would meet such stars, or get a fifteen-minute standing ovation as you did for Swan Lake?

I was already Principal Dancer when I was nineteen! It’s scary, but when I was fourteen I was already in a professional company. I was definitely born with a facility for technique. I could turn like a spinning top. Whilst all the other dancers at school could do three or four pirouettes, I could do sixteen. Right now, I could do eleven, but I was able to do twenty-four when I was younger – and that’s very unusual. I could jump really high, probably because I used to go biking everywhere. I used to love to rollerblade, so I was very strong on my legs.

Would you say you weren’t a normal teenager?

Absolutely! A combination of things made me grow up quickly. I didn’t have friends at school once they found out I was a dancer, so that made me focus even more on ballet and make it my life. My mum loves classical music, so we would listen to opera and ballet all the time. When I was nineteen I won the Paris competition, the Gold Medal and the Grand Prix. From there they took me from the American Ballet Theatre to the Metropolitan Opera House – and the rest is history. When I was twenty-one, I became the guest artist with the Royal Ballet, then the National Ballet of Canada, the Australian Ballet, and the Bolshoi, and so on. However, one of the most fun parts of my career was being able to go to Sesame Street!

Your biggest thrill was seriously being on Sesame Street, rather than that standing ovation?

Yes! When I was two years old I was on the cover of the Sesame Street here in Spain, they had a little song with kids on a little choo choo train, and I was one of the kids that was going down the slide. It was always my favourite show. When they called me to dance on Sesame Street with the alphabet, it was amazing. It was the same day that Cindy Crawford was on set. I had a little star on my dressing room door with one of the Muppets in it. Right underneath it said Ángel Corella and then next to it was Cindy Crawford. It was really cool! I took pictures with her. It was a very magical day, like going to Disney World, but with all about me talking to the Muppets and Big Bird!

“Beware of your top half. You don’t want to feature on the front cover of Time Magazine looking bad!”

What advice would you give our students if they want to have an international career?

The key is passion. Even if you want to work in McDonald’s, you have to have passion. However, this is especially true for the arts as you work with your soul, as you’re expressing feelings and your point of view as a dancer. If you don’t have passion for it, don’t even bother, because it can become a nightmare. I’ve seen very big stars who keep saying that they hate dancing, how can you be saying that? At least at McDonalds you don’t have to train for so many years and beat your body up. This is one of the only professions that you actually use every part of your body, from the tip of your toes to your hair – everything is dancing. At McDonalds you can just show up.

When you are dancing with all this passion, what are you thinking of?

I don’t think of anything. I just let myself go. If I’m dancing in a specific role such as Romeo, I try to imagine that persona through my eyes. When you see yourself in costume with the set and the music, it clicks and you transport yourself there. Once I was watching Romeo and Juliet and after the death scene I noticed that the main dancer was unhappy. I thought he should be happy, the ballet is finished and he’s bowing and everyone is clapping! However, when I did it for the first time, I got exactly the same feeling. You feel as though you have died, like you’ve gone through a whole life in two hours. You’re devastated.

So you completely forget who you are on stage?

I remember when they ‘killed’ my friend Mercutio I was so angry that I froze. I had to pick up the sword and kill Tybalt. I couldn’t even move, I was so tense, because I was becoming almost crazed. It’s a wonderful feeling to experience all these feelings that you normally wouldn’t in real life. It’s a profession that is very personal.

Now you’re on the ‘Dancing with the Stars’ panel for ‘Mira quién baila!’ TV show. What makes someone stand out for you?

In professionals, I usually look for harmony in their dancing. It has to look effortless and weightless. In a young student, I look for the capacity and quickness of understanding. It doesn’t matter if they have a great body and great physique, if they’re pretty, fat or thin. I wasn’t born with a perfect shaped body and it doesn’t matter, as the most important muscle is the brain. With work you can achieve anything. If you’re not up for it, then better to do something else.

You do make dancing look effortless, it was beautiful to watch.

My pleasure! It was a lot of fun and I hope to come back again. It’s a wonderful thing that the IAB has brought a UK and American Performing Arts education into Barcelona. People should study here, because it’s an amazing, unbelievable education and building. It’s probably one of the best Institutes, not just in Spain, but in Europe. You’re training students from other countries and Spain to break out internationally. And that’s a great thing.

Published by Institute of the Arts Barcelona – Feb 2014.


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