NEW YORK -- In the ballet world, they call him the charming one. In fact, the word "charming" is used so often to describe Angel Corella, American Ballet Theatre's dashing Spanish star, that it seems to have become part of his name.
But anyone seeking to disprove the thesis that Corella, now 36, is eternally charming will be sorely disappointed by sitting down with him. His famously sunny smile is in ready supply. He speaks with abundant generosity of the many ballerinas he's partnered. And he seems to be in awe of the 17-year ABT career that he's been privileged to have – and is about to end.
On Thursday, in what will surely be the emotional high point of the New York ballet season, Corella will dance one final time with ABT – in "Swan Lake" – before returning to Spain to focus full-time on the company he founded and directs, Barcelona Ballet.
He will continue to dance, for now, with his own company. But Thursday will also be the last time, he says, that he dances a full-length ballet.
What? No more Romeos, no more Siegfrieds in "Swan Lake," Albrechts in "Giselle," or Basilios in "Don Quixote"?
"I think it's good to close a chapter, and not leave it vague," Corella says, relaxing in between rehearsals in a lounge at the Metropolitan Opera House. "I think it's better to say this is it."
Looking at Corella in his jeans and hoodie, it's hard to imagine he's 36. Dancers always seem to look younger than their age, and Corella has an especially boyish demeanor. But the body doesn't lie, and 36 is only four years from 40, by which point many have moved on, either by choice or necessity.
For Corella, there was also the realization that he simply needed to choose between two lives. For several years he'd been splitting his time between Spain, where he was building a classical ballet company in a country that had none, and New York, where ABT runs a demanding eight-week spring season.
Though he'd been given fewer ABT roles in the last few years, a fact that frustrated his fans, he'd been scheduled for a fuller season this spring. But a few months ago, on a trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, to celebrate the anniversary of the renowned ballerina Nina Ananiashvili, he had a few days to think.
"I realized how stressed I was," he says. "It really is impossible to do it all. I said, `Well, it's time.'"
Corella says he initially thought he'd simply dance the upcoming "Swan Lake," and call it a day – retiring without announcement or fanfare. But ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie wouldn't accept that. "We have to have a celebration," Corella says McKenzie told him.
The fact that Corella thought he could slip away in the night indicates he might not be completely aware of the huge affection ABT audiences have for him. But he rushes to assure otherwise. "That's what I will miss the most," Corella says. "Every time I go onstage, I feel like I get a huge hug from the crowd."
Corella grew up outside Madrid, the only boy in the family, and endured the taunts of classmates in his youth – even rocks were thrown at him – because of his love for dance. (Spain is a country that reveres soccer players, he says, often at the expense of everything else.)
It was one of his three sisters, Carmen, whom he credits with dragging him out of bed at dawn to ballet classes (she is now a principal dancer at Barcelona Ballet.) The young Angel soon began winning awards, and his gold medal at a major Paris contest in 1994 led to an offer to join ABT at the age of 19 as a soloist. He arrived speaking almost no English.
"I just smiled when people said things to me in English," Corella laughs. "So everybody said I had this eternal smile. Actually, I am really very intense."
The rapport between Corella and the New York audience was immediate. Only 10 months later, he was promoted to principal, an instant star due to his extraordinary leaps and especially his stunning turns.
"I've always been very lucky with the turning," Corella says bashfully of the multiple pirouettes he can whip off – at one point in his life, as many as 30 revolutions in one turn. "We used to have contests with the other dancers, but they never let me participate," he chuckles.
But as important as the technique was the spirit behind it: a buoyant, joyful, seemingly boundless energy.
"I always felt that when he danced, it was a celebration," says Wendy Perron, editor in chief of Dance Magazine. "Like when you're a kid at a parade, and you watch it and you get excited – that's how he made us feel. He had this bounding quality, always in the air, always smiling."
Ironically, Corella, especially early on, was occasionally a victim of his talent – some critics saw his leaps and turns as "just tricks," says Perron. "But it really seemed natural to him," she says. "And it just made you feel good to watch it."
Veteran ABT ballerina Julie Kent, who had a long partnership with Corella, says the 19-year-old boy wonder soon turned into a more mature man. "I think at first people saw him as this joyous, boyish, extraordinarily talented jumper and turner, and that was true," she says. "But as he became a man he developed other, more mature, romantic qualities." Asked to define Corella as a dancer, Kent says: "Intensity, passion, generosity."
Generosity is crucial in a partnership, and Corella says he's most proud of the relationships he formed with his ballerinas. And there were so many, besides Kent: Paloma Herrera, who will be his Odette/Odile on Thursday. Ananiashvili. Alessandra Ferri. Alina Cojocaru, with whom he performed an exquisite "Giselle" last month.
"I would have loved to dance more with Alina," he says of the delicate Romanian phenom. "But whenever I dance with a girl, people say, `You guys are great together.' I think that's because I try to make it always about HER."
Kent agrees: She says he would come to her before a show, with that smile, saying "Come on!" and psyching them both up. "He wanted for me what I wanted for myself," she says.
Blessed with an abundance of physical talent, it almost seems unfair that Corella also has – and this is a fact only the most avid fans are aware of – a photographic memory.
Imagine what that means for a dancer, and an occasional choreographer – no need to write down steps, ever. Knowing everyone's role in every ballet, from the principals to the corps, in one viewing. "Sometimes in my company they think I am sort of a freak," he quips.
He can also always find his car in a huge parking lot. But the gift is a curse, too – it means Corella has so much running through his head, he often can't sleep at night. "I need to watch `Scooby-Doo' episodes to calm down," he says.
In any case, his photographic memory will come in handy Thursday, enabling him to preserve in his mind every curtain call, every cheer, every "Bravo!" from an audience ready to shower him with love. Not to mention every hug from colleagues past and present, who will surely crowd the stage at the end, in grand ABT tradition.
Cue the confetti, the flowers, and especially the Kleenex: "There will be tears," predicts Kent.