Arts, Culture & Media

Video: The Struggle for a National Ballet in Spain

Imagine you're a soloist with one of the world's best ballets. You've been there for years. The pay's great. The travel. The company is established and stable.

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And then you hear about this start-up. The first new major classical ballet in a generation. Anywhere in the world. Funding for it is uncertain. And it's setting up shop in Spain, whose economy is in tatters. What do you do?

If you're British dancer Aaron Robinson, who was with the Birmingham Royal Ballet for six years, you go for it. Even if your peers say you're nuts.

"Well, at first they were trying to convince me not to. That in Spain the crisis was really bad. And if any companies were going to go down, it would be the smaller ones. I was like, fair enough, I'm gonna give it a go anyway," Robinson said.

Because how often do big-league classical ballet troupes spring up these days? The kind that attract top-shelf dancers and great reviews? The answer: basically, they don't.

"It's really exciting. You feel like you're contributing to this new project. I just really hope it gets the support it should because, you know, Paris, London, they all have big companies I don't see why Barcelona shouldn't. it should be up there with the top companies, you know."

Actually, Ballet of Barcelona is. In a way. It has achieved critical acclaim in just four years. Mainly because of one guy. Angel Corella. A Spaniard himself. He's the founder and artistic director. A lot of Americans might know him too. He danced as a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre in New York for 16 years.

One day, around 2001, he said, he realized he wanted to come home. Start his own company. The problem was the funding. In the US, he said, it's much easier.

"In America there are hundreds of ballet companies. So its not something you have to make them discover, make them understand. Here we have to start from the beginning.

One problem in Spain is that the arts get little support from the private sector. Because companies can't write off donations, as they can stateside. Nor has there been support from the national government, which already funds a company called Ballet Nacional de España, though these days it does almost exclusively modern or traditional Spanish dance.

Initially, help came from a regional government in central Spain, called Castilla y Leon. It lent Corella an empty castle, outside Segovia. It was nicknamed The Farm. But it didn't work out. For starters, Corella said, a lot of people just didn't get ballet. One public official asked if they could sew the government logo on the women's tutus. Then, Corella said, the economic crisis hit. The funding dried up.

"I think starting this company at this time of crisis, you have to fight with the odds, and everyday with something different," he said. "And a lot times you want to leave it because it's so much effort. But at the same time when you see the company on stage, the energy and the happiness of the dancers, it pays you back. This is exactly what you did this for."

Corella said he got his 65 dancers into life rafts and made it to Barcelona, where again the local government gave them a nice big rehearsal space. But it's still not permanent. Negotiations for a long term home are ongoing. And the crisis continues to complicate things. But in the meantime the Ballet of Barcelona has come into its own.

Last Friday the company held its final dress rehearsal for Swan Lake, in Barcelona's Liceu Opera House.

As a new ballet, Corella's company has attracted dancers from all over the world. But one of the company's main goals was to bring Spanish dancers home. There are nearly 400 Spaniards dancing as principals or soloists in ballets around the world. Like Ana Calderon. She was with the Zurich Opera till Corella offered her a job.

"From a very young age, at ballet school they told us that if we wanted to dance classical ballet professionally we'd have to emigrate," Calderon said. "And that always bothered me. As a Spaniard I want to live in my own country."

Corella is starting two ballet schools to foster future talent, one here in Barcelona, another up the coast a couple of hours. But again the main challenge is money.

For now the Ballet of Barcelona depends mostly on box office sales. And upcoming shows are sold out.

Right before the opening performance last weekend, a local ballet lover named Elisa Jimenez waited outside the Opera house doors. She said she thought it was absurd that Spain has gone so long without a classical company.

"I like the ballet. I was a ballet dancer myself. The truth is, our lack of a national ballet really stands out to me as a problem. It's like a missing piece in our culture," Jimenez said.

Or was. If all goes according to plan.

  • rehearsalHEADER.jpg

    Funding for the Ballet of Barcelona is still up in the air, as the company negotiates with the city. Spanish governments have shied away from supporting big ballets for years, citing the high costs compared to modern troupes. For example, a ballet dancer's pointe shoes alone cost about 150 dollars. And he or she can burn through two or three pairs a week.

  • AngelCorella.jpg

    Spaniard Angel Corella, an internationally renowned ballet dancer, fixes his point shoes in his dressing room in Barcelona's Liceu threatre. Corella, who danced as a soloist for 16 years with the American Ballet Threatre, has been struggling for more than a decade to found a Spanish classical ballet. He's nearly there. The city of Barcelona appears poised to finally back the project.

  • AngelCorella2.jpg

    Spaniard Angel Corella, an internationally renowned ballet dancer, fixes his point shoes in his dressing room in Barcelona's Liceu threatre. Corella, who danced as a soloist for 16 years with the American Ballet Threatre, has been struggling for more than a decade to found a Spanish classical ballet. He's nearly there. The city of Barcelona appears poised to finally back the project.