Just a few days before starting her first engagement as a professional dancer, 18-year-old Matilde Rodrigues speaks to Ballet Position
Portugal hasn’t much of a tradition in classical ballet. It’s true that more and more Portuguese dancers are are good enough to join important foreign companies; but, like Royal Ballet Principal Marcelino Sambé and former Wayne McGregor company dancer Catarina Carvalho, to mention but two, all finished their training in prestigious foreign schools.
So, when you hear that a young Portuguese dancer has graduated straight from a Portuguese ballet school into a major company, such as Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), you sit up and take notice.
Matilde Rodrigues was invited to join BRB as an Artist even before her 18th birthday in the Spring. She told Ballet Position how the job offer had come about:
“After the Youth America Grand Prix Finals in Barcelona in December , the BRB representative there invited me to come to Birmingham for an audition. But then there was a problem and I couldn’t audition in person, so my director assembled a demonstration video, and a couple of months later BRB formally invited me to join.”
We spoke in the provisional Birmingham flat, where, in the company of her mother and aunt, she was fulfilling the UK’s requisite Covid quarantine, before starting with BRB on 1st September.
A mere wisp of a girl, Matilde is tallish (1,68 m), lithe, with dark eyes and a gentle smile, which doesn’t quite hide an iron will and an unwavering determination to succeed.
Clearly a perfectionist in all she does, while in quarantine she’s been doing class by herself every morning. A keen cook, she’s taught herself nutrition, and devised her own well balanced diet, which sounds perfect for the extreme physical demands of life as a professional ballet dancer.
Matilde Rodrigues – The Beginning
Matilde started dancing, or rather prancing around, in a children’s after-school activity club in her native Leiria, a small town just north of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. She was six-years-old. Her fateful first contact with ballet, though, came a year or so later.
“I went to watch the ballet class of a friend and loved it, so I immediately asked my grandmother to sign me up.”
At this point it’s worth mentioning Matilde’s grandmother is the “arty” member of the family, the one who may have spotted Matilde’s talent before anybody else. Matilde’s mother, a committed Scout leader of 20+ years’ standing, told me she thought her playful, vivacious child might perhaps follow in her footsteps.
Anyway, granny wasn’t the only person to spot Matilde’s talent:
“The school director liked me and felt I had the conditions to go far in ballet.”
The school director is Annarella Roura Sanchez, a Cuban former dancer and teacher, who just over 20 years ago set up an Academy and International Conservatoire in unlikely Leiria (pop 127,000). Since then, her Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança has been attracting students from all over, and churning out cohorts of remarkably assured young dancers.
She teaches the Cuban technique, of which the current BRB Artistic Director, the superstar Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, was a famous exponent.
“It’s a very strong virtuoso technique, relying very much on turning, jumps, strength; but there’s also a lightness to it,” Matilde explains.
“Some people think it’s a very masculine technique, but that’s not true. Last year a Cuban teacher guested at our summer course, and he kept reminding us that it was all about dancing. Dancers have to express themselves, technique is not everything.”
Matilde herself is an expressive dancer, judging by her performance as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, in Act II of Giselle, staged by Maina Gielgud for Conservatoire Annarella Roura Sanchez’s Summer Gala in Leiria.
Matilde Rodrigues Dances Myrtha
Myrtha is an implacable spirit, determined to punish with death any man who ventures into her forest realm during the night. An arduous, demanding role, its parameters are clearly set; so, I wondered how much leeway Matilde had been given to put something of herself into her performance.
“Maina is an amazing coach; even as she’s coaching, simply marking, she seems to be living the action, and that helped me a lot to get into the character. She gave me a lot of freedom of interpretation.
“She’d say, for example, ‘at this point you could look that way,’ but always urging me to put something of myself into the character, because that’s what gives each dancer her individuality. Each has to bring a little of her own heart into her performance.”
Sanchez accustoms her students to perform from a very early age, regularly taking them to national and international competitions; and this is where we find the second chapter of Matilde’s story – the time when her interest in dance grew to become a passion.
“I think it came about when I went to my first competition outside Leiria, when I was about 10-years-old. It was a national event in the Algarve, but it all felt very different and I think that’s when I first felt really committed; and with each new competition I got to learn more about the world of ballet.”
Matilde Rodrigues is about to immerse herself in the world of professional ballet, as an Artist with BRB, something, which – of course! – produces mixed feelings. I asked her to tell me about her fears and expectations.
“It’s a great change in my life: coming to a different country, leaving behind all my colleagues, who have supported me so much, my parents… also training will be so different, I shall be going from a school to a company, doing company class for the first time (…) That will be a great challenge.
“At the same time, though, I am excited about those same things, about having a new life, new colleagues, sharing a stage with great dancers; and working under a Director who was a great star and is Cuban!”
Matilda Rodrigues – From Star Student To Corps de Ballet
At the Conservatoire Matilde was a star student, used to solo roles and adulation; now she enters a company at the lowest ranks of the corps de ballet. Will that be much of a shock?
“No! I’ve danced corps roles from the very beginning and I actually like them (…) I’m aware I have a lot to learn, and to be able to watch the company soloists is going to be great, because you learn a lot simply by watching.”
Matilde Rodrigues finds herself on the threshold of the career of her dreams, the result of talent, hard work and perseverance. What advice would she give to aspiring young dancers?
“Never give up. When you really, really want something, then the will to achieve that has to be stronger than the temptation to give up.
“You need to be able to overcome negative feedback, turn it into renewed strength and keep going.”
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by Teresa Guerreiro
The full performance of Giselle, Act II by students of Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Roura Sanchez can be seen on YouTube