Conservatório Annarella – Factory of Dreams

Class at Conservatório Annarella. Photo courtesy of Annarella Sanchez

Ballet Position visits Annarella Sanchez’s outstanding dance conservatoire and talks to the Cuban woman who has reinvigorated ballet in Portugal

There’s a contagious buzz of excitement in the corridors and studios of Conservatório Annarella, or to give it its full title, Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez, sited in Leiria, a town north of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.

Streams of smiley busy-busy children aged between six and 15 come in and out of studios, some clutching tutus, others lugging kit bags, in a bustling, seemingly never-ending flow.

It looks a little chaotic, but that first impression would be wrong, for keeping it all under control is a small woman with a big smile, indomitable will and an uncanny ability to connect with children: the Conservatório director, Annarella Sanchez.

Annarella Sanchez

The Cuban former dancer settled in Leiria some 25 years ago. Love brought her from the Caribbean to Portugal. It led to marriage, two daughters and the staggeringly improbable achievement of placing Leiria firmly on the international ballet map.

This year alone no less than 10 graduates of Conservatório Annarella gained contracts with dance companies throughout Europe, South Africa and the USA, definitely a first for Portugal.

I visited the Conservatório to find out more about an institution which year after year turns out accomplished, award-winning young dancers, such as António Casalinho, who in 2021 added Prix de Lausanne to a long list of international accolades, and Giulio Diligente winner of the 2022 Doris Laine Prize for junior men in the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, to mention but two of many.

Giulio Diligente. Photo courtesy of Conservatório Annarella

It was the final day of the academic year, also the last day of the summer intensive courses, which attracted budding dancers from all over the world, including, for the first time this year, the USA.

In total 200 students attended this year’s summer intensives over a five-week period, split into tranches of one or two weeks. That’s to add to the Conservatório’s regular complement of some 120 Portuguese and foreign students.

No wonder it was busy. They were preparing for two big shows: first, a full-evening Don Quixote staged by Maina Gielgud for Conservatório students with alumni António Casalinho and Margarita Fernandes, at 19 and 17-years-old respectively already demi-soloists with Bayerisches Staatsballett Munich, in the lead roles of Basilio and Kitri.

Margarita Fernandes and António Casalinho in Maina Gielgud’s Don Quixote for Conservatório Annarella. Photo: Graça Bibelo

And then a gala marking the end of the summer intensive courses.

Putting Leiria on the Map

It’s impossible to overstate the scale of Annarella’s achievement. Unlike in great international dance capitals like Paris, London, Moscow, and indeed unlike in her native Cuba, classical ballet didn’t have much of a tradition in Portugal – much less in Leiria.

Her first attempts to bring ballet to Leiria were anything but auspicious, as she recalls with her warm, slightly mischievous sense of humour, her fluent Portuguese coloured still by the sounds of her native Spanish:

“I think the Portuguese don’t like what they perceive to be foreigners, and me, a Cuban! telling them what to do. So, it wasn’t easy for me, because I couldn’t claim to be completely Portuguese, and I felt I had to respect my Cuban roots and bring in a new methodology.”

She started by giving ballet classes to two students at a local convent school. Within less than a year the class had grown to over 90.

Annarella had made her mark.

She established her own Academy in 1998; the Conservatoire followed in 2015, seven spacious, well-appointed studios in a nondescript former industrial compound in the outskirts of Leiria.

She did it all through a combination of willpower, humility, sharp intelligence and a canny use of psychology. As she told us:

“The Portuguese don’t like arrogant people, so I always behaved with humility. My aim was to show them that I could put Portugal, and particularly Leiria, on the international ballet map.”

That she did. Nowadays the Conservatório attracts students from countries as far apart as Japan and Romania, Italy and the USA, and for the first time this year from Kenya, to join their Portuguese counterparts in Annarella’s factory of dreams.

She was also keen to show parents unfamiliar with ballet that this was more than just a genteel pastime; it could provide talented children with a career. So, she had to persuade parents that from the age of eight onwards their children should attend ballet class everyday:

“To start with parents couldn’t get their head around the need for daily class. So I asked them, ‘would you let your child go to school without breakfast?’ ’No!’ ‘Then, I said, in the same way as in order to do well at school children need to have had their breakfast, in order to dance it’s fundamental to strengthen the body and that’s why they have to do a 90 minutes class every day.‘”

‘Everybody’s Students’

Annarella has assembled an international complement of teachers, quite a few of them Cuban, to provide a wide range of dance disciplines, including Caucasian folk dances. All are stringently vetted:

“I look for people with experience and a proven track record. I want people with a passion for their work; but equally importantly, I don’t want individualists, I mean, I don’t want people who say, ‘these are my students’.

“They are everybody’s students.”

In the same way as she looks for teachers with a passion for their work, she makes a passion for dance the key quality she looks for in the children that audition to join her school. More so, indeed, than the perfect physique.

“The most important thing that I and the group of teachers who assess them look for is passion for dancing and an ability to communicate it.”

The sort of passion that’s evident in the performances of students like the deeply impressive 16-year-old Japanese Rei Fukuyama seen here with the Cuban virtuoso Jonathan Levya in the coda of Diana and Actaeon pas de deux.

“I had a beautiful young male student who surely could have made it to principal dancer on the basis of his perfect physique, tall with long legs and very elegant lines; and yet we concluded he didn’t enjoy dancing. So, we had to call in the parents and tell them, ‘it’s best he should go to university.’’’

For those who feel the passion, the Conservatoire’s hugely effective teaching methods, hard work and discipline, offer the technique required to turn feeling into performance. When you see a 10-year-old girl make light work of the virtuoso Flames of Paris pas de deux, including fearlessly turning 32 perfect fouettés, you feel that there is something very special there.

The Next Step: a Junior Ballet Company

Now Annarella has another audacious project in progress: the creation of a Junior Classical Ballet Company in Leiria.

The raw material is there, as was amply demonstrated by the meticulous, joyful ensemble work of that Don Quixote with some remarkable solo performances, too. The structure, though, needs a solid partnership with the local authorities, as well as viable sponsorship.

“The idea arose in 2020. The municipal council president has been supporting us by offering the use of the theatre [José Lúcio da Silva] for rehearsals every Monday, as well as for six shows per year. He also supports our tours.

“The president feels there should be a way to keep graduates in Leiria for a little while longer, so we thought we’d set up a pre-professional company, which would teach young dancers the repertoire while giving them stage experience.”

The junior company aims to include young dancers between 16 and 24-years-old, who would stay for a maximum of two years; and is open, through rigorous auditions, to graduates from other schools.

The formal launch is set for September; but the company still needs a sponsor to guarantee the dancers’ wages.

However, bearing in mind how much Annarella Sanchez has achieved so far, you wouldn’t bet against a sponsor materialising before long, for this extraordinary woman has a unique way of turning dreams into reality.

by Teresa Guerreiro

António Casalinho & Margarita Fernandes - A Season in Munich

Margarida Fernandes as Clementine and António Casalinho as Benjamin in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella, Bayerisches Staatsballett. Photo: Serghei Gherciu

The young Portuguese dance prodigies António Casalinho and Margarita Fernandes discuss their first year as demi-soloists with Bayerisches Staatsballett, Munich

António Casalinho and Margarita Fernandes are back in Leiria, the mid-sized town just north of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, where they were born and trained in ballet, after their first season as professional dancers with Bayerisches Staatsballett, Munich.

It’s more of a busman’s holiday: while in Leiria they danced the lead roles of Basilio and Kitri in a full-evening production of Don Quixote, staged by Maina Gielgud for their alma mater, Conservatoire Annarella, or, to give it its full title, Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez, which teaches the Cuban ballet method.

Margarita Fernandes as Kitri and António Casalinho as Basilio in Maina Gielgud’s Don Quixote for Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez. Photo: Graça Bibelo

The day after the performance they sat down with Ballet Position to look back on a year which, both agreed, has been exhilarating and challenging in equal measure.

For any teenage dancer to leave their family, town and country to join a professional company abroad is a jump into the unknown, and no matter how much you’ve dreamt of it there’s bound to be a culture shock.

More so if, like Margarita Fernandes, you are just 16-years-old, with one year still to go before graduating from both secondary school and the Conservatoire.

Margarita had originally gone to Munich to accompany António Casalinho in his audition for the company. Prix de Lausanne 2021 winner Casalinho, then an exceptionally accomplished 18-year-old dancer, was practically a dead cert for a job and was offered one on the spot; but for Margarita the audition brought a breathtaking surprise.

“When they offered me a contract as a demi-soloist I was sure they were making a mistake and hadn’t realised I was just 16-years-old”, Margarita told us. “They told me that in Germany it was possible to offer a professional contract to a 16-year-old, but I still didn’t believe them; it was not until the contract arrived after we were back in Portugal that I realised it was true.”

The next step was to get permission from her mother, Conservatoire director Annarella Sanchez; and though beset by doubts and worries, Annarella felt she couldn’t stand in the way of a unique opportunity for her daughter.

So in September last year, Margarita and António packed their bags and flew to Munich.

Casalinho & Fernandes – Munich

Adapting to a new city was easy. Munich is “beautiful!” Margarita exclaimed. “Its not too big, public transport is five-star, it’s amazingly clean and not very crowded…”

At which point António breaks in:

Yes, and this being the beginning of our career, we’ve been quite spoiled; I’ve recently commented that when we move on – if we move on! – we’ll never find such pleasant conditions anywhere else in Europe”.’

Adapting to the company, though, was rather more complicated, particularly because they were thrown in at the deep end: their first rehearsal was for the pas de deux in Balanchine’s jazzy Rubies, where they would lead the fourth cast.

“It was a little scary”, António recalls. “A shock”, Margarita concurs.

António goes on: “We suddenly found ourselves in a studio with just six other dancers and a ballet-mistress, which had never happened to us before, working on a pas de deux in a style which was foreign to us, with the added challenge of Stravinsky’s music”.

“And to top it all”, Margarita adds, “because of COVID restrictions the others had started two weeks before us, and they’d danced that ballet before, so we had to try and pick up it all up as best we could. We had learnt the choreography through videos, but it’s not the same.”

They soon found their feet, though, and opportunities opened before both, perhaps none more exciting than they first professional lead roles, as Franz and Swanhilda in Roland Petit’s version of Coppélia.

Margarita Fernandes as Swanhilda, António Casalinho as Franz in Coppélia, Bayerisches Staatsballett. Photo: Serghei Gherciu

“For me Swanhilda was a dream come true,” says Margarita. “It was my first lead role, and as a character she resembles me, she’s a young woman with whom I felt very comfortable. And I simply adore Roland Petit’s version, because it demands a lot of acting, and I love to act and make the story understandable.”

António, too, had plenty of opportunities to put his acting ability to the test alongside his expansive technique. In John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, he alternated in the roles of the mischievous Puck and the hapless lovelorn Demetrius.

António Casalinho as Puck in A MIsummer Night’s Dream, Bayerisches Staatsballett. Photo: Serghei Gherciu

“I feel comfortable with comedy roles, but I also like more serious dramatic roles, so the opportunity to go from Puck to Demetrius, two very different roles, was great fun.”

Other roles, for example Benjamin and Clementine in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella (pictured top), arrived in quick succession; and the business and variety of a relatively crowded season, says António, is definitely a positive:

“We are constantly working on different productions, with different dynamics, with different balletmasters, and that provides plenty of motivation for each season.”

Margarita adds: “You always know that next day there will be something else, another challenge, so you never feel it’s over and there’s nothing to look forward to.”

Age Matters

Proud as they were (Margarita especially) to be taken up as professional dancers – and demi-soloists to boot! – by a prestigious company at an early age, they soon found their youth posed problems.

“I miss the group of friends I had in Leiria”, says António. “In the company there isn’t anybody the same age as us.”

And Margarita adds: “Something that really did my head in when we arrived was that some of the dancers with whom I have closer contact are getting married! I mean, I was still a schoolgirl in Leiria and suddenly I find myself with a group where some are getting married and two are pregnant… well, that was a shock.”

And she was faced with another problem:

“António was known to the company, but I was a 16-year-old arriving as a demi-soloist and I felt people looked at me wondering, ‘how does this one come in straight at this level?’ So, psychologically it was hard, I felt I had to prove myself constantly.”

A Special Connection

Margarita and António grew up together in Leiria, and Annarella Sanchez, the mother of two daughters, likes to joke that António is the son she never had. They feel that close relationship has been tremendously important in this new phase of their lives.

António: “We’ve known each other for 10/11 years and I find that in Munich it’s been hugely important to be able to count on each other’s support in our most difficult moments.”

Margarita: “I feel the fact that we know each other so well, and have been able to start on this journey together has been very good for both of us. For me, to have António has been and remains very important.”

Margarita Fernandes as Kitri and António Casalinho as Basilio in Maina Gielgud’s Don Quixote for Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Sanchez. Photo: Graça Bibelo

And off they went to enjoy their well-earned holiday, two very pleasant and earnest young people seemingly unspoilt by so much success so early on. We shall follow their careers with great interest.

by Teresa Guerreiro