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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.