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 – The Making of a Star

António Casalinho in Flames of Paris. Photo: Tomé Gonçalves

Fresh from winning the Gold Medal at Prix de Lausanne 2021, the Portuguese dancer António Casalinho talks to Ballet Position

There are times when superlatives fall short of the reality they’re trying to describe. That is certainly the case with the 17-year old Portuguese dancer António Casalinho, worthy winner of two awards at the 2021 edition of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne: Best Contemporary Interpretation and the Gold Medal, along with the coveted title of Laureate of the Prix de Lausanne.

The dancer, choreographer and artistic director Maina Gielgud has worked with Casalinho. This is her assessment:

“He already has, at age 17, the maturity, technique, stylistic understanding, musicality, artistry, acting ability of a top Principal in a first rate company. [He has] really good proportions [and] outstanding coordination of movement.”

And as if all that weren’t enough, Maina Gielgud adds:

“And the X factor, which is not describable.”

You can judge for yourself. Here is António Casalinho dancing the Acteon variation, his classical entry for the Prix de Lausanne.

António Casalinho – The Beginning

We’re a long way away from the hyperactive eight-year-old from the small town of Leiria, just north of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, who determined he wanted to do ballet class, even though he wasn’t really familiar with ballet, not having watched any performances in his short life.

So, over WhatsApp I asked Casalinho, what attracted him to ballet?

“Girls I was friends with at school attended ballet classes (…) I was always a very active child, never still, full of energy, playing, climbing trees, all that. I always wanted to do things outside of school.

“So I saw ballet as something I should try, put my energy to some use.”

The version told by Annarella Roura Sanchez, the Cuban dancer and teacher, who just over 20 years ago set up an Academy of Dance, and subsequently her Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança, in Leiria, is a little fuller.

“One of the little girls I taught at the Catholic school came to me and said there was a boy who wanted to come to class. I said, No, as I thought this was a childish prank. But she insisted: ‘You know, he can do the splits!’

“So, he came to me, all sweet and well-behaved (…) I put some music on and said, ‘you like to dance, then dance!’ And, you know, he reminded me of Tarzan: he pranced around, walked on his hands, performed all kind of circus tricks and ended by doing the splits.”

She laughs at the memory with a mix of pride and affection – Casalinho is, after all, very much her creation.  She was, however, impressed with his agility, natural facility and easy en dehors, and took him under her wing, having persuaded his naturally protective parents to allow him to do ballet.

Over the following years his passion for dance developed gradually.

“At the beginning I went to class only four times a week. Little by little Annarella got me to do more, which I liked; and then we started going to competitions, I saw there were better dancers… and then Annarella explained that one day I could earn a living from dancing, make dance my profession.

“It was at that point that my interest in dance became more serious.”

António Casalinho – Multi-Award Winner

Trained in the Cuban style of ballet, Casalinho has won awards in every international competition he’s entered: prior to Prix de Lausanne he had won the Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition in 2019, Gold Medal in the Junior Category at Varna in 2018, first prize in the Junior category at the Youth America Grand Prix in 2016.

António Casalinho, Le Corsaire, YAGP 2016

Natural talent is one thing; top level teaching and wise mentoring another. Both go towards making an artist; but neither would work without the right mental attitude. Interviewed after an early edition of YAGP, the child Casalinho stated he would always have something new to learn, and added “nobody is perfect.”

I asked him whether that was still his attitude:

“Yes, of course! Nobody is perfect, and that’s a fact. When we really like something and want to do our very best, we are never satisfied. Never. And therefore we always find something that can be improved (…) and that’s what makes us grow as dancers and human beings.”

In António Casalinho’s case, his technique evolved a lot faster than his acting ability, and Annarella felt he would benefit from expert coaching. So she invited Maina Gielgud to guest teach at the Conservatório.

To begin with, Maina Gielgud found him “not at ease and quite restrained.

“The mime was sincere but held back (…)

[However] He is a super-quick study, remembers all corrections and (…) of course, this means that it is possible to advance quickly to explore a role not just technically (…), but to discuss the different possibilities of the character, the stagecraft involved in letting the audience into the story, into the emotions of the characters.”

All that work came to fruition in Gielgud’s staging of Giselle for Conservatório Annarella, with Casalinho as Albrecht and another outstanding talent, Annarella’s 15-year-old daughter, Margarita Fernandes, in the title role.

António Casalinho as Albrecht, Margarita Fernandes as Giselle. Photo: Tomé Gonçalves

António Casalinho – The Future

You would imagine, therefore, that ballet companies everywhere would be falling over themselves to engage Casalinho. Has he had many offers?

“My dream is to join The Royal Ballet in London, but the problem is that at the moment the Royal Ballet is not hiring from the Prix de Lausanne, even though it is an associate company.

“I’ve had offers from some schools in Russia, from some Junior Companies, I’ve also had an invitation from a company in England, another in Russia…

“But all this has to be well thought out together with my parents and my teachers, because these are decisions that will change one’s life.”

As I tried (and mostly failed) to digest the fact that the Royal Ballet was apparently foregoing the chance to bring an extraordinary dancer into its ranks, I asked Casalinho what he was most looking forward to learning, as he starts his professional career.

“First of all, I’m going to learn to live by myself in a vast world. It’s a completely new world for me, and that’s the reason why Annarella wants to take me to various companies, have a try, take part in galas, so as to familiarise myself with that world.

“ No matter how much people tell you things and try to explain, you never really know until you’ve tried different things.

“I think joining a company will help me acquire the maturity of a professional dancer.”

Talking to António Casalinho is a fascinating experience. Off-stage he looks younger than his 17 years, a smiley, totally unpretentious teenager; but his words carry the wisdom and maturity of a young man twice  his age, surely to a large extent the result of Annarella’s intelligent management.

I feel certain that whatever he decides for now, his future cannot be anything but stellar.


by Teresa Guerreiro