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

The Royal Ballet's 'Heavenly' Ryoichi Hirano

Ryoichi Hirano and Marianela Nuñez in rehearsal for Onegin, photo Gavin Smart

Ryoichi Hirano talks to Ballet Position about his life as a Royal Ballet Principal and how he became ‘Heavenly Hirano’

Royal Ballet Principal Ryochi Hirano’s first year with the company was not exactly encouraging. He joined as an apprentice in 2002, fresh from winning the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne; but the transition from ballet school in his native Osaka, Japan, to London and the UK’s most prestigious ballet company, was far from smooth.

“Mentally it was very difficult, because I didn’t have friends, I spoke no English, it was hard to communicate, so I was a little bit isolated, in a way.

“I was the first apprentice dancer in the Royal Ballet, perhaps they didn’t know how to deal with me, how to use me, so I was only doing class, maybe one rehearsal standing at the back…”

Many others would have been discouraged; but not Ryoichi Hirano.

“I said to myself, ‘this could be just one year; I need to take everything that I can by watching, listening, learning.’ So, I tried to do everything, I tried to be able to speak English, I studied a lot, and I watched so many shows, rehearsals… I didn’t just sit there going, ‘why am I not doing this and that?’”

His commitment and application paid off, and eventually he did set foot on the Royal Opera House stage in the ensemble of John Cranko’s dramatic ballet, Onegin.

“I was general cover for all those 12 men in the [Act III] ballroom scene, and one day in rehearsal one guy got sick. Christopher Carr, former rehearsal director, picked me to go on.

“Of course, I had tried to do everything, I learned everything, and he was actually amazed I did it perfectly, and since then he calls me ‘Heavenly Hirano’’’.

He laughs, his obvious amusement at the moniker tinged with not a little pride.

Hirano and Onegin

Justified pride, in fact: spool forward to the present, and not only is Hirano one of the Royal Ballet’s most interesting Principals, he has just made an impressive debut in the title role of Onegin (21/01/2020).

Onegin, the arrogant anti-hero of Pushkin’s verse-novel, who breaks a young girl’s heart and leaves it too late to see sense and repent, is a difficult character to inhabit. It’s tempting to make him rather bi-dimensional – a bad guy who gets his just desserts – but that is not Heavenly Hirano’s way.

‘I always say ballet is… of course, it’s dancing! you have to be technically good; but at the same time I think the most important thing is the story-telling. Acting is the key.’

Hirano puts a lot of thought and observation into building his characters.

“I watch so many people doing so many different roles, I see what works, and then I can use that as ‘a weapon.’  So, I really love acting, it’s not easy without words, but it’s amazing how much you can tell with just body language, how much you can express.”

Hirano’s Onegin is a complex, well-defined and extremely nuanced character; an arrogant city man, prey to deep ennui, who, though dismissive of country-life, is, nevertheless, a courteous and unfailingly polite guest in Tatiana’s household.

His spurning of young Tatiana’s love comes not out of pointless cruelty, but rather impatience, a sort of ‘oh, just leave me alone, little girl!’

His performance is full of realistic touches: when his friend Lensky challenges him to a duel by slapping his face with his gloves, he staggers back, not from the strength of the blow, but from sheer surprise: he never thought his open flirting with Tatiana’s sister, his friend Lensky’s fiancée, could break up the all-important male bond.

Onegin’s restlessness in the Act III ballroom scene, when he recognises in the elegant aristocratic married woman the girl he spurned, feels real: he frenziedly paces the stage, alternately wanting to show himself to her and hiding, shock, anguish and desire flowing backwards and forwards across his face.

And his central pas de deux with Marianela Nuñez’s sublime Tatiana, the perfect lover of her dream in Act I turning at the end of the ballet into the supplicant suitor she must refuse, truly touch the heart.

In his progress towards the plum lead role of Onegin, Hirano danced Prince Gremin, Tatiana’s dignified and doting much older husband.

Marianela Nuñez as Tatiana, Ryoichi Hirano as Prince Gremin (c) ROH 2013 Bill Cooper

“It’s always nice that I can play Prince Gremin and then Onegin, because I know what the Prince feels (…) I always find it easier to know other characters.”

Hirano’s Versatile Career

Ryiochi Hirano is a versatile dancer, and despite his preference for narrative ballets finds himself equally at ease in abstract works, his solid technique and powerful presence suiting Balanchine, as much as Wayne McGregor.

He’s danced many of the main classical roles, always bringing something very much his own to all his characters, be it a depth of understanding to his portrayal of the brain-addled, drug addicted, suicidal Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Mayerling

Royishi Hirano as Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, (c) ROH 2018 Helen Maybanks

… deep corruption and venality (despite his naturally noble demeanour) when dancing the character of Manon’s brother and pimp, Lescaux; or a thrilling sensuality to the bullfighter Espada in Don Quixote.

However, the lead role of Onegin eluded Hirano for many years; not something he regrets.

“Onegin is such a demanding part! You need a maturity, a mature aura on stage; you can’t just be a good partner, tall… I think the person that is acting Onegin needs to have experience as a person, as well, in life.

“If you don’t know what happiness is, you can’t express happiness on stage. The more you’ve been through in your life, the more understanding you have of what those feelings are like, [the better] you understand Onegin’s feelings. It takes a long time to get to do those roles.”

From Osaka to London and Back Again

Despite having spent more than half his life in London, Ryoichi Hirano is a major star in his native Japan, with a loyal and enthusiastic following among Japanese balletomanes. He regularly performs in Japan, either when the Royal Ballet tour there, or in special galas.

So, where is ‘home’ for him?

“I would like to say here, because when I was in Japan I was a minor, a student, I didn’t know anything about adult life: I went to high school, did ballet after school, and that was my life.

“When I came here, this is my adult life. When I go to Japan I feel a bit weird, because I only know what I knew when I was at school. People ask me, where is a good place to have a party…  He looks helpless, shrugs his shoulders and laughs: “I don’t know! I know more about life in London.

“So, every time I go back home…” he stops himself, and then repeats “home,” making the inverted commas sign with his fingers, “when I get back [to Britain], I feel I am really home.”

Ryoichi Hirano gives the impression of a very centred person, an artist happy with his life and his career so far. He’s done it all, or most of it, anyway; although asked whether there is still one role missing from his extensive repertoire he says, diffidently, “Des Grieux.”

Who knows? Perhaps the poet lover of MacMillan’s Manon will come his way before too long.

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by Teresa Guerreiro

Onegin is in repertoire at the ROH until 29th February.

Ryoichi Hirano dances Onegin on 8th and 27th February.