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 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 Competent, 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

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.

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by Teresa Guerreiro

Matilde Rodrigues – On The Threshold of Her Dream

Matilde Rodrigues as Myrtha, Giselle Act II, Conservatório Internacional de Ballet e Dança Annarella Roura Sanchez Summer Gala, Leiria. Photo Tomé Gonçalves

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. Photo Nikki Roberts

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 [2019], 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. 

Matilde Rodrigues as Myrtha in Giselle Act II, Conservatório International de Ballet e Dança Annarella Roura Sanchez Summer Gala. Photo: Tomé Gonçalves

“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

 

Maina Gielgud, Béjart and “the lost art of épaulement”

Maina Gielgud talks about her career, a gift from Maurice Béjart, and ballet’s need to rediscover the  joy of movement

Few dance careers can have been more diverse than that of British ballerina Maina Gielgud.

Ballet de Roland Petit… Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet… Staatsoper Ballett Berlin … Ballets du XXème Siècle Maurice Béjart… The Australian Ballet… these are just some of the companies with which she danced in a 20-year career spanning pretty well all of Europe, plus the Americas, Africa and Australia.

All because she had inside her an overwhelming “need to dance.”

Black Swan, London Festival Ballet 1972 photo M Gielgud's private collection
Black Swan, London Festival Ballet 1972 photo M Gielgud’s private collection

 

“In the old days, dancers were not paid well,

didn’t have any security,

didn’t have health insurance,

didn’t even have their shoes paid,

let alone their classes;

so, if you became a dancer,

it’s because you really wanted to

dance.”

Even after she hung up her dancing shoes her life-long passion for ballet didn’t wane.

She became Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet – the company’s longest serving director to date – and then briefly held the same position in the Royal Danish Ballet. She is Artistic Adviser for the Hungarian National Ballet.

And Maina remains in great demand internationally as Guest Teacher, as well as being regularly invited by major companies across the globe to mount her own productions of the classics.

Most recently, over Christmas, she recreated Coppelia for students of the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne.

Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Coppelia, Production and additional choreography Maina Gielgud, Melbourne Dec 2015
Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Coppelia, Production and additional choreography Maina Gielgud, Melbourne Dec 2015

By all accounts, the standards of Gielgud’s Coppelia were so high one reviewer wrote it was hard to believe it was a student production.

Standards are very much Maina Gielgud’s thing

“I find nowadays there is little talk of style or understanding of it in coaching in general,” she says.

Another problem is that many dancers appear to have lost a feel for pure movement.

“I’m starting to think that they see dance as a succession of photographic possibilities.

“I think they’re thinking about the next Facebook photo that they can put up, the best line, the highest leg and the odd video of triple fouettés, but the sense of dance so very often gets almost completely lost.”

She’s fighting her one-woman battle against this trend:

Coaching Anais Chalendard, Rome photo M. Gielgud's private collection
Coaching Anais Chalendard, Rome photo M. Gielgud’s private collection

“I find that more and more even when I’m teaching now, I talk about the upper body, I talk about the head, the use of the eyes in just classical combinations, the épaulement – the lost art of épaulement! – and more and more a sense of movement and coordination.” 

Contemporary dance technique, with its different awareness of body weight and how to use it, could be extremely useful to ballet dancers, Maina Gielgud feels, if only they were able to harness it.

“In contemporary they feel free, they can move, they have learnt how to use their weight, but unless it’s demonstrated to them (…) they simply don’t think of utilising the tools that they have in contemporary in their classical, and more’s the pity.”

She only came fully to realise how useful contemporary technique could be to ballet dancers relatively recently; but her first brush with contemporary came in the late 1960s, when she was with Béjart’s company.

“There was a wonderful contemporary black dancer called Dyane Gray-Cullert. And she had worked with Lester Horton and she proposed to some of us to do some Horton Technique classes.”

Horton Technique emphasizes a whole body, anatomical approach to dance, that includes flexibility, strength, coordination and body and spatial awareness to enable unrestricted, dramatic freedom of expression.

“I’d only ever heard of ‘hold your back, hold yourself straight’ and I’d never discovered that there were so many things you could do with your back, and indeed your weight.

“That was a really big discovery for me, utilising different aspects of your back, your neck and different parts of your body that people don’t talk about in classical training even though some of the greatest dancers do use them.”

A Gift from Maurice Béjart

Her four-year stay with Ballets du XXème Siècle Maurice Béjart, one of the longest sojourns of her dancing career, brought the young Maina Gielgud more revelations … and a bitter-sweet parting gift. Béjart liked her:

“Oh yes! And I adored him!

Maurice Bejart with Maina Gielgud and her Mother, Cannes 1969
Maurice Bejart with Maina Gielgud and her Mother, Cannes 1969

“It was when I saw Béjart’s ballets in Avignon that it struck me that indeed ballet, dance, was very serious and could communicate important things to do with the present, to do with philosophy and religion, way beyond what at the time I thought perhaps classical ballet could.

“[I realised] he always had something to say which was important to him and obviously important to all the dancers in the company; and huge audiences responded to that, all kinds of people who would never be seen dead at a classical ballet performance.”

Maina decided she must join the company; but had to wait a full year for a place.

She was fascinated by what Béjart was creating for his male dancers and dared hope he’d create something as extraordinary for a woman.

Béjart’s great gift, when it finally came in her last summer with the company was, however, something quite unexpected.

“Just before we broke up Maurice said to me before a performance, ‘Oh Maina, if you dance very well today I’ve got a surprise for you at the beginning of next season.’

“He came round afterwards and said, ‘I want to create a solo for you.  We’re going to go to the US and do a season at the Brooklyn Academy next January.   In September when we come back [from the Summer break] we’re going over to do a little preview for publicity.

‘I’m going to take four of my dancers and I realised that I have no solo for a woman that stands on its own.  So I want to do for you the later scene from Lady Macbeth with the recording of Maria Callas singing it.’”

Maina Gielgud laughs heartily at the memory.

“As you can imagine, in summer I thought all my Christmases had come at once.

“First day back, my name was up on the board, it just said Maina, studio whatever. I went into the studio about an hour before to warm up and be ready.

‘[For music] he always used tapes, the old reel-to-reel, so there was (…)  the music man preparing some tapes, and he was making a bloody awful noise and squeaking and screeching.

“Finally I said to him, ‘look, could we put on the music for what Maurice is going to start working on for me later on?’ and he looked at me and he said, ‘oh, but this IS the music!’

At that point Maurice Béjart walked in.  Not a word about Lady Macbeth or Callas…

“He made this solo in two sessions. I don’t think I ever had the courage to ask him, but I think I cried all night that I had to dance to these squeaks and groans.”

The piece became know as Squeaky Door (La Porte).

She can see the funny side now…

“We went to the US and I did it for the publicity preview and that was that.  It was quite amusing and it was quite fun, but certainly it wasn’t Lady Macbeth.”

The tale doesn’t end there.   Maina was exceptionally allowed by Béjart to do a guest performance for Rosella Hightower’s company – Béjart, Hightower and Gielgud were all good friends.   Hightower had heard of Squeaky Door and asked to see it.

Next thing Maina knew, Rosella Hightower was on the phone to Béjart.

“She said, ‘I’ve got a gala, could Maina do it for the gala?’ 

 “And when I left the company, which was soon after, Maurice gave it to me as a present and said I could do it wherever I wanted to.”

So many memories of a dancing life lived to the full – and all because Maina Gielgud had that all-consuming “need to dance.”  That, she feels, is what auditions for companies and indeed ballet schools should be able to assess as part of their selection process.

Do applicants have the right physique?  Good feet, good turn out?  Fine! but “do they really, really want to dance more than anything else?”

 

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