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.
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.
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.
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.‘”
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.