17-year-old António Casalinho has just won the Prix de Lausanne. It’s one of a surprisingly long list of competitions where he was placed, with wins including the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix and Varna International Ballet Competition. He even won Got Talent Portugal in 2017. I asked him if the success surprises him.
“Of course, because when I started dancing I never imagined I would get to where I am at this point, winning all these competitions.” So when did you begin to realise that your talent was something special? “I started appreciating that I could actually do something with my talent when I went to the Youth America Grand Prix the first time. It was there that I saw that people liked to see me dance. It was the first time I was in a big competition, and so receiving that prize told me that I had the possibility to become a ballet dancer.”
The person who took him to that competition was his first and only teacher, Annarella Roura Sanchez, who trained at the Cuban Ballet School in Camaguey, Cuba. Soon after transferring to Leiria in Portugal in 1996 she founded a school – the Annarella Academia de Ballet e Dança – that follows the Cuban Ballet School method.
“I started dancing in November 2011 when I was eight years old,” says António, who was born in Leiria on 14 June 2003. “I had two friends who already studied ballet with Annarella, and they were dancing all the time they could. They saw that I was interested in dance and introduced me to her.”
This was at his Catholic school where Annarella taught ballet. “When I saw him,” she says, “I did a little physical aptitude test and was very impressed with his flexibility, his en dehors, his great agility, and his way of improvising, like walking on his hands. He was a beautiful, sweet boy.
“I immediately talked to his parents and took him to my Ballet Academy. From the first moment, I thought António could become a great dancer.”
His mother, Anabela, says, “It was just another of several activities he did. I never thought that it would be what he would choose for his future, even though we always supported him.”
Since its formation in 1998, Annarella’s Ballet Academy has grown in size and reputation – five of the 82 young dancers selected for the Prix de Lausanne this year were from her school. It now can invite renowned experts, like Maina Gielgud, to work with its students. Soon after staging the second act of La Sylphide with António, who was 15 at the time, and the 13-year-old Margarita Fernandes (another prize-winning student), Covid struck.
Gielgud started teaching António online, and as he had little space to work in, she decided to concentrate on mime. “I chose Albrecht’s entrances in both acts of Giselle. I was so blown away that I promised him that over the period when he would not be allowed in the studios – which ended up being about six weeks – I would teach him the entire ballet. And I did, including the pas de deux, working with him two or three times a week on Zoom!”
António executes flashy turns and jumps that help get a young dancer noticed… at least in competitions. Has he found mastering ballet technique easy? “I didn’t find ballet technique ‘easy’ as such and I’ve always worked a lot to get it, but I had a great natural turnout ‘à la seconde’ and easy feet to work with. My main struggle, since I’m not that tall, is flexibility in my back. Annarella has always made us do a lot of exercises for strengthening the back and therefore the arabesque.”
However, his dancing isn’t about sleight of hand, where technical dazzle hides a lack of soul. Gielgud says, “He is a true artist, with the ability to portray a character and share his feelings and emotions with an audience without any histrionics.” She also observes that his virtuosity “is a very purely classical one, with line, and cleanliness of execution perhaps most similar to that of Fernando Bujones.”
I asked him which male dancers inspire him. “As Annarella comes from Cuba, I always had a big influence from there,” he says. “The first ballet dancer that caught my attention was Rolando Sarabia, and soon after I discovered Carlos Acosta and then later Julio Bocca. These are my three ballet heroes since I was very young.”
Although Annarella has been a constant presence throughout his development, she has always invited many guest teachers. “She has an agreement with the Escuela Nacional Cubana de Ballet,” says António, “so we have had Cuban teachers for a long time. Apart from Annarella, I have had various teachers and coaches that have really helped me: Enrique Cantero, Ricardo Flores, Elena Cangas, Raquel Aguero, Fatima Mekulova, and many others. The little dance academy that I joined when I was eight has gone on to become an international conservatoire.”
He describes himself as being tenacious: “I think I can be very stubborn because when I’m really into something, I do everything I can to persist and do it right. Of course, that has a downside because sometimes when I’m obsessed with one idea I just can’t get it out of my mind!” Though Gielgud puts it another way: “He has a work ethic of a kind I rarely encounter these days.”
Annarella says, “He is very intelligent, sensitive and humble. He is always willing to learn, he is never tired, is polite and disciplined, and believes in people.” An excellent character reference, but something she said stood out: “He is never tired”. I asked her to elaborate. “He has an unusual force and truly doesn’t get tired; I often call him Tarzan. It’s a unique energy.”
Gielgud sees something of this quality in Annarella’s other students too: “Their love of dancing is apparent in the studio from class through every rehearsal and performance. The chance to repeat a solo or an entire ballet in rehearsal, or even full out on the day of a performance, is taken as another chance to dance! They never appear tired and never mark!”
Gielgud is clearly delighted that António is the real thing, and enthuses, “He is equally at home in contemporary movement as in the classical. He is extremely musical – his father is a musician who plays the clarinet.”
António Casalinho’s father, Luis, is a professional musician who shares some interesting ideas about the effect of music on children. “When António was baby, I sang many rhythmic patterns together with gestures, and I’m certain that it was crucial to his development – emotional and physical! Of course, I had no idea if that would be so important to his life but, as a musician, I’m sure that it is very important for everyone! The chance to listen to many kinds of music – classical, jazz, pop, traditional – with their different sonorities transforms how the brain develops. Music is magical.
“I think ‘music’ and ‘dance’ are both sides of the same coin,” he continues. “A musician must feel the physical part of the score, the same as a dancer must feel the musical part of his gestures. Because I’m also a conductor, this for me is clear. When I conduct, I have to ‘dance’ with my arms, with my face, with my body; I must feel the music in and with my body. My son, and all dancers, make music with their bodies. If they have this natural ability, then they ‘just’ need practice, practice, and then… practice!”
As well as feeling the music, António feels the drama. “I think that communicating is as important or even more important than technique,” he says. “It gives more pleasure to watch a dancer who can act and communicate beautifully than a dancer who can do everything right except the acting.” A refreshing attitude – when I meet young dancers, many (dare I say, ‘most’) seem to be fixated on spinning and stretching. “The acting is what brings the audience onto the stage with us; it lets them relate to you and be part of the story. It is what gives them, and us, ultimate satisfaction.”
It is this approach that leads Maina Gielgud to observe, “He shows the maturity and stagecraft not usually seen until a principal dancer is in their late 20s. He is also super quick to learn repertoire and pick up the stylistic differences and choreographer’s intentions, and an excellent and caring partner.”
Gielgud has greatly helped his stagecraft by staging acts from Giselle, La Sylphide, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty with the school’s students.
“Maina has provided me with the best experiences I could have, even as a student,” says António. “What helped me the most was her bringing out my acting and showing how important acting is in a ballet, or any performance. I’ve also learned a lot about the world of professional ballet from her and how it might be for me in the future.”
One of these ballets he’s learnt has become his favourite: “Giselle is not a very long ballet, but it still has an overwhelming story: love, hate, tragedy, mercy and revenge. Although it’s my favourite, I love many ballets and especially the choreography of [Kenneth] MacMillan. I hope someday to have the opportunity to work with various choreographers so I can really have a valid opinion.”
I asked him the difference between dancing in a competition and in a scene or a complete ballet. “When we are competing, we only do limited choreography, which could be a variation, a pas de deux, or whatever we’ve prepared. Sometimes we have to do many pieces, but they are all individual dances. But when I dance a complete ballet, there’s a feeling that we have all been rehearsing and preparing for everything to be right, and by everything, I mean the dancing, the interpretation, the costumes, the spacing, the lights, and so on. There’s the responsibility of telling a story, which usually the hardest part. One of the benefits when competing, though, is meeting many interesting people and seeing places that you wouldn’t normally get to visit. I think I’m kind of outgoing because I like to know new people and try new things.”
The Prix de Lausanne will probably be his last competition, though he says that he’d love to participate in the Moscow International Ballet Competition, which is held every four years. It was recently postponed from this year to 2022 because of the Covid pandemic. For the same reason, the 2021 Prix de Lausanne this year was online with photos and videos sent in for the jury and the audience at home to see during the competition week.
“I had a really good time making the videos and preparing everything for the Prix de Lausanne, so it was a great experience,” he says. “Even though it was online, it still had all the visibility it usually does, so I have to say that the Prix did a really good job.” Wasn’t he a little disappointed not to be there? “A little because I was so looking forward to all the coaching experience that this competition provides; it would have been completely different from all the other competitions. I also missed the emotion of performing on stage and the chance to know different people.”
His mother says, “We are proud and happy to see António winning all these competitions, but what’s really mattered for us is that he was doing what he liked the most – dancing. Following this career and joining a big company has been António’s dream since he started. Since this dream looks closer and closer, I feel like my heart is very tight but full of joy. The most important thing is that António is happy, and for that he needs to fly far away from us. My main dream is that he flies very high, that he’s happy, but always with his feet solidly on the ground.”
António says of his parents: “They have always supported me and want the best for me. They were always open to learn more from Annarella and know she is my best guidance, so they have trusted her to the point of leaving my future in her hands. There is no way for me to express how thankful I am to them… I owe them my life.”
So are you going to ‘fly away’ as your mother says? “Nowadays, it is impossible to predict what’s going to happen, so the only thing I can be sure of is that I will be working so I’ll be ready for whatever is next. With the pandemic, companies are doing almost nothing, so if the situation doesn’t get better, I’ll try to go places where dancing is possible and get to know better this world that is expecting me.”
Annarella says, “António is my little boy who has grown into a fine young man. I hope that the directors of companies that he decides to audition for can see the talent of António Casalinho, and I can assure them that they will not regret it because he will be one of the best dancers of tomorrow.”
Jokingly, I say that there must be something he can’t do. Annarella laughs, “António does everything excellently, even when dancing to the right or the left side!”
The admiration is mutual. “I have grown up with Annarella and learned so many different things from her. She is a very determined person, but she likes to know other people’s opinions, even though she doesn’t always find them correct. She’s always brought in a lot of teachers, dancers and coaches so we can have the most comprehensive education, but always with the same base that she gave us.
“Annarella is the person that I can trust with my eyes closed because she has always found the best for me.”