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South of the Border

Posted on November 15, 2018

still from the documentary Primeiro Bailarino about Royal Ballet principal Thiago Soares 12

In Mexico, Anna Pavlova danced in a bullring. Serge Diaghilev arranged Ballets Russes performances in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina in 1913 and 1917. De Basil’s Original Ballet Russe appeared in Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela.

Can you point to these countries on a map, or is the entire continent beneath your radar? If Argentina only means tango to you, think of the dancers who invigorate ballet and contemporary companies in the UK, the dancers whose immaculate technique and vibrant personality invariably stand out on the most crowded stage.

Something in the Southern temperament thrives under the stage lights, as the current series on Latin America in Dancing Times has highlighted. Naturally you expect excellence in every long-established company, and only your personal taste leads you to prefer one performer over another. Even so, the Latin artists seem particularly willing, and wonderfully prepared, to give more than their honed body to a performance.

Offered all the options in this country, I’d choose Marianela Nuñez in any role she cared to dance before I’d see anyone else. Born in Buenos Aires and trained there at the school of the historic Teatro Colón, she toured with its company before coming to England. Is that how she learned to extend every gesture to the full length of each musical phrase, never to execute a step identically if several repeats come in quick succession, and to reveal a character’s thoughts with her eyes and épaulement?

Some roles suit her less well – Mitzi Caspar in Mayerling, who lacks both refinement and humour, is one of them – but on opening night of La Bayadère at Covent Garden on November 1, her radiant Nikiya illuminated the opulent fantasy from within like a candle’s wick. Showing you only the character, never herself, she convinced you of the florid melodrama’s reality by wielding her technique, focus, energy and musicality with polished subtlety.

The camera always provides an even closer view of the mechanics each artist transmutes into theatrical magic. Keep your eyes open for the new HBO Latin America film about Thiago Soares, entitled Primeiro Bailarino/Principal Dancer, that will be available in the cinema or on DVD next year. Directed by a fellow Brazilian, Felipe Braga, it invites us through the stage doors at Covent Garden and the elegant Theatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro’s opera house, as it documents this artist’s determined efforts to maintain his ballet career while venturing into new territory.

Soares discovered dance at 15 through hip hop and “learned all that [ballet] a bit late.” Leaving the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Ballet for The Royal Ballet, he advanced in four years from the corps de ballet to the rank of principal. Now approaching guest artist status, he is remarkably objective about his working situation, fully aware that tonight’s cheers fade fast, “there’s another show tomorrow, in two days you’re old news.”

He also feels “a responsibility even in South America,” which has led him to organise a programme of four varied pieces to showcase Rio’s Companhia Brasileira de Ballet. All the film’s rehearsal footage is fascinating, but it’s instructive and quite sobering to contrast the huge gleaming Covent Garden studios with the tight shabby spaces the Brazilian troupe occupies.

“The nuances of your life…affect your dancing,” Soares declares, and the dedication he acquired as a teenager in Brazil, where “to dance was kind of a joke,” remains intact decades later. “I knew there were bigger stars than me who did it,” he admits, but he also knew “I’m going to impress them if I bring something special.”

Pictured: Stills from the film Primeiro Bailarino/Principal Dancer. Photographs courtesy of HBO Latin America.


Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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