Saturday 20 October 2018

Classical: Bolshoi finds a home in the land of Samba

Bolshoi’s Ekaterina Shipulina in Swan Lake
Bolshoi’s Ekaterina Shipulina in Swan Lake

George Hamilton

There are many things that come to mind when you think of Brazil, but I'd bet ballet isn't one of them. A country that seems so out of the classical mainstream that you'd be hard-pressed to come up a composer of note beyond Heitor Villa-Lobos might seem an odd place to set up a ballet school. Yet that's exactly what the great Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow did some 14 years ago.

Brazilians do have a history of dance. You only have to think of the carnival in Rio to conjure up an image of swinging and swaying to an infectious beat. Maybe it was an obvious choice.

For centuries the Bolshoi has been at the heart of artistic education in Russia and it also has a history of helping the poor, needy and underpriveleged – among its first students when it opened as the Moscow Choreographic School in 1773 were children from the city's orphanage.

This outreach was behind its decision to set up its first academy outside Russia.

The provincial city of Joinville in the south of Brazil has a reputation in the world of dance. For more than 30 years now, it's been hosting an annual festival that has attracted the top ballet companies.

The Bolshoi itself had performed there before Joinville made its pitch to become its partner. They were up against stiff opposition: Washington and Tokyo were among the cities bidding to be the Bolshoi's foreign base. Closer to home, Rio and São Paulo were also in the fray.

But the Russians were highly impressed with Joinville, not least because of its sheer love of dance.

They sent tutors to work alongside local teachers and enrolled around 150 youngsters from around 20,000 applicants.

These nine-year-olds faced a tough eight-year course, learning skills and techniques from Russian masters alongside a rigorous programme of education with an emphasis on the cultural.

There were scholarships for more than 90pc of them – the overwhelming majority of whom were from disadvantaged families – offering free tuition, uniforms, subsidised food and transport and even medical care.

The roll has grown over the years. Now, around 300 attend the school, coming from all over Brazil and even across the border from Argentina.

The strict formality of the ballet may be a far cry from the spontaneity that's the hallmark of the samba dancers of the carnival, but the South American students have taken to the more rigorous disciplines of classical dance.

If there is a downside it is that there are few opportunities in ballet in Brazil. But on the other hand, if a talented individual were to emerge, a career path in Europe would beckon.

There could be few more impressive calling cards than one embellished with the words "Graduate of the Bolshoi School of Ballet".

During the World Cup George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores from Brazil on RTÉ Lyric FM from 10 each Saturday morning.

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