Larissa Carvalho is a journalist from Brazil spending time at the Mail & Guardian. In Johannesburg she has found a community of ballet dancers from her home country who came for the opportunity to perform but who are also helping to transform an industry. The lead role in classical ballet tends to be dominated by white men globally — particularly in Brazil. That is changing thanks to the Joburg Theatre and Joburg Ballet company. Carvalho spent time with them before and during the first performance of Don Quixote, which has since been cancelled because of restrictions on public gatherings in response to Covid-19
The Joburg Ballet started the 2020 season with Don Quixote last Friday. On the opening night, the main role of Basílio was performed by black Brazilian ballet dancer Ruan Galdino, who shared the stage with South African ballerina Shannon Glover in the role of Kitri.
Joburg Ballet cycles its repertoire every three to four years. It’s now time for Don Quixote again, which artistic director Iain MacDonald said was the first performance by the ballet company for the year.
Don Quixote is a mixture of joy, playfulness and romance. This has made it one of the most influential works in Western literature and across other mediums of storytelling. MacDonald said Don Quixote has a “great sense of humour and there are some beautiful moments in the ballet”.
The dancers’ enjoyment in their art and roles is visible.
For MacDonald, it was a good time for the performance: “You know the environment in South Africa at the moment … Everyone is depressed because there is no money and jobs. I think this ballet will just make people laugh and feel good.”
Of course, that was before it was cancelled.
Speaking before his first appearance on stage as the principal, Galdino said: “I am dealing with very high expectations obviously. Here’s a ballet that has this Spanish and Latin footprint. It’s very close to me but at the same time distant.”
Back home, in Brazil, it isn’t common for a black ballet dancer to interpret the main role in the classical ballet world. “I’m a black dancer and I’m playing this role which is very unprecedented, it’s something really great! Things are changing and they will continue to change. And I can be an example of this.”
Galdino said when he was young he only knew one black dancer cast in the main role — the Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta, who worked at the Royal Ballet in London.
Joburg Ballet has a history of hiring Brazilians in solo roles for Don Quixote. In this run, Galdino was joined by two compatriots — Monike Cristina and Ivan Domiciano — who also played main characters.
MacDonald said: “I had the privilege of going to Brazil after I was invited to go over and I think that’s when the relationship started.”
On the choice of Brazilians for lead roles, he said they “are dynamic, they have an energy, which is something similar to the South Africans. I think they have got great classical ballet training.
“They are loud and full of life and I think this is what we need in the company and they fit in so beautifully.
“And with Don Quixote now, it’s so their style and just who they are as a people. So I think that this ballet’s perfect for all the Brazilians with us now,” he said.
Galdino is also helped by having a long working relationship with his lead partner, Glover. “We are always laughing at the mistakes that we did or I’m laughing at him or he is laughing at me, so we laugh so much together and sometimes we cry,” Glover said.
Four performances out of the 10 planned took place before the coronavirus restrictions struck.