When Linda and I were mulling over ideas for a Valentine’s special it seemed a no-brainer that the dancers we were looking for were Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez: we wanted to feature a ballet couple in head-over-heels, hopelessly in love mode; a couple so connected they could finish each other’s sentences and play along with the romantic mood of the photo-feature we were planning.
Electrifying ballet partnerships like Thiago and Marianela’s are rare. Together they continue to grow and secure such coveted roles as Diamonds in Balanchine’s Jewels (2007), MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet (2008) plus Crown Prince Rudolf and Countess Larisch in Mayerling (2009 – in different casts). When we finally catch up, they have been in and out of rehearsals for a new run of Romeo and Juliet. One would never tell ballet is such hard work from meeting them; far from looking exhausted they are all warmth, bubbliness and South American charm.
Soon we are laughing together in the interview room. All this fun meant a lot of extra work with our audio later on, as answers were drowned by fits of giggles. So there you have it, probably the most romantic and definitely the most cheerful interview we have ever done, with the added bonus of some gorgeous pictures from Sojournposse’s Zarina Holmes. We hope you enjoy this feature as much as we did!
How did you two meet and what came first: love or onstage partnership?
Marianela: There are two stories to this. I’ve got my version and Thiago has his. Which one do you want to hear?
We want to hear the most romantic version…
Marianela: I was already in the company when Thiago joined in 2002 and we started working together. In our first year we danced a few pas de deux and then later we went guesting and that’s when everything started. We were in Miami performing and there was something in the air but I was playing hard to get. Thiago went back to London and I had to go back to Argentina for a show so we left it at that. But after my first show in Buenos Aires I had a huge bouquet of flowers waiting for me that he had sent, so…well done! And that’s when I went “awwww…”. So I called him back and that’s how everything started. But first of all, we were friends and we worked together. Thiago’s part of the story is, apparently, that the first time that I met him…
Thiago: [looking at Marianela] May I? I joined the company and I didn’t speak English very well then, but I knew there were a few Latin Americans so I knew I would be fine, that they would help me. The first week I didn’t see anyone because I was doing fittings and learning about the building and the company. On my third day I met Marianela. She was in the lift and I walked in and first thing she said “oh, tu eres el brasileño” , this is “you are the Brazilian guy”. I nodded and she said “how are you doing and are you joining the company, blah blah blah…”. She was very nice, lovely… She looked at me and said “maybe we can grab a coffee or something”.
Marianela: [cheekily] I was trying to be friendly!
Thiago: [suggestively] I don’t know but, I am from Brazil and I learned that here in the UK, if you don’t know someone, and you invite them for coffee… so then I thought: there’s an opportunity! But after that nothing happened until a year later in Miami. Even then, we started to go out but we kept it quiet in the beginning.
On that note, let’s backtrack to Latin America. Over Christmas we saw the movie “Only When I Dance/Vida Ballet”. Could you tell us a little bit about how your professional lives in the UK compare to those in your home countries?
Marianela: I started training ballet in Argentina when I was 3 and moved to my main ballet school at 8. Over there we have great teachers but the facilities are zero; the ballet studios, the system itself. Here, for example, the kids have ballet classes in the morning and all is set for them to do their academic classes. Everything centers around getting the best in ballet while also studying, so the whole system here is incredible. In Argentina it was very hard and my parents had to help me a lot. As a professional dancer here we are blessed. We have 150 shows a year and a vast repertoire while back in Argentina the company has 20 shows if they are lucky. We don’t have to worry about anything, just really dance whereas in Argentina you worry about whether you will have ballet shoes, rehearsals, sometimes the orchestra is on strike… All these worries take your focus away. That’s why I think the shows here are so special because people are focused on what they have to do, everybody doing their part. I arrived in the UK when I was 15, so I grew up here and I am very used to it and very happy.
Thiago: It was funny you mentioned the film because I graduated from the same school as Irlan and it’s not one of the richest schools back home. It is a school located on the suburbs of Rio and it depends very much on sponsors. This causes difficulties, even discrimination because the average suburb resident doesn’t know anything about ballet, so kids never have a chance to explore dance. Young dancers starting in ballet over here have more opportunities to showcase their talents. I graduated hiding the fact that I was also studying ballet. On the bus to ballet school, I would still have my school T-shirt on and would only change into ballet gear on arrival.
Marianela: During this time Thiago wouldn’t even tell his closest friends about ballet classes because he feared they would pick on him. One day his best friend called and Thiago’s mom answered the phone; she told him Thiago was “at this ballet thingy” and the friend – incredulous – kept probing his mom to make sure he had heard right.
Thiago: And the next morning the same friend confronted me “so you are a ballet dancer?!”. So that’s the kind of thing I had to deal with but, on the other hand, we do have national schools. There’s a school in Joinville linked to the Bolshoi Theatre. We are improving, but any career in dance still faces some resistance and there’s a general lack of educated audiences and lack of understanding of ballet as an art form.
Last year you staged your own gala in various Brazilian cities. Do you often return there for galas & guesting?
Marianela: Thiago dances more. I might say in the past few years I’ve danced more in Brazil than I’ve danced in Argentina. But it is very hard to do it because here we are fully booked for the whole year, but if we have a gap…
Thiago: When I became a professional dancer, I joined the ballet company of the Theatro Municipal [Rio de Janeiro's main theatre] and there I was given the biggest opportunities to grow. That’s where I became who I am today. Of course I’ve learned a lot here and I am a different dancer now, but I became an individual dancer over there and they did invest a lot in me. So it is good to keep in touch with the people who helped me at the very beginning. It also helps to make other people believe that it is possible. Not like a role model but in the sense of making people feel more confident about what is possible, to give them hope for the future.
Let’s talk about Romeo & Juliet, which you will be performing very soon. How do you see your respective characters and how do you try to portray them?
Marianela: We follow the play. How you see the characters in the play gives you a basis but, obviously, you put your personal feelings on top of that. The story is so straightforward and it’s wonderful if you are doing it with somebody you love. I love playing Juliet. She is this young girl suddenly discovering real love, and she is a very strong young lady, just look at how far she goes. I haven’t done the role very much so it still feels fresh and I am still discovering what to do onstage. I am so looking forward to it this time around…and MacMillan’s choreography, the production is incredible, I think it’s probably the best.
Thiago: I agree with Marianela. We are very lucky to have Kenneth’s production which in my opinion is the most complete. Everything you want to do in ballet is there, specially for Romeo. [Addressing Marianela] Even though for you guys is fantastic and very rewarding, Romeo is involved in a lot more scenes, he dances more, he has to jump more, he has to fight… all the elements you want to work with as a dancer and actor. You try to make the best out of this journey, even though you know you will feel drained by the end of it. Not only do I have to try and do my best technically, following the set choreographic patterns, I also want to bring something extra so that it resonates with today’s audiences, so that it’s not just Romeo and Juliet on paper. I try to bring elements people can relate to, how strong they were, how brave they were to deal with their family issues, all of that for love. The ballet grows in a fantastic way. It’s very difficult to get it totally wrong because the choreography is there.
Marianela: [agreeing with Thiago] It’s a masterpiece, half of the job is done for you.
Do you have any new insights on the roles of Romeo & Juliet as compared to when you debuted together in 2008?
Thiago: When we debuted it was crazy.
Marianela: We didn’t have that much time.
Thiago: We had 8 days…
Marianela: … because we were doing so many things in between. Now we had more time so you think about it and work it in the studio to keep it fresh, to discover new things and enrich the reading of the role.
Thiago: You prepare, put things together and you are ready, but sometimes magic also happens, something from the gods. The first time we did it we felt that it was a bit messy technically but many people said to us “oh my God, the world stopped”. In the second performance we felt we were tidier, more “by the book” and it didn’t feel like it had the same “magic”.
Marianela: He was so clever, Kenneth. Sometimes you don’t even have to try it, the job is done for you. The music does it, the choreography does it. You are surrounded by people like Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, by character artists who have done the ballet for so many years. Everything suddenly falls into place, you are involved in this amazing thing; it takes over you. Like Thiago says, you plan something ahead and suddenly your instincts go for something else. Romeo and Juliet is the kind of ballet one can literally lose oneself in.
Speaking of losing oneself in character, to critics and audiences alike, some part of your personalities come across very strongly. They think of Marianela as being very upbeat, fizzing and Thiago as brooding and more introspective. Do you consciously try to project your own selves into performance?
Marianela: You could be a very sunny person and then if you are doing something like Juliet, a sweet girl who suddenly comes out with such strong feelings, you have to try and explore all those feelings. At the same time it would be very difficult to completely hide your personality; it would be fake. Even though you have to become Juliet and you have to think as she would think, part of you will come out. That’s what probably makes my Juliet different to someone like, say, Tamara’s. It’s not that I am trying to fully project my own self but it would look like that naturally.
Thiago: We do listen to feedback and take on board criticism but this is what I enjoy most about this job; the fact that I can live all these lives. I can be Romeo. I can be a prince. I try to change as much as I can and go really deep into the role but there are natural gestures, things, your qualities…
Marianela: The main thing is to become the role, once you are on the stage, he is Romeo…
Thiago: [agreeing] …there is no “Thiago moment” or “Marianela sunshine moment”, but there are aspects in principal dancers that make you like them. There are features in Carlos [Acosta] that I never forget and whenever I see him, I want to see those things that are “oh-so-Carlos!”. There is a fine line between being honest enough to play a role and keeping your individual charm.
Marianela: Otherwise we would all be the same, all Juliets would be the same…
Which roles do you aspire to dance together?
Marianela: I would love to do Tatiana in Onegin. That’s my wish for the future. Thiago’s done Onegin before, so that could be one!
Good choice, we love that ballet!
Thiago: We are very lucky and have had opportunities to do lots of things together.
Marianela: Juliet was one of my dream roles so it was very nice that we were able to do it together.
Thiago: The one we haven’t done and that would be good maybe in the future to have a go at is Manon, which is a title role for you [turning to Marianela].
Marianela: We do the second roles [Lescaut, Lescaut's Mistress].
Thiago: I have so much respect for Ashton’s heritage and for the young choreographers, but one of the reasons that brought me here was Kenneth MacMillan, he is my favorite, the key to my wishes. Sometimes I wish I was around when he was. I don’t know if he would have liked me, but I would have loved to see him creating.
Marianela: I love both. I think Kenneth is a genius but I equally love Ashton. For the girl it’s so beautiful. The costumes, everything is so feminine.
And now we reach “The Lightning round”. Quick questions which you both answer off the top of your heads!
Marianela, your favourite Thiago role:
Rudolf in Mayerling!
Thiago, your favourite Marianela role:
Who is the biggest perfectionist?
Marianela: I think that’s me…
Thiago: I don’t think I see that!
Marianela: But I am a freak at home like tidying things up and stuff.
Thiago: Ok, she can have that.
Who Googles themselves more?
Marianela: [raising hand & giggling] Me!!!
Who spends more time on Facebook?
Marianela: [giggles and points to self]
Who spends more time keeping their website?
Marianela: [laughs heartily & emphatically points to self]
Who spends more time on their hair?
Marianela: I don’t know…no, I might say it’s Thiago.
Thiago: [He agrees]
Who does the dishes?
Thiago: [Smiling & pointing to Marianela] Yessss!
Marianela: his? The Thomas Crown Affair [Marianela is correct].
Thiago: hers? which one was it? which one was it? [Talks to her in Portuguese] It’s that movie you guys spent days talking to me about… [we buzz]
Type of music?
Marianela: I like a lot of rock music. Thiago is very Brazilian but…
Thiago: No, be honest, answer; my favourite music.
Marianela: Brazilian music!
Thiago: And you, Argentinian music, those “bandolin things”.
Marianela: Yes, but I like a lot of rock, like Green day and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Our interview time ends and as we are being led to one of the big ballet studios to do the photoshoot we are still curious about Marianela’s favorite movie. We quiz Thiago further and we find out that her favorite is a double bill we also adore: Richard Linklater’s romantic-chic Before Sunrise & Before Sunset. No other choice could have been more appropriate for this Valentine’s special feature.
Thiago and Marianela are scheduled to dance the leading roles in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet at the Royal Opera House on 8 February and 13 February (evening). For more information & bookings visit the ROH website.