With no fewer than six young dancers from Brazil and more to come next year, Berlin’s State Ballet School is playing incubator to Brazilian talents. One of the most promising: Matheus Barboza.
In February 2017, 16-year old Matheus Barboza stepped off a plane into the grey environs of Tegel airport, with not a euro in his pocket and only one shot at realising his dream: to become a professional ballerino. In two days it would be Tanzolymp, Berlin’s annual international dance talent show, and Barboza’s chance to fund his ambition by scoring a scholarship with a major ballet school.
Born and raised in one of the poorest suburbs of São Paulo, it was already a wonder he’d made it that far. His parents couldn’t afford a ballet school, let alone a plane ticket to Berlin, so he was accompanied by the two women who’d funded his trip: his ballet teacher Nina Canadari and benefactor Cristina Mesaneli.
On February 16, in front of an audience of professional scouters and with 1000 other hopeful dancers competing against him, Barboza gave it all he had on the Admiralspalast stage. The response surpassed his hopes: six scholarship offers from international dance schools! With a banquet of prospective paths on the table, Barboza needed no time for contemplation. Berlin’s Staatliche Balletschule (State Ballet School) offered him not only full tuition, but room and board as well. Six months later, Barboza left São Paulo behind for the confines of a campus on the northeastern edge of Prenzlauer Berg.
Ballet was an unlikely dream for a Brazilian boy raised in the impoverished suburbs of Guaianazes by loving but cash-strapped parents. According to Barboza, it all started in 2010, when the nine-year-old was watching the Winter Olympics on TV and glimpsed Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko twirling across the ice to the tune of a violin concerto. “That’s when I thought, yes! This is what I want to do!” And if he couldn’t learn to spin on ice, then pirouetting on stage would be his next move.
“Where I come from in São Paolo, ballet is not really considered an ‘art’…”
The following year, Barboza began ballet classes at the Municipal Theater of São Paulo, a springboard that propelled him into his next school Lume Casa Cultural at 14. The dance academy granted him a scholarship that paid for both his classes and his lengthy commute from Guaianazes. Everyday he took two buses, a train and a metro from his home to school, a total of six gruelling hours there and back, to the perplexity of his neighbourhood friends. “Where I come from in São Paolo, ballet is not really considered an ‘art’,” explains Barboza. Compared to home-brewed styles like Forró and samba, “straight-edge” ballet seemed a little stiff – and a boy in leotard a little, well, queer. “People told me all kinds of stuff, but every time someone tried to put me down, I used it as motivation to keep going.” More important to him was the support of his parents, as well as his mentor Canadari. It was she who spotted something extraordinary in this young boy from the suburbs and invested herself both emotionally and financially in nurturing his budding talent. “She is like my second mother and my best friend,” Barboza smiles. “We still speak every day!”
Today 17 and on what seems like a golden-ticket ride to success, Barboza acknowledges his life in Berlin is not a bed of roses. He has sacrificed a lot for 15-hour working days in a language he still struggles to speak. Fortunately, with six Brazilian dancers (and one dance teacher) already at the school, there’s no shortage of willing translators. But Barboza misses his friends and family. It’s especially lonely during the school holidays when most of his classmates get to travel to their families, a luxury he cannot afford. Has it been worth it? What about his childhood figure skating dream? “I still love it and watch it, but ice skating is not my dream anymore. My passion is ballet!” he says without hesitation. If all goes well, he’ll see the culmination of his ballerino dreams at the London Royal Ballet. But he knows there’s still a long way to go – the competition is fierce.
Last month, Barboza opened the Staatsballet’s annual gala (this year at the Volksbühne) with a dazzling duet. Watching him leap and spin in an impressive display of rubbery excellence, it’s not so much his technique that sets him aside, but an emotional, almost symbiotic empathy with the music: his movements are truly captivating, showing the respect and admiration he feels for the art that took him from São Paolo to Berlin and transformed his life.