The world-renowned Brazilian dancer left the Royal Ballet in 2019 after more than a decade as a principal, but will not be putting his feet up any time soon. As he takes a bow at Covent Garden as a guest artist with the title role in Onegin, he talks to Anna Winter about life beyond the stage, his latest projects and his choreographic ambitions
The times are changing for Thiago Soares. In 2019, after 13 years as a Royal Ballet principal, the Brazilian-born dancer announced that he would be leaving the company, returning to Covent Garden as a guest artist for the current season.
In any profession other than sport, 38 seems a ludicrously (or luxuriously) young age to retire. But ballet takes a cruel toll on the body. During a break from rehearsals of John Cranko’s Onegin, in which he’s dancing the title role, Soares explains that his decision was “a process that began about three years ago” during a conversation with Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare.
“Kevin said very nicely: ‘You have a few years left and performances to come, but have you thought about your next steps?’ Slowly I started to think about what else I would do.”
These are the tough truths that every ballet dancer must grapple with as they grow older: “The reality is that my time here has been finishing slowly. I can perform, I’m all right, I can do good shows, but not in everything.”
Dancing until the age of 40 was a figure he’d kept in mind, but, he says: “When time tells you: finish. About a year ago I felt ready to go. I had my journey as a dancer in this company and it’s only fair to me, my colleagues and the audience to see me as close as I am to my top level.”
Not that Soares will be putting his feet up after Onegin. He has a number of projects on the go, seeded from several forays beyond the ballet stage. “At 35, I started going back to Brazil to perform and produce some shows. I started testing things and I discovered that there were other things I’d like to try. But this is such a special career and such a special place that you feel: ‘Oh my God, is it okay to have different desires?’”
Those worries didn’t stop him. In March, he’ll open his own studios in Rio de Janeiro – “a dance centre, not just for ballet, with a big team working on rehabilitation for dancers and people who’ve had accidents” – and release a book “that goes right inside the process just before going on stage”.
The latter project emerged from HBO’s recent documentary Principal Dancer, which followed Soares during rehearsals in London and Brazil. “I felt that was a very honest film. After it came out, I was approached by a book company. They said: ‘We know about your career and there are certain things that aren’t in the film, would you like to share the other bits?’ ”
Besides putting pen to paper, Soares’ choreographic ambitions have also come to the fore. Since creating an homage to composer Hector Berlioz, called Be-Marche: Berlioz Nights, for Rio’s municipal theatre, he’s been invited back to choreograph an opera adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s Yerma, which opens in April. Choreography was something he kept “really quiet about”.
He continues: “If people heard that ‘Oh, Thiago is choreographing’, everybody would be doing the eyebrows” – he raises them sceptically – “I didn’t want the eyebrows. So I kept a low profile.”
In May, he’ll also be touring to Lisbon and Berlin with Roots, a 2016 show devised by commercial choreographer Ugo Alexandre that reflects on Soares’ youthful beginnings as a hip-hop dancer. It was Alexandre, then a teacher at a local dance school in Rio, who first suggested to 14-year-old Soares that ballet could improve his b-boying skills. He’d taken up hip hop at 11.
“It was a neighbourhood thing and my brother used to dance as well. I started going because I liked the attention… It turned out I had discipline.” Unfussed by his teacher’s suggestion, Soares went along to the ballet school. “It became my life pretty quickly. They had about 300 girls and four guys. I arrived there, a b-boy who wasn’t afraid of lifting, and they adored me straight away. At the time my mum and dad were separating, but I knew the teachers had a bigger plan for me. They didn’t want to put me in a studio to do a couple of brisé volés nicely; no, they wanted to make me into something.”
It worked. Soares joined the municipal theatre’s company and won gold at the 2001 Moscow International Ballet Competition. “That’s when it all changed for me.” He auditioned for the Royal Ballet and, having been a principal in Rio, joined the corps de ballet in London. “I always knew there was something in the Royal Ballet about that combination of theatre and dance, ballets in which you can be somebody else.”
What was your first professional theatre job?
Municipal Theatre Ballet, Rio de Janeiro
If you hadn’t been a dancer, what would you have been?
I was pulled into dance, but I always liked the idea of becoming somebody else and characterisation, so maybe a theatre actor. There is something about narrative that gets to me. I love those journeys.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I’m very thankful to have worked with two influential dancers: Carlos Acosta and Jonathan Cope. Also, the ballerinas I’ve partnered: incredible people like Darcey Bussell, Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo, Marianela Núñez and all the current generation of principals. I learnt a lot from Sylvie Guillem and Monica Mason. I was lucky that I had people with me who knew more than me.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Expect nothing and give it your all. Be open to the magic of surprise. Expect nothing, because that can be painful. We torment ourselves with the hope of what could be, but when we let it go, that’s when the magic happens.
Intense dramatic roles, especially those from the MacMillan repertory such as Mayerling, The Judas Tree and Winter Dreams, have been Soares’ forte, especially of late. It’s impossible to forget the terrifying severity of his Rasputin in MacMillan’s Anastasia, revived in 2016.
“In Brazil, when I did my first principal roles, I was that lighter figure and I wanted to dance like a prince,” he says. “But there is something dramatic about my performances that people seem to like and want to see again.”
He thanks former director Monica Mason for pushing him into shadowy terrain early on. “Body-wise, I used to kill myself doing Romeo, but I loved it. It’s tough, a lot of quick dancing. But psychologically, Rudolf in Mayerling is the toughest.”
Onegin is a role close to his heart, he says, having danced it opposite eight different ballerinas. “The magic of it is that I’m a creature from the sun, a carioca most comfortable with my top off and shorts on, but I can get into that Pushkin novel, get into the cold Russian winter. It stays with you a little bit, but I never wanted to say: ‘It’s my role.’ Those roles are bigger than us, part of a bigger occasion.”
As his own role at the opera house recedes, he’s adjusting to a new way of life. “The hardest thing for me is [not seeing] my colleagues, the people I’ve seen every day for 18 years. It’s a painful thing, forcing myself to disconnect. I’ve been in the same dressing room as Edward Watson for my entire career as principal and we joke a lot. You share so much with somebody every day: doing amazing things, having injuries and difficult times.”
Among the latter was Soares’ divorce from fellow principal Marianela Núñez in 2015, although the pair continued to dance together and remain on good terms. “We had an incredible story. We grew up together, developed international careers together, and then unfortunately life changed. But we learnt a lot about partnership, about resilience, and that’s something very rare. We’ve moved on with our lives, but what we had is of huge value. Even in difficult days when we hated each other there was something very special there. I learnt so much from being with a ballerina of that calibre.”
‘As a dancer, you’ve got to stop when time tells you to’
Soares is earnest and energetic as he reflects on the past: “I had an incredible journey here. People might say it’s a cliché, but to me it’s not: I had a magical time. I came from across the ocean with just hope. I remember seeing Darcey Bussell and Sylvie Guillem on tapes and then suddenly I’m there with them. Of course, it’s a tough business and there are moments when you want to go: ‘Adios.’ But this is an amazing place. I’ve had the opportunity to be part of it and that’s fantastic.”
As his Covent Garden chapter draws to a close, Soares’ singular story is sure to continue.
Born: 1981, Rio de Janeiro
Training: Rio de Janeiro Centre for Dance
Notable roles (Royal Ballet):
• Albrecht (Giselle)
• Prince Siegfried (Swan Lake)
• Prince Florimund (The Sleeping Beauty)
• Prince (The Nutcracker and Cinderella)
• Basilio (Don Quixote)
• Solor (La Bayadère)
• Colas (La Fille Mal Gardée)
• Romeo and Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet)
• Crown Prince Rudolf (Mayerling)
• Lescaut (Manon)
• Leontes (The Winter’s Tale)
• Onegin, Rasputin (Anastasia)
Onegin runs at the Royal Opera House until February 29. Further details are available at: roh.org.uk