On stage, she personifies grace, lightness and harmony and is the very embodiment of classical, feminine elegance. She is flat-chested, and has arms and legs whose movements are long, soft and ethereal; her bearing is lofty, her neck slender. Her body seems weightless, even when she holds it in en pointe positions that are impossible, even strange, for merer mortals.
Text Bernardo Mendonça + Photos Vasco Colombo
Her technique in classical ballet is remarkable. It’s as if she were a perfect ballerina doll in a music box. This is why she was a soloist at the Royal Ballet of Flanders, and continues to be the principal dancer chosen by the Board of the Companhia Nacional de Bailado (CNB), the National Ballet of Portugal, to play romantic and innocent characters such as Juliet, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. Because on stage that type of magic is possible. It’s believable.
This despite the fact that Filipa has long since left her innocence behind her, and is now a 34-year-old mother of two boys: Lucas, who’s four and a half, and 14-month-old Marcus. It was due to her total commitment to dance that in her last pregnancy she danced up until four and half months in the demanding ballet, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude by William Forsythe. “It was a violent performance, always en pointe, but I held in there, full of energy. Only when I stopped dancing did my tummy suddenly grow.” Both pregnancies helped her conquer her biggest fear: “I was afraid my body would become deformed and never regain its original shape.” And not only did she not put on weight, but in fact she lost some. The miracles of motherhood. “I was a little round and I finally got the ballerina body I’d always wanted.” Having trouble looking at herself in the mirror began when she was a young, aspiring dancer. She’d joined the Dance Conservatory at the age of ten and was a little more plump than the ideal dictated by rigid, aesthetic standards, and was thus subject to much pressure to lose weight, from some of her classmates and teachers alike. Over and over she’d hear: “You’re getting a little bigger!” and “You have to eat a little less!” Fortunately, her parents wouldn’t let her diet; they’d tell her she was growing. “For years, I didn’t have a very good image of myself. Because of my immaturity. We dancers deal with the mirror every day, and we end up with a distorted view of reality. Like models and bodybuilders, each with their own – more or less – distorted aesthetic concept.” Even today, Filipa would like to have longer arms and longer legs, and feet that bend even more. All of this, if perfection existed. “But I’ve learnt to feel comfortable with my image and to work with what I have.”
She applies this aesthetic ideal not only to herself and to the stage, but also to the men to whom she is attracted. Her boyfriends have always been dancers, and thus she is married to the Spaniard, Carlos Pinillos, who is also principal dancer at the CNB, and with whom she has danced on numerous occasions. “I’m seduced by masculine bodies that have been modelled and moulded by years of classical dance.”
We change the angle of the mirror and talk about Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film, Black Swan. It tells the tragic story of Nina (Natalie Portman), the principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, and we ask if it in any way resembles her reality. With the same pain, envy, intrigue, madness, despair and hallucinations. Filipa, who has also danced the Black Swan and the White Swan, Odile and Odette, is categorical in her reply. “Of course, there is envy and pain among dancers. We’re human. But there’s no comparison. The film focuses on the main character who is schizophrenic, and who also just happens to be a principal dancer. Like me”. And just like the character Nina, Filipa also dances the Black Swan with more conviction because she relates to its emotional complexity. “The White Swan has a frailty that is not typical of me.”
Another side of this mirror are the physical deformities that come from years of dancing en pointe. Something which is unnatural “Over the years, classical dance will obviously deform the body. You get bunions, the feet become sinewy and often have sores and calluses. And what’s worse, if we suddenly stop dancing, we’ll inevitably suffer from premature osteoporosis at the age of 45 as our bones are subject to a lot more wear than those of ordinary people. This is a clinical reality and must be countered with exercise and dietary supplements.”
Filipa expects to dance for another ten years, play many more leading roles, and to go deeper and perform with even more authenticity. “For me, the high point of being a ballerina, will be that moment in my life when the curtain opens and it is me on stage. Pure. Transparent. Whether I am Juliet or Sleeping Beauty. When I’m not worrying about what people will think of me. Or if the pirouette will go well, or if my foot is stretched at exactly the right angle. It’s about reaching that nirvana, where I’m stripped of preconceptions and concepts and it is me on stage. And sometimes I get pretty close to this.”
And even when she leaves the stage one day, she’ll continue with her daily ballet rituals. “Dancing is a drug. From the age of ten, we follow the same routine every day: exercises at the barre, in the centre of the dance floor, and jumps and turns. There is a sort of devotion to doing better each time. I’m hooked on this and it will always be a part of me.” Can anybody learn to dance and pick up this addiction? “That would be ideal. Dance is part of our culture and should be accessible to everyone. Intuitively, everyone knows how to dance. It’s like painting. Anyone can pick up a brush and some paint and express something. It’s the same with dancing. It’s one of the oldest forms of human communication.”
Filipa de Castro is one of the Principal Dancers in Companhia Nacional de Bailado.