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Bolshoi Opens Doors to Brazil Poor

June 6, 2000

JOINVILLE, Brazil (AP) _ Tchaikovsky tinkles from the piano and the room-length mirror fills with schoolboy faces, their eyes as tense as the thin bodies that dip and rise, striving to please an instructor who can barely speak their language.

They all knew the Bolshoi Ballet school was tough. Still, for students like 9-year-old Rafael da Silva, just getting this far was even tougher.

Rafael is among the 132 needy children who receive a full scholarship to the school, the Bolshoi’s first outside Russia. Too poor to attend even a regular dance academy, Rafael sees the opportunity as a minor miracle.

``Maybe my sister up in heaven is helping me,″ he said. ``She always wanted me to be a dancer. Now I am fulfilling that dream.″

Bringing the school to this southern Brazilian city was itself something of a miracle. Beating out bids from Japan and the United States, Joinville (pronounced zho-een-VEE-lee) opened the school this past March _ after just 57 days of preparations.

Not that the city is a stranger to classical ballet. An industrial hub of 400,000 people, Joinville is renowned for its large German colony, a boisterous Oktoberfest and its annual international dance festival in July, the largest in South America.

But Joinville’s trump card was Jo Braska Negrao, a veteran international artist who once taught modern dance at the Bolshoi in Moscow. There she met her husband, Joao Ribeiro Prestes, the son of Brazil’s legendary communist leader Luiz Carlos Prestes, and his influence made negotiations easier.

From Moscow they brought three teachers, as well as the Bolshoi’s strict methodology and eight-year curriculum, which for the first time was allowed to leave Russia. For use of the name and method, the school here pays $120,000 each year.

``Their only condition was that 30 percent of the students had to be needy children,″ said Negrao, the school’s supervisor. ``Our total is more than 70 percent.″

The next problem was how to get the word out to kids and parents who had never seen ballet. For three months, the staff visited every public school in the city, taking life-sized pictures of dancers and arguments to disarm the dads who thought ballet wasn’t suitable for their sons.

``We touched the ill-resolved ‘machismo’ of Latin men,″ Negrao said. ``We told them dancers were simply athletes on stage.″

More than 20,000 students applied _ surprisingly, half of them boys. Of the 6,500 students preselected, 141 finally enrolled. Later, a second group of 45 older students was added for a two-year finishing course, and the top four are to join the Russian Bolshoi next January.

Tuition is about $170 a month _ compared to $1,600 at the Bolshoi in Moscow. Scholarship funds came from the city government, a supermarket chain and the federal savings bank, and more has been promised by private and government backers.

Still, no one gets a free ride. The school aims to turn out world-class dancers for the Bolshoi and other top companies, and the requirements are strict.

For Negrao, Brazilians have an edge.

``You can always tell a Brazilian dancer right away,″ she said. ``They have a natural musicality, a gift for corporal expression. They are true performers.″

In the daily 3 1/2 hours of classes, dancing is just part of the program.

``After ballet there’s music, piano, responsibility, hygiene, posture,″ counted off 11-year-old Aline Decker. ``So much to learn.″

Even more important is discipline, said Maristela Teixeira, artistic and technical coordinator. Students must keep their school grades up or leave the Bolshoi.

``We breed discipline first, so the kids know where they want to go and how to reach their goals,″ she said. ``The tradition of Brazilian education makes this very difficult, specially for boys, because they always have someone to spoil them.″

The school gets high marks from its toughest critics.

``The level here is excellent,″ said instructor Andrei Smirnov, speaking through a translator. ``The school has a high degree of professionalism.″

Students also learn a rare sort of democracy. Social differences seem to melt away as they file through the turnstile, pass the show costumes on display and head for their lockers to don practice leotards and slippers. Inside, talent is what counts.

``Here, everyone is equal,″ said assistant director Deborah Leal. ``The difference is at the bar.″

That’s where kids like Rafael can shine, no matter how hard the road that led here.

Rafael knew he was born to dance. Samba, disco _ he mastered them early, rehearsing endlessly in his tiny bedroom at the family’s simple brick shack. His ability even drew the attention of a TV talent scout, but his father was adamant.

``I was selfish with Rafael,″ admitted Odorico da Silva, an unemployed construction worker. ``He loved to dance, but I told him they would make him into a sissy on television. The Bolshoi is different. I saw a TV show about them, and I know they are serious.″

Schoolmates were even rougher. Sissy was the mildest of epithets, but Rafael doesn’t let it bother him.

``Some kids are really jerks,″ he says matter-of-factly. ``They say dancing is just standing on your tiptoes and call you names, but they can’t do the steps.″

Back straight, head high, hands on hips, Rafael displays a poise beyond his years. It’s almost as if he were on stage.

``Now I just let them talk,″ he says. ``I have a path to follow.″

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