Cover Daniel Camargo in the rehearsal studio backstage at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

Brazilian dancer Daniel Camargo steals the spotlight this summer with lead roles in the Hong Kong Ballet’s two biggest shows

When Daniel Camargo stepped down as first soloist at the Dutch National Ballet in July 2019, he was leaping into the unknown. Embarking on a career as a freelance dancer after seven years performing for some of Europe’s most prestigious companies, Camargo would find himself far from home in 2021, ready to make his name known in Hong Kong.

In March, Camargo accepted an invitation from the Hong Kong Ballet’s artistic director Septime Webre to dance the lead roles in Emeralds and Diamonds within the company’s rendition of Jewels in May, followed by the part of Romeo in its unique take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in June. A first for Camargo, choreographer George Balanchine’s 1967 gemstone-inspired triptych is regarded as one of the most daunting and technical productions to perform, due to the different styles that dancers must master. Although Camargo had already performed the classic tragedy multiple times throughout his career, dancing Romeo + Juliet—Webre’s innovative re-envisioning set amid triad gang tension in 1960s Hong Kong—was a refreshing new challenge for the 29-year-old.

See also: Hong Kong Ballet Makes A Glittering Return With George Balanchine's Masterpiece, "Jewels"

Camargo, who trained at the John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart under the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s Pyotr Pestov, started his career as a soloist with the Stuttgart Ballet in 2012. The multi-award-winning performer was promoted to principal dancer just one year later, then became principal dancer at the Dutch National Ballet from 2016 until his departure two years ago.

After a period of uncertainty and time spent away from performing, this is a momentous year for the dancer: following his summer in Hong Kong, he will appear in the animation-live action hybrid film adaptation of the classic ballet Coppelia in the lead role of Franz, alongside Michaela DePrince’s Swanhilda, or “Swan”. Camargo will also star in the Amazon Studios production Birds of Paradise, a ballet drama that follows two dancers at an elite Parisian academy, directed by Sarah Adina Smith. Both films are slated for release in 2021.

In the meantime, poised to perform both of the Hong Kong Ballet’s productions as live audiences were permitted again, Camargo met Tatler to discuss his return to the stage as a freelancer and the work that goes into creating characters through dance.

See also: Hong Kong Ballet's Artistic Director Septime Webre On Reimagining Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet

How has Covid-19 affected your career?

After I stepped down as principal dancer at the Dutch National Ballet in July 2019, I became a freelancer. When Covid hit, all the theatres in Europe closed or shut down. I knew that I was going to have a very long time without performing, so I just took the time off because I couldn’t do anything about it. After receiving Septime’s invitation in February, I arrived in Hong Kong in March and was in quarantine for three weeks. The Hong Kong Ballet put me up in a really nice place where there was a studio so I could train and get back in shape.

How do you find working with the Hong Kong Ballet different to the companies you have collaborated with before?

I have been with a lot of ballet companies in Asia: Japan, Singapore, Korea, Taipei and China but never Hong Kong. [The Hong Kong Ballet] is a very young company. The dancers are young and there is a really good energy. They are always ready to go on to the stage and they really want to learn.

Is dancing in Asia different to your experiences elsewhere?

In Asia, people really appreciate and respect the art form of ballet. This is something that Brazil can learn from. The ballet community there is very small. People don’t know what it takes to become an artist, whereas in Asia I feel that people do.

See also: Van Cleef & Arpels Present: Balanchine's Jewels Ballet At The Lyric Theatre

You are dancing the male leads in Diamonds and Emeralds. How have you approached these roles?

That will be a first for me: Jewels is an iconic piece; Emeralds features lighter movements. The characters are searching for something in their relationship. Diamonds has more weight. They shouldn’t be danced in the same way. What I try to do is to find the right dynamics, style and whatever the pieces require to get into the mood of the pieces so that they are different from one another. This repertoire is danced by many companies around the world because it’s always good for the dancers and the public. It’s exciting to do something new and dance these two roles that are very different from each other.

How do you get into character?

Through ballet, I found out that I enjoy acting as well. I start with an empty mind [ready to] get information about the characters. If the story is adapted from a book, I read it to learn more about the story, who the person is and the whole background. This makes your characters richer. I also try to get as much information as I can from the director.

In Asia, people appreciate and respect ballet. People in Brazil don’t know what it takes to become an artist, whereas in Asia people do
Daniel Camargo

How did playing Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet help you with dancing the lead role in Romeo + Juliet?

I was part of the Stuttgart Ballet from 2009 to 2016. We performed Romeo and Juliet many times, which was how I went through nearly every role. It’s a ballet that I really enjoy. Romeo + Juliet is a whole new production by Septime. It has a different dynamic with different steps. I like the challenge of learning something new and getting deeper into a character in a different way. This production is set in Hong Kong in 1963. There are a lot of things we’ll have to change and readjust [from the traditional version]. With the dance partner who plays Juliet, I always try to find how we’re going to interact with each other, make the story believable and tell the story together. The ballet master always helps us by watching from the front and advises us as a director, but he also gives us freedom to bring our own interpretation to the piece.

See also: Hong Kong Breakdancers Set Sights On The 2024 Olympic Games

What inspired you to become a ballet dancer?

I used to watch my sisters dance when I was about nine or ten years old. The teacher was really pleased about their talent and said, “Why don’t you bring your brother to the school too? If he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t need to come back.” At first, I didn’t know that guys did ballet: I thought it was just for girls. Somehow, I was just struck by it. I really enjoyed being in the studio. Also, my family wasn’t doing very well financially at the time. They told me at a very young age that if I work hard, I could become a ballet dancer by profession. I went to the class. It clicked. From that day on, I knew this was what I was going to do.

How did you train as a dancer?

When I was 14, I went to Germany on a scholarship to finish studying at the John Cranko School. I had a Russian teacher, Pyotr Pestov, whose classes would last for three hours. He was very strict and he taught in a very Vaganova style [a ballet technique and training system that involves strict poses, blending Imperial Russian and Soviet-era techniques]. After that, we would have rehearsals for the shows and many hours of practice. We had to be very disciplined. 

What are your plans?

I want to come back to Hong Kong after Jewels and Romeo + Juliet. The company and I are trying to figure out our time and the productions that I’ll be joining again. Whenever I have free time, I like to do things that are completely different from dancing. I love going snowboarding in the mountains in winter and surfing on summer nights.

See also: Hong Kong Dance Company Kicks off 40th Anniversary Celebration