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    Marcelino Sambé 2019

    Marcelino Sambé

    Principal, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, October 08 2019

    In welcoming Marcelino, David expressed “very special pleasure” in being able to congratulate the first Ballet Association Award winner to become a Royal Ballet Principal (applause!). In fact, Marcelino had won the award in both his first and his second years at The Royal Ballet School (RBS) and had spoken to the Assocation then (in 2012 along with Yaoqian Shang and Nina Tonoli and, in 2013, alongside Annette Buvoli and Yaoqian Shang). Marcelino interjected that receiving such recognition was very important for him: it marked him out at a time when everyone felt on the same level and everything seemed routine. David remarked that, by his promotion, Marcelino had ‘beaten’ Yaoqian, who was a First Soloist with Birmingham Royal Ballet, thus “getting his own back” for the Moscow competition where she had won a Gold when he got a Silver!

    Asked to remind everyone of his background, Marcelino said that he came from the Alto da Loba suburb of Lisbon which had a strong African culture. The community centre there not only “kept kids out of trouble and made them do their homework” but had encouraged artistic interests and had great parties with a lot of dancing. As early as aged four, Marcelino would move to the beat of the music and he soon became part of a group where he felt huge encouragement from the others, partly because his flexibility indicated a particular facility for African dance. He felt “something special” inside himself too and tried hard to become stronger so that he could dance better.

    When he was aged eight, the community centre’s psychologist (Maria Rosa “an incredible friend”) suggested to him that he had a special talent for dance and should audition for the National Conservatory. He didn’t fully connect with what she was saying until she asked him whether he had seen Fame –which he had, of course, although he had been mostly interested in the hip hop moves. Some months later, he went along to the audition, which was in central Lisbon, where he had never been before, in an impressive renaissance building. He was not only awestruck by the surroundings but sensed that he was completely out of place as he didn’t know any ballet steps and was dressed in a tracksuit and trainers when everyone else was in full ballet kit. At first, Marcelino tried to cope with the situation by copying the other boys; but he had a voice inside him saying, “I want to be the best; this is my chance”. So, when they put on some Scott Joplin music and said, “Just dance”, he relaxed into his African-style rhythmical movements and was rewarded with “massive smiles” from the judging panel.

    Joining the Conservatory aged nine was a huge cultural shock for Marcelino and he found himself in trouble during his first weeks, including getting into fights. In his primary school, he had been part of a large class but, in Lisbon, he was with a very small and focused group of just five boys. Initially, he thought to himself that it wasn’t going to work out for him socially and he is now gratefully aware that the staff had needed to put in a lot of effort to help him settle. Even so, almost from the very first ballet class, he felt encouraged by the physical ease he had in picking things up and the positive feedback he was getting. Academic studies at the Conservatory were (and still are) integrated with the dance classes, as they are at the RBS, and the teachers were very clear that Marcelino needed to progress in both areas if he was to succeed.

    Shortly after he started at the Conservatory, Marcelino’s father, who had been very supportive of him wanting to pursue ballet, died as a result of a disease he contracted during a return visit to Africa. It was a very difficult time for the family and his mother wasn’t able to stay strong enough to take care of him as well as his sister, especially when he needed a constant supply of clothes for class. So, following several discussions and in view of his relatives living some distance away in the south of Portugal, he began by going home with various fellow students. He experienced great warmth in their homes and felt that he was developing as a result of being able to eat and talk with them as families. Because, by that time, the link with his mother “wasn’t really there”, one couple, the Barrosos, became his foster parents. Marcelino not only felt very supported emotionally by them but, by becoming a member of their family, it made him “just like other kids”. As far as his dancing was concerned, they helped him to stay focused and they were also “very strict with the academics”.

    Marcelino studied at the Conservatory for about six years until he was fifteen. However, the teachers, including the Director, seemed to see something special in his technique which caught their attention and this resulted in his being put forward for international competitions relatively early. By that stage, he also had a private coach for ballet, Mikhail Zebilov,a former Mariinsky dancer who taught him according to Russian methods. Over a two to three year period, this involved extra lessons after normal hours, usually between 7.00 and 9.00pm each evening, with pas de deux work as well as solo technique.

    One of the first really big competitive events for Marcelino was the Moscow Ballet Competition (2009), which was held at the Bolshoi. He found this “super special” because of where he was and stood in the theatre thinking to himself, “Wow! You’re here! You’ve won already!” Being part of the process was “incredible”. Marcelino’s teacher “knew everyone”, he found himself in same studio as Vasiliev, and he was networking with the other competitors and exchanging e-mails. Travelling away from Portugal was another bonus in terms of Marcelino’s personal development.

    The competition itself had three rounds. In Round 1, Marcelino danced the variation from the Santanellapas de deux, also known as Carnival in Venice.For Round 2, he chose the famous solo from Le Corsaireand a contemporary piece made for him by a “genius choreographer” who seemed to be able to “create something from nowhere” in a matter of hours. Marcelino noted that, whereas everyone in Russia was familiar with the classical Le Corsaire,the new, modern work had real meaning and therefore made a different kind of impact, resulting in him being called back for three bows. (Marcelino imitated himself going off stage and then hurrying back again as the applause. continued.) At the Round 3 stage, Marcelino danced an extract from Marius Petipa’s The Cavalry Halt,which he described as a strange character piece, and the Flames of Parissolo. There was a time lapse before all the results were announced and then he learned that he had won the Silver Medal in the Junior Division. A win like this was really significant in Portugal because, Marcelino explained, it is a country where ballet is a niche interest rather than part of the national tradition as it is in, say, Russia. Consequently, the win “changed the game” for him.

    David enquired as to how Marcelino managed with the language when he was in Moscow. Marcelino explained that his adoptive family were good linguists and his teacher’s Portuguese was “so broken” that he was working with him mainly in Russian. Therefore, there were there no real barriers to communication and, even though he was still so young, Marcelino was happily travelling around on the Moscow Metro feeling quite at home. He had very fond memories of the city and the smiling friendliness of the Russian people.

    Another big competition was Jackson in 2010. Marcelino had the feeling that he would pursue his career in the USA and, again, he enjoyed every moment of the experience. Kimin Kim was in the gym, stretching while all the time watching Friends, and they built a real friendship which continues to this day. “I was only 14 years old, but I felt really comfortable”, Marcelino added. The competitors were there for almost a month and doing class (ballet and contemporary), rehearsing and being able to watch everyone inspired him a lot and he felt somehow older and more confident as a result. They had to present nine solos and Marcelino thought that his mix of classical and contemporary showed his versatility. When the results came out, the 3rd place in the male Junior Division went to Derek Dunn, now a Principal with Boston Ballet, Kimin Kim (“the best dancer I’d ever seen”, said Marcelino) was placed 2nd and Marcelino was 1st. This win, in particular, made him feel that he could be a little bit different and still be successful as a dancer.

    At this point in the evening, Marcelino realised that he had forgotten to mention the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) in New York. He had participated twice in the Junior Age Division, coming in the top 10 men in 2008 and winning the male gold in 2009. This was where he got to know a number of the dancers who would become his fellow students at the RBS – for example, Esteban Hernández and Joan Zamora. In addition, “IT WAS NEW YORK!” and the city gave Marcelino a great feeling, not least because of its diversity. The environment filled him with ambition, perhaps more so than anywhere else at that juncture. He also thought that, in the context of the YAGP, he had come to a better understanding that ballet was “not just about the fireworks” and it was just as important to get inside, and portray, the character. Marcelino added that technique has since progressed still further and he is amazed at the ability of dancers younger than him to do “crazy jumps and spins”.

    Gailene Stock, the then Director of the RBS, had spoken to Marcelino years earlier in a competition in Italy and he had noted who she was. Subsequently, he had visited London, had been to museums and the Royal Opera House, and liked its cultural feel. The trip had also focused his mind on the Royal Ballet. However, there was no further contact with Miss Stock until many years later at the Prix de Lausanne (2010). Marcelino found this competition very tough with the expectation on candidates to attend a lot of classes and coaching sessions every day. Therefore, when he was actually performing for the judges, he felt exhausted physically and mentally. He got into the final alongside his now close friend and RB colleague, Luca Acri, but wasn’t placed. Being in the final meant that he was unable to participate in the ‘scholarship class’ and he thought that his chances of receiving an offer had probably gone. However, he was invited to a meeting with Miss Stock and was offered a scholarship to start at the RBS the following September. Marcelino also had offers from Hamburg, Canada and the USA but, by then, “London was the place for him”. So, he responded with a big “YES!”

    As a consequence of his competition successes, Marcelino arrived at the RBS feeling quite confident as well as ambitious, but he was immediately brought down to earth by both the differing and perhaps purer techniques of other students and by how tall some of them were. In the early days he kept asking himself what chance he had of getting into the RB when there were all those amazing boys to choose from.

    In his first year, Marcelino’s teacher was Meelis Pakri. Marcelino had been accustomed to having special attention and extra teacher time. But, with the RBS, everyone was equal and everyone had to wait their turn. Mr Pakri was extremely tough with him and, when he was finding it hard to pick up the exercises, even kicked him out a couple of times. However, Marcelino was inspired by the talent of the other students and also very mindful of what his adoptive mother had said to him at the airport about not turning right or left and getting distracted but to keep going forwards. So, he was determined to make it work and found comfort in the fact that his classmates envied his particular dancing abilities even though he was initially struggling overall. As time went on, Marcelino enjoyed being responsible for himself more and more, although he needed to be strong-minded and avoid the temptation of going to parties.

    Asked about highlights from his time at the RBS, Marcelino mentioned being taught by Gailene Stock, who was very direct and honest with him. On the day (in autumn 2012) that she told him he had a contract with the RB, she had taken the third year class and, speaking to him afterwards, had emphasised that he was shorter than many dancers and that his technique was a little bit different. She told him never to be content with what he had done but “work double” so that he could “be excellent”. Only then did she reveal the news about the contract, which would start in two weeks’ time.

    Another highlight was gaining the Lynn Seymour Award for Expressive Dance. This internal RBS competition was designed to put the spotlight on dramatic dancing, as Seymour herself had done throughout her career, and was open to second year students. Marcelino danced a solo from Roland Petit’s L’Arlesienne.Marcelino had also put himself forward to make his own piece for the Ursula Moreton Choreographic Competition. Experimenting with choreography was something he had wanted to do for a long time so, when the opportunity arose, he immediately put his hand up and was one those chosen to participate. He thought that he came 2nd or 3rd but, for him, the main outcome was the pleasure of working with a group of dancers towards a common goal. He used African music and he felt “so fulfilled and joyful” at being in the studio creating in this way.

    Prompted by David, Marcelino added John Neumeier’s Yonderlingto his list of highlights. To Marcelino, Neumeier was a “living legend” who, suddenly, was in the studio, not only watching him but then choosing him to be the “main boy”. This piece, which Marcelino described as contemporary with a lot of emotion, involved many rehearsals over a long period of time and Marcelino felt huge support from everyone in wanting him to do well. Currently, Yonderlingis in his Top Ten of the works he has danced.

    Marcelino joined the Royal Ballet as an Artist in November 2012 along with Anna Rose O’Sullivan, after “only a week to get their clothes together” as they were used to wearing the RBS uniform all day. His choice of a bright orange leotard proved to be rather different from the selections made by other dancers and this led to Alina Cojocaru, who also favoured orange (which has healing properties according to Marcelino), not only commenting on his attire but also suggesting a competition to see which of them could wear the most. “YES”, thought Marcelino. He added that both Alina and Johan Kobborg had been very kind and encouraging to him.

    Marcelino admitted to wanting to do more than was possible for a newcomer in the Company and that he found it difficult to be patient when others were occupying the roles he would have loved to be dancing. So he tried to find ways of “enjoying the moment”, including relishing putting his make-up on, playing and feeling the music, and joking with friends in the wings. Then he discovered the video room where it was possible to watch all the back recordings of ballets and have a close look at the various interpretations of the roles he wanted to aim for. Marcelino added that, unfortunately, dancers now had to go online to watch recordings and there was no longer the breadth of choice that he had found so valuable.

    In 2013, when Christopher Wheeldon began creating Aeternum,to music by Benjamin Britten, Steven McRae was down as the first cast lead, with James Hay as second cast and, much to Marcelino’s surprise, him as cover. However, Steven went off, James “moved up” and Marcelino was encouraged by Christopher to become the second cast. So, Marcelino became fully engaged in the creative process.

    His next significant role was in La Bayaderewhere Marcelino was chosen by Natalia Makarova herself to be the Bronze Idol. He could scarcely belief his good fortune as she was one his idols and, in addition, he was properly cast whereas some soloists were listed as covers. He also had the privilege of being coached by Makarova alongside the other Bronze Idols. He remembers that she looked “the real diva” with her headscarf and people fussing around her. When his turn came, Marcelino took up the sitting pose with his arms up but his hands shaking. He got up, did the circular run and was just about to start the dance itself when Makarova called out, “Stop! Go back!” The second time, she let him complete the solo and congratulated him in Russian.

    Marcelino said that he was incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to mix big roles with being a team player in the corps so early in his career but “things were different then”. Kevin O’Hare had only just taken over as Director and the pool of young talent might not have been quite as large as it is now. Marcelino’s second year (2013/14) was “a bit slower” but that had given him the chance to become a “really good company member” and consolidate his knowledge of the repertoire. He was promoted at the end of that season.

    His first, full length principal role came at the beginning of the 2016/17 season when, as a Soloist by then, he was cast as Colas opposite Francesca Hayward in La Fille Mal Gardee.He had danced other roles in the ballet, for example Cockerel and Flute Boy, the previous year and it felt amazing to “reach the pinnacle” of being given the lead. He was coached primarily by Ricardo Cervera, who had danced the role himself, but also by Lesley Collier who was, in fact, mentoring Ricardo as a coach. Marcelino said that he and Frankie were good friends and that she was very easy to work with, generously allowing him time and space to work to get things right. He had been so anxious to do justice to the role and to her.

    Marcelino wasn’t sure which major role came next but thought that A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwas later in the same season. He had covered Puck previously but had, inevitably, been eyeing Oberon as a possibility for aim for. His opportunity came sooner than expected because of someone’s injury. Anthony Dowell worked with the Oberons and Marcelino said that he “adored everything about him – his elegance; his technique; what he represents in the dance world”. Commenting that Oberon is a strong individual, Marcelino explained that Anthony shared a huge amount about the character at every rehearsal and that that had fundamentally shaped his own approach. Similarly, as he was returning to Lescaut, he was watching the DVD of David Wall, whom he “would have loved to have known and worked with”. Marcelino added that “that generation – also Monica Mason and Lynn Seymour – was amazing”.

    Unfortunately, in the summer of 2017, Marcelino sustained an injury. He knew that something in his left leg didn’t feel right but the company was due to go to Japan and he was also committed to dancing in Germany, Colorado and (with Steven McRae’s group) in Denmark. This had amounted to five straight weeks of shows and Marcelino thought that, if he rested his leg for a week or so afterwards, it would get better. However, when he went to the physio, it was discovered that he had sustained a fracture and that recovery would take some time. This meant that Marcelino had to miss out on some coveted roles, including Albrecht in Giselle. The upside, however, was that he was able to go back to Portugal and re-connect with his adoptive family. Since he was aged 15, it had been as if he was “on a mission” and totally consumed with his dancing goals. But, suddenly, he had the “chance of being normal” again.

    On return to London, Marcelino had a period of six months of coaching and rehabilitation with Brian Maloney who, following his retirement from the stage, was specialising in helping dancers return from injury. “There were a lot of things needing fixing” but the process enabled Marcelino to come back with a much improved understanding of his body when, previously, he had been pushing himself without any real knowledge of his physical limitations.

    As far as Romeo in Romeo and Julietlast season was concerned, Marcelino confessed that, when dancing Mercutio, a role which he loved and felt suited to, he was always aspiring to be Romeo and to go with that character on his journey. Marcelino doesn’t actually mention to Kevin that he would like to do a particular role as he doesn’t want to be disappointed, or even hurt, by any rejection. Rather, he tries, when Kevin is watching in the studio, to shape himself into the role he is aiming for, especially when he knows that casting is coming up. He did get given Romeo and was fortunate to be cast opposite Anna Rose O’Sullivan whom he found “so inspiring” because “she dances completely in the moment”.

    The following evening (9th October), Marcelino was due to make his debut as a Principal on the ROH stage, reprising the role of Lescaut. “While, looking at Roberto Bolle and thinking that you’d like to be Des Grieux,” interjected David and Marcelino agreed!

    Marcelino reminded everyone that he had had his first show as a Principal in Japan, as Basilio in Don Quixote with Yasmine Naghdi as Kitri. He felt that this was a strong role for him and had so wanted the Japanese audiences to love him. Therefore, he had made his entrance as if to announce, “I’m a Principal”. But the first of his two shows was not his best and he was lucky that he could then reflect on things and have the chance to do better the second time around. Marcelino added that being a Principal of The Royal Ballet represented “a huge deal” with “everyone looking up to you and people talking about you making history”.

    However, his Lescaut was about visualising living the character in the context of not only the story but also the special cast that he was part of (Marianela Nuňez; Roberto Bolle, Yuhui Choë). Marcelino had watched the two main leads rehearse and commented that Roberto, at aged 43/44, must have incredible genes as he was “so in shape”. “It must be something in the pasta”, he added.

    Casting for Swan Lakein 2020 had been announced and Marcelino was playing Siegfried opposite Mayara Magri as Odette/Odile. This was another classical role which he had wanted to dance (“to have in my pocket!”) and he was especially excited by the prospect of dancing with Mayara who was “an ambitious and intelligent powerhouse”. Marcelino thought it was important, in roles such as this, that the two dancers felt connected in terms of their technique and physicality as this enables them to “bring something extra to the show”. He hoped that this would be the case with him and Mayara, although he knew that he would need to up his own game!

    David ended the conversation by thanking Marcelino for a very interesting and enjoyable evening. He couldn’t think of a role which Marcelino wasn’t capable of dancing! Everyone looked forward to watching him and wished him a wonderful future as a Royal Ballet Principal.

    Written by Linda Gainsbury and edited by Marcelino Sambé and David Bain

    © The Ballet Association 2019