John Lam, veteran of Boston Ballet, is the only Vietnamese-American dancer in a major U..S ballet company. Approaching his 20-year anniversary with the company, Lam has a rich history with Boston Ballet fostering a sense of belonging that’s enabled him to grow as an artist, mentor younger dancers, raise a family and establish himself with Massachusetts audiences over the years. Dance Informa chatted with this vibrant dancer about what life has been like, what other opportunities have come his way and what else he’s working on as he celebrates two decades of dance in Boston.
Congratulations on the upcoming 20-year anniversary with Boston Ballet! That’s a long time to dance with one artistic director, and one company. What are some of the good and bad things about staying with one company for two decades?
“When I look back at the 20 years, I realize, ‘Wow, I sustained this for 20 years. I committed myself for 20 years with an organization.’ It really speaks to my values — how I value myself, how I value relationships, my culture and how I was brought up as a Vietnamese-American child. I take loyalty very seriously. One of the best parts is that you get to really cultivate a home. The audience knows who I am. They get to know me as a family man, as a father, as a student, as a dancer, and you can cultivate these relationships a little deeper than just the facade. Also, I get to experience coming into Boston Ballet II as an apprentice, and then now as a principal dancer. I think that’s the beautiful part. One thing not so great is that you’re viewed from one particular lens from one director for so many years. And that can be a bit hard because he may view me as this young dancer, but as I age and become a more mature and experienced artist, he might grow with me or he might just view me as that that young dancer. So, that could be hard. But I definitely haven’t experienced that. I do wonder if I would have left earlier to go experience another director, another company, another city, what would it have been like? But because of being a father, meeting my husband and having a beautiful family, I don’t think I would have been able to cultivate a family if I had done that. For me, I just happened to hit it right. I was very lucky that Mikko [Nissinen] gave me these amazing opportunities and they sustained the artistic prowess of hunger. I’ve cultivated many amazing relationships outside of Boston Ballet that I’ve been able to experience different art forms in different ways. I think that’s vital and important to ask, ‘Is this still what I want to do?’ But, this is where I want to be. The company I want to be at.”
You’ve been clear about how important your family is, and were even in a documentary about parenthood. How has becoming a father changed your relationship to dance?
“I am so grateful to be a dad, and a young dad while I’m still dancing. They’re ages 10 and eight now, and they don’t dance. They are full-fledged soccer boys, and they are very much in the soccer trap right now. The film came about when I was approached by a Swiss filmmaker named Daniela Ambrosoli, who had underwritten my scholarship when I trained at National Ballet of Canada. When I graduated, she decided to stay in touch with me. I told her that I was married and going through the process of IVF, and she asked about a potential documentary. There are four different LGBTQ families in the film. It hasn’t hit the U.S., so we decided to do a Boston opening. It was so amazing to see the support, and it made me realize people do care about the whole essence of the film, which is family is family. Love is love, we are just like any other family and we shouldn’t be really frowned upon or looked differently. Regarding dance and parenthood, you’re so tired because everything is just providing and providing, so for me dancing became this quiet place where I get to go, really be me and focus on my dancing. I think it has given me more resilience. But, I can’t imagine if I didn’t have children. If you just have dance, you just dance – and to me, the growth is harder. That’s just in my perspective.”
Between dancing full-time and raising two boys, you are busy! But you’re also finishing grad school and writing a book. Tell us about those projects.
“I’m very, very excited. We have this amazing partnership with Northeastern University and our scholarship is insane. You have to be in the company for one year and you can go get your Masters or Bachelors. I’m also writing a book. It’s something I was thinking about doing for awhile to empower dancers who look like me, who come through poverty like me, whose path was not set up for the elitist dance world. I was a child from poverty; I was not supposed to make it. The country has been doing so much with the DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) programs – if there weren’t programs that offered these little windows, I would have never made it to where I am now. I want people to realize they’re not alone, like those children who are taught in their culture not to dance because it’s frowned upon, or they have zero support from anybody, and feel powerless. I’m a product of that. And I want to empower people.”
After so long in the company, you’ve learned a lot along the way. Have you used your experience to guide the younger dancers you meet?
“Not in a formal way, but I should make it a formal thing, because I realized I talk to so many dancers asking me very deep questions. I meet up with them and talk, just giving them perspective. I think it helps resonate because I’m still a dancer. When I came in as a young apprentice, I had very experienced older dancers who really helped mentor me to develop my choices as an artist, and what I felt would be important to me as a dancer. Thankfully, I had that and I’m happy because I love giving back. I think that’s also part of the next step – how can I become more impactful?”
With an ongoing and storied stage career, a Master’s Degree on the horizon, a forthcoming book and the gift of mentoring the next generation, Lam will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on the company and city to which he’s dedicated the last 20 years. In a world where youth is prized, John Lam and his experience are clearly an asset to the ballet world.
By Emily Sarkissian of Dance Informa.