Quinn Wharton

Marcelino Sambé: The Royal Ballet's Princely Powerhouse

This is Pointe's April/May 2019 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

The third movement of Balanchine's Symphony in C is designed to wow, but it's not often a dancer manages to bring unadulterated joy to its brutally difficult steps. Yet when The Royal Ballet's Marcelino Sambé ran onto the stage last fall, the bright, cheerful buoyancy of his first grand jeté drew a gasp from the British gentleman sitting behind me in the Royal Opera House's chic Grand Tier.

The stage isn't the only place where Sambé's infectious energy stands out. Time and again, company employees crack a smile at the mention of his name; a stage door attendant perks up when calling him over and chats animatedly about his performances. "He basically cheers up the whole Royal Ballet," says principal Francesca Hayward, a frequent partner of Sambé's. "He's one of those: Sunshine comes with him," Kevin O'Hare, the director of The Royal Ballet, concurs. "He's just a great, positive influence in the room and in the building."


Sambé in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations

Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH

That presence and mind-set have helped the 24-year-old first soloist reach his long-term goal: to be seen not just as a "muscly, smaller dancer," but to break the mold and find his way into princely roles. "My goal was never to do Basilio. I wanted to be Romeo, Albrecht," he says. After a stress fracture derailed his debut in Giselle last season, he's back on top and hungry to graduate from Mercutio to Romeo this April. "Seeing him develop outside the box has been really thrilling," O'Hare says. "The mixture of ease of technique and innate characterization he can bring to these roles is really special."

It's not the first time Sambé has beaten the odds. Born in a poor area on the outskirts of Lisbon, he comes from what he describes as "quite a rough background." His father, who hailed from Guinea, died when he was 8. Guidance came from an "incredible" local community center, which provided a range of activities—including African dance classes. Sambé was the only boy in them. "I was so small that I was like the mascot of the group, and we became quite famous: We danced on TV; we went around Portugal."

The center's psychologist spotted his gift for dance, and seeing a potential opportunity for him, arranged for 9-year-old Sambé to audition for the ballet program at Lisbon's National Conservatory. "I was like: Ballet, what?" he remembers. He went to the audition in a tracksuit and sneakers, and when asked to improvise, performed his African dance choreography. "The room burst into laughter, and I felt super-happy."

Adjusting to the strict discpline of the Conservatory's Vaganova-style training wasn't so easy, however. "I always had a hard time with paying attention and focusing," Sambé says. "I was a bit of a rebel." The support and friendship of a student who was a year older, Maria Barroso, proved invaluable. Over time, Sambé developed a relationship with Barroso's family, eventually moving to live with them when his biological family struggled. "They gave me so much love and affection, an amazing space to grow, everything. To this day, if I go to Portugal, that's my family," he says.

Sambé's precocious talent brought him success at competitions from a young age: After winning first prize at Youth America Grand Prix in 2009, he snagged a gold medal at the USA International Ballet Competition the next year. A Prix de Lausanne scholarship then landed him at The Royal Ballet's Upper School, where he spent two years. "Coming from Russian training, I was so used to getting my leg as high as I could, but in London the teachers really focused on placement." His soaring jump blossomed there, he says. "I learned to engage the whole leg, so I had much more power. With that came the muscles and thighs," he adds with a laugh.

Sambé with Francesca Hayward in Sir Frederick Ashton's La fille mal gardée

Helen Maybanks, Courtesy ROH

Shortly after O'Hare offered Sambé a corps contract with The Royal Ballet in 2012, the Portuguese dancer was allowed to flex these muscles in virtuosic roles, including La Bayadère's Bronze Idol. Corps work was more of an adjustment, he admits with some contrition. "Staying focused for a long time has always been a challenge for me. If someone talked to me, I would get really excited. And then suddenly I'd be like: What's the count?"

Still, choreographers soon noticed Sambé. "Having started with African dance, I have different rhythm, which helped with contemporary," he says. Alongside roles in Hofesh Shechter's Untouchable and Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works, his harrowing turn in Crystal Pite's 2017 Flight Pattern—as a despairing migrant, inspired by Europe's refugee crisis—struck audiences and O'Hare alike. "It ended up being the pivotal role in that piece," the British director remembers.

And Sambé didn't lose sight of his long-term goal: to prove his versatility in the classical repertoire. He studied videos of dancers with different body types, from Ethan Stiefel to Sir Anthony Dowell, to figure out how they moved. "The big muscles for me switch on first so I have quick power, but when you see a dancer who is more princely, they use smaller muscles, so that the movement looks more grounded. I thought: How can I make myself become that dancer in my own way? I would soften myself in class, make sure to show quality and intention."

Quinn Wharton

O'Hare believed in him and facilitated his evolution with roles including Oberon, in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Dream. "If you wanted to, you could put him into a little box, but his way of moving is panther-like, so he can be slow and take in those big steps."

Standout partnerships have helped, too: Anna Rose O'Sullivan, a bright soloist who joined the company with Sambé, will be his Juliet this April, and he has shared breakthrough performances with Hayward, from The Dream to La Fille mal gardée. "Some of my best moments onstage have been with Marcelino," Hayward says. "He's able to just be in the moment, and I feel real emotion from him, whatever we're doing."

Sambé as Benno in Swan Lake

Bill Cooper, Courtesy ROH

Yet a stress fracture in his shin sidelined him for the majority of last season, causing him to miss out on Giselle and Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It was a major blow. "Everybody tells me 'It didn't really hurt your career,' but I know it does hurt your career," Sambé says. Regardless, he brought his trademark positivity to the recovery process. "He looked at the way he worked to see if there was anything he could change, and he's come back even stronger," O'Hare notes.

Sambé compensated with an "art overload," spending time in museums and theaters with his partner, a London-based lawyer. In addition to painting, a longtime hobby, he took up photography and started a black-and-white Instagram account (@royalballetbymarci) dedicated to intimate portraits of his colleagues.

And now that he's back onstage and working towards Romeo, this singularly creative, ebullient dancer—who also choreographs in his spare time—is ready to play a leading role in the exciting generation O'Hare has nurtured. "I can really bring a different point of view, and I want people to see me as a full artist, rather than this athletic creature," says Sambé. And with that, he's off—smile in tow, of course.

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Take Class From Celebrated Black Dancers and Raise Money for the NAACP Through Dance for Change

Since the nationwide fight against racial inequality took center stage in May, organizations across the dance world have been looking for meaningful ways to show their support, rather than fall back on empty social media signifiers. July 10-11, Diamante Ballet Dancewear is taking action with Dance for Change, a two-day event dedicated to fundraising for the NAACP, and amplifying the voices of Black professional dancers.

Organized by Diamante Ballet Dancewear's founder, Nashville Ballet 2 dancer Isichel Perez, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre teacher Elise Gillum, Dance for Change makes it easy to participate. Dancers need only to make a donation to the NAACP (in any amount) and email proof to diamante.ballet@gmail.com to be given online access to a full schedule of Zoom master classes taught by Black pros artists. Teachers include Ballet Memphis' George Sanders, Boston Ballet's Daniel Durrett, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, and more. "It's important that we amplify BIPOC voices during this time, and it's also important that we're conscious of where we're putting our dollars," says Bourbonniere. "Diamante is doing both with Dance for Change, and I'm honored to be in this talented group of melanated dancers."

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Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

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SAB Student Founds Dancewear Nonprofit to Help Others in Need

When School of American Ballet student Alexandra de Roos was 8 years old, she placed a collection box at her dance studio for others to donate their gently used dancewear. De Roos, now 17, has since turned that single collection box into a nonprofit organization that aims to minimize economic barriers in the performing arts with free dancewear and classes.

De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

After SAB shifted its winter term online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, de Roos decided to expand Peace Love Leotards. She reached out to dance companies, resulting in partnerships with brands including Jo+Jax, Lone Reed Designs, RubiaWear and Wear Moi.

"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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