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By Astrida Woods
Marcelo Gomes is the guy all the girls want to dance with.
In a studio at American Ballet Theatre headquarters in Manhattan, principal dancers Marcelo Gomes and Julie Kent greet each other with a hug and peck on each cheek as Gomes asks about his pal William, Kent’s 2-year-old son. Moments later the pair take on the personas of impetuous teen-agers in love as they launch into the famous balcony scene in MacMillian’s Romeo and Juliet—arguably the most challenging pas de deux in all of ballet. To Prokofiev’s sweeping strains, the two sail through daring lifts with impassioned abandon and split-second timing. Whirling pirouettes end in oblique embraces, and a swish of developpés culminate in an overhead lift. The duet climaxes with Juliet racing across the floor as Romeo scoops her up in mid-flight and lifts her in an arc above him. It’s the equivalent of dancing “without a net.”
At the end of the run-through, Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of ABT and coach at this session, offers a suggestion to Gomes on how to facilitate the last lift. “Catch her more as she is going up rather than down.”
It’s almost impossible to believe this was their first rehearsal together; the lifts went as smoothly as if they had been doing them for ages. Kent says, “Well, that is just a testament to what an incredible partner Marcelo is—especially for somebody his size [6/' 1"]. He is so coordinated, agile and fluid and uses his body in partnering in so many sophisticated ways. He really handles me beautifully.”
Onstage Gomes’ commanding and charismatic presence is suffused with sincere human warmth. Be he a romantic hero, a dastardly villain, or a delightful dolt, his depth of characterization lends credibility to any role he tackles. When it comes to casting the multitalented Gomes, McKenzie faces an enviable dilemma. Does he make him a prince or a peasant, a hero or a villain, a lover or a clown? McKenzie says, “You would think having someone like Marcelo would make life easy for the casting department. But,” he chuckles, “it’s an issue. I have, in the past years, cast him in multiple roles within a ballet.” Prince Siegfried and the evil magician von Rothbart in Swan Lake, Aminta the Shepard and Orion the brutish lout in Sylvia, the hero Jean de Brienne and the dashingly dangerous Saracen Knight in Raymonda—roles equal in bravura dancing and partnering. In Le Corsaire Gomes alternated between three roles: Conrad the hero, Ali the Slave of the showstopper variation, and the droll Lanken-dem—all leads with bravura dancing and adroit partnering.
Gomes, one of what could be called ABT’s “bravo boys,” awes audiences with his pyrotechnics. But it’s the 26-year-old Brazilian’s brilliant, intuitive acting that sets him apart. He breathes life into cipher princes, such as Siegfried, with soulful introspection and searing remorse, and plays von Rothbart—a major role in McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake—with chilling Machiavellian flair.
“I’ve always enjoyed acting,” says Gomes. “When I’m interpreting a role, that pirouette or jump matters, of course, but I’m someone else. I’m deep into the story and I’m not just doing an acrobatic trick. I’m really doing that stuff as Romeo or Rothbart or Orion.
Gomes first caught the attention of the press with an unscheduled performance in 2002. He was still a soloist when he stepped in for an injured principal in Onegin and danced the title role opposite Alessandra Ferri. Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times enthused, “Mr. Gomes was a revelation, turning Onegin into a tantalizing cruel love object who was irresistible not only to Tatiana but to women in the audience...Mr. Gomes’ immaculately clear virtuouso dancing burnished Onegin’s chill sensuality.”
Born in Manaus, Brazil, Gomes moved to Rio de Janeiro when he was 5 and began dance classes at the Helena Lobato and Dalal Achcar Ballet Schools, where he worked with the French-trained teacher Alan Le Roy. At first, Gomes danced and acted in musical comedies, where his acting talent emerged. “I was never shy,” Gomes says, “and I did everything full out.” Laura Alonso, daughter of Alicia Alonso, spotted the tall youngster’s natural penchant for partnering during the summer programs with Cuban and other students called Cuballet. Though he was too young and didn’t have the musculature to lift girls and lock elbows in position, Alonso insisted that he learn the basics of partnering.
At 13 and not speaking a word of English, Gomes traveled to Boca Raton, Florida, and boarded at The Harid Conservatory where, for three years, he absorbed intensive ballet training, particularly with French-trained teacher Olivier Pardina. At 16, he won the Hope Prize in the Prix de Lausanne competition that awarded him a year’s scholarship to the Paris Opera Ballet School. Before heading for France, the teenager went home to visit his family—a lawyer father, a journalist mother, his brother a comedy writer, and his sister a TV journalist—with whom he is very close and who have supported his career from the beginning.
ABT happened to be on tour in Rio, and Gomes signed up as an extra for La Bayadère. He fell in love with the company and asked if he could take company class. He was initially told no. When he explained that he was not looking for a job but was on his way to the POB school, he was admitted. He was asked to return the next day, and McKenzie offered him a contract. As tempting as it was, Gomes opted for Paris.
The French connection proved to be a turning point in Gomes’ career. He learned French from scratch, but that was the easy part. The training and discipline of the school was daunting. “I wasn’t worried about my technique before I went there,” he says. “But they told me ‘We need to break you down and work with you slower.’ I had the passion, and I think they saw the talent, but they wanted to refine everything. At the beginning I was very resistant. I said to myself, ‘What is there to revise?’ But I quieted down my passion and just concentrated on my technique. Everything had to be precise and nothing tacky like sky-high extensions for boys. And when a foot left the floor it had better be pointed.”
A year later, in 1997, Gomes accepted ABT’s renewed offer to join the corps de ballet. In August 2000 he was promoted to soloist, and two years later, appointed principal dancer.
An inspired partnership began to evolve when Gomes danced Romeo with Paloma Herrera as his Juliet. By 2002, when they performed their first Giselle, the pairing had blossomed into full-blown stage magic. Gomes brought out Herrera’s inner warmth and gave her a sense of freedom. “We like to push the envelope,” he says, “and try to find something new in the characters.”
Marcelo Gomes and Paloma Herrera in Swan Lake. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.
Herrera says, “From the beginning I felt very, very comfortable working with Marcelo. We always try to take it to the next level. We have the same point of view about how it should be, and we talk it out.” Herrera laughs and admits, “Marcelo energizes me. Even if I’m tired or something hurts, after working together we leave the studio feeling fulfilled.”
Gomes feels that partnering is basically about responding. He talks about some of the other ballerinas and how they differ. About Veronica Part, with whom he dances Swan Lake, Gomes says, “She is the ultimate Russian ballerina. She just becomes this creature-swan who is wrapping those wings around me. She almost overwhelms me.” By contrast, “Dancing with petite ballerina Xiomara Reyes is so great, I can play with partnering her—the only challenge is to keep her on the ground!” And about Gillian Murphy, with whom he dances in Raymonda and Sylvia, he says, “Gillian is amazing and so honest that you are living every single moment onstage.”
McKenzie says, “Marcelo is great with everybody, and everyone wants to dance with him. But the truth is, Paloma benefits the most from him as a partner. He makes her feel safe, makes her open up. They both feel that.”
When he first came to ABT, Gomes thought he would only be a classical dancer. “I was frightened to move my body in a different way than I was trained.” Encouraged by McKenzie to try modern works, he discovered he had a more contemporary edge when working with William Forsythe on his complex ballet, workwithinwork.
During ABT’s fall seasons of smaller works at New York City Center, Gomes became a veritable dancing machine, performing two and three ballets nearly every night. And at the Metropolitan Opera House in the spring, he alternated two and even three roles in full-length ballets. “I loved being on both sides of the big ballets,” says Gomes. He kept up this hectic pace until 2005, when an ankle injury and surgery took him out of the lineup for six months.
Gomes is back in action. This spring he will be performing his two favorite roles—Romeo and Albrecht. “Albrecht is so romantic, but also a little bit evil. He lies to Giselle and there is that whole subplot that is so intriguing for me.” He is also cast as the Prince in Kudelka’s new Cinderella, and other prince roles. No more double casting. After his injury, he has become more prudent about choosing his schedule. “Four years ago I wanted to do everything. Now I think, ‘Your muscles need to breathe and your mind needs to settle.’ ”
Looking to the future, Gomes wants to choreograph. “I hear music and I see people doing steps.” He will have the opportunity this summer working with ABT’s Studio Company.
Astrida Woods writes on dance for Show Business, Playbill, and Dance Magazine.
At top: Marcelo Gomes with Paloma Herrera in William Forsythe's workwithinwork. Photo by Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT.