On the Rise: John Lam
Certain gestures in the solo from William Forsythe’s 1988 The Vile Parody of Address suggest intravenous drug use and limb amputation. To perform it well, a dancer must possess rock-solid classical technique. In the final two minutes, he must also improvise a finale. And as if that were not enough, there is the strange distraction of the score, the late pianist Glenn Gould humming along to his own recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a detail that Forsythe considers essential.
When Boston Ballet soloist John Lam danced it at the company’s gala in October 2008, the dance seemed to summarize everything he had worked on for years and to suggest a limitless future for the 23-year-old. Lam demonstrated the contrasting yet parallel elements in the solo effortlessly. On his body, they became an extreme act of multitasking. Classical steps—an arabesque, a rapid pirouette—flew out confidently along with anguished, transcendent gestures and facial expressions that swung between terror and euphoria. “It put me in a different category,” says Lam. “Everyone got to see a different John.”
Now 25 and in his fifth season with Boston Ballet, Lam has had plenty of time over the past year to contemplate his career. While dancing the lead Russian in The Nutcracker just two months after his success in Vile Parody, an anterior cruciate ligament tear put his performances on hold. “I was jumping way too high,” Lam admits, “and it just happened. There were many things on my plate and it was hard to see that all go.” His surgeon told him it would be a year before he returned to the stage. BB artistic director Mikko Nissinen proved supportive. “An injury of the type John sustained can be a temporary setback,” he says. “But it can really make you learn a lot, and in the long run, make you a better dancer.”
Lam grew up in a Vietnamese-Chinese family in San Rafael, California, and began dance classes when he was only 4. “My parents worked very hard and had to put me in a daycare center,” Lam says. Luckily a dance program, Performing Stars of Marin, offered the benefit of two more hours of child care each day.
Though his parents did not understand his growing preoccupation with ballet, at 15 Lam went to live in Toronto to study at Canada’s National Ballet School. The school’s artistic director, Mavis Staines, was a crucial advocate, since Lam’s parents were hesitant. “Typically, in a Vietnamese family, the youngest child does not leave home,” Lam explains. “They wanted me to go to college and become a doctor, but I was explicit that dance is my life.”
In Toronto, Lam began working with coaches like Sergiu Stefanski. (And it was to those coaches he returned, taking men’s class at the school, when he needed to get back into the ballet studio after months of physical therapy at Boston’s Children’s Hospital.) Upon completing his training, Lam entered Boston Ballet II in 2003 and joined the main company the next year. He was promoted to soloist in 2008.
Since Lam’s return, Nissinen has tried to balance the dancer’s workload with an eye to developing his classical experience. “John made big strides this past winter in The Nutcracker,” says Nissinen, noting Lam danced Snow King and stepped in to perform the Grand Pas after a year off. “It was incredibly impressive. I’m looking forward to his continued progress.”
Nissinen notes that Lam finds contemporary work like Forsythe’s a natural fit. For Lam, learning the Forsythe role from former Forsythe dancer Anthony Rizzi remains a high point. Rizzi encouraged him to take ownership of the dance. Lam listened to the music constantly, but rehearsed only occasionally. “I know that if I work on something too much it can lose its shelf life, like a carton of bad milk!” he jokes.
Boston Ballet’s ballet master Tony Randazzo has worked closely with Lam since the dancer’s injury and praises Lam’s focus in learning new work. “He brings as much to the rehearsal as the ballet master or the choreographer,” says Randazzo. “He’s like a co-creator.”
For his part, Lam is glad to be back onstage. For BB’s January tour of Ottawa, he danced the lead in Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun and performed in Sabrina Matthews’ lively duet ein von viel. He was cast as Frantz in Balanchine’s Coppélia this spring. And however alien his career choice may seem to his parents, they inspire him. “My parents made a choice and braved the waters when they escaped Vietnam and sought freedom here in the U.S.,” he says. Lam understands that courage. “It’s what it took when I told them that being an artist is not a choice, but who I am.”
Theodore Bale is a freelance dance critic in Houston.
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor