It was Geena Russo, Public Relations and Marketing Specialist at The ACE Agency, who connected me with one of the principle dancers at Boston Ballet. John Lam was born in northern California and Russo thought, correctly, that I would be interested in his story.
Lam is now in the process of juggling his relationship with a career that takes him on the road days and weeks at a time. Not a new tale, you say, and that is true. What stood out and led to the interview was the fact that John Lam is gay, born to immigrant parents from Vietnam, married another man and the father of two young sons. The problem of balancing a relationship and career is almost as old as recorded history, but Lam’s story is one that has become more and more recognized throughout this country since 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled in a 5 to 4 decision that States cannot keep same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions.
For the interview, Lam and I spoke via telephone, he in Boston and me at home in Long Beach. Lam said that his parents had immigrated to the US as refugees from Vietnam with two of his older siblings. They spoke very little English and were extremely poor. Lam was born after his family had settled in the Marin County city of San Rafael, which provided US citizenship. Because both parents were working and needed a place for their children to go after school, they enrolled Lam in an inner-city program called Performing Stars of Marin. These inner-city children were given scholarships to study music, dance or join a drill team that involved cheer leading. Lam chose dancing because his girl playmates were going, and they were given a full scholarship to take dance classes at the Marin Ballet School. The scholarship also covered transportation from his day care center and back. Lam was only 4 years old at the time.
This opportunity provided a couple of more hours each day for Lam’s parents to work and earn money to house and feed their family. “At the time,” Lam said. “they didn’t really understand the concept of it all, and nor did I.” When he arrived at the school, Lam said that he cried because it turned out that he was the only boy in his class. He told the staff at the Performing Stars of Marin that he wanted to quit, but they convinced him stay through the week end. What he discovered was that there was a field trip scheduled to attend a performance of the San Francisco Ballet.
“I remember the music and watching beautiful dancing,” He said. “and seeing men onstage!” He realized that there were other men who danced and decided to continue at the Marin Ballet School. He contributes this decision to be the main reason that kept him from getting into trouble after school like many of his classmates who also grew up in the projects. His parents felt that since the classes were being paid for, he was safe and not getting into trouble, that it was well worth doing.
Lam studied at the Marin Ballet School from 1988 to 2000, taking classes with ballet notables such as Svetlana Afanasieva. It was, however, a male teacher who joined the faculty when he was 12 or 13, that would have the most impact on his dancing future. That man was Finnish ballet dancer Mikko Nissinen. Nissinen recognized Lam’s potential and for two years directed his training. When Nissinen left to become the director of Alberta Ballet in Calgary, Canada, Lam was too young to follow so remained at Marin Ballet School.
As so often happens, two years later fate stepped in to introduce Lam to Cynthia Lucas who was a principle dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. She also saw Lam’s talent as a dancer and directed him to a boarding school in Canada which offered dance training on a professional level. From there he attended Canada’s National Ballet School where he completed his education while studying under the direction of Marvis Staines. His modern dance instructor was Peggy Baker. “I was familiar with Baker’s work.” Lam said, and during his junior year, he performed a 3-minute excerpt of her work titled Unfold.
Just prior to his graduation, Mikko Nissinen, who had just become the Director of The Boston Ballet, saw Lam perform at the Canadian school and offered him a job. This was 15 years after Lam studied under Nissinen in California, and as Lam said early in our interview, his career path was filled with triangles and intersecting relationships.
Addressing his road from a kid growing up in the projects of San Rafael to becoming a Principle dancer, Lam said. “It has been an epic, interesting, long, beautiful and hard trip to getting here.” He said that he was, however, very thankful and grateful that he was fortunate enough to meet the right people at the right time who recognized his talents, cared enough and who encouraged him to continue. He hearkened back to the fact that his parents had no formal education and that there was no one else in his family who had ever danced. He considered this a plus, because in order to get where he has, Lam had to work from within and drive himself. His parents, although supportive, did not in any way push him to become a professional dancer.
Lam joined Boston Ballet II in 2003 and the Boston Ballet Corps de Ballet in 2004. He was promoted to Second Soloist in 2006 and as Principle in 2014. During his 16-year tenure, he has performed lead roles in several George Balanchine ballets including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cappélia, Rubies, The Four Temperaments, and Divertimento; Prince Desire in Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty; and the Faun in Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun. Other choreographers whose work he has performed include: Jorma Flo, William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, Christopher Wheeldon, John Cranko and John Nuemeier. When asked if he had a favorite choreographer, he answered “no“, that he “enjoyed performing the work of all of them“.
“Balanchine has given me a chance to do classical ballet. Forsythe is here in Boston a lot and I will be performing in a world premiere of his in March.” Lam said. “Forsythe has always been a leading force in ballet and has shown me how to rethink what ballet is.” Lam noted that he has also found working in Christopher Wheeldon’s work “very satisfying“.
In 2006 Lam got injured and was forced to take some time off. It was during that time that he met his future husband, whose name is also John. They dated for a while and it was after a particular dinner that Lam decided that this new man in his life was a very good and kind human being with a big heart, who was also patient and understanding of being around the mindset of a dancer.
“I think that all dancers are kind of crazy in our own way,” he mused. “and when you have a non-dancer person that dives into your personal life, that person must have some sort of patience and understanding of the craziness and variety of the pressures of a dancer’s life.” It was his new boyfriend John who opened Lam’s eyes to the reality that while he was recuperating, they could travel, meet with friends and do other things other than sit at home and feel sad. After several years of dating, John proposed to Lam, and they were married at a dear friend’s home in Vermont, nearby their own vacation getaway. Lam had been thinking of bringing children into their life for about a year before he mentioned it to John. “John is well known in Boston as having a mover, shaker kind of personality.” Lam said. “If you had asked any of his friends at the time if John would ever have kids, they would have said absolutely no!” They said the same thing about John when it came to marriage, but everything changed when he met Lam and a year after they got married, they decided to have kids.
“We were very grateful and fortunate, “Lam said. “to have two children through IVF (In Vitro Fertilization).” Their first son Giovanni, who is now 5 years old, is Lam’s biological son, and Santino, age 3, is John’s biological son. Both boys share the same egg donor, their mother, which connects them together biologically. The children are a mixture of ethnicities. Their biological mother is Vietnamese/French, John is Italian/French and Lam is Vietnamese/Chinese.
It is possible that Lam was the first openly gay man in the Boston Ballet to take advantage of the company’s maternity leave program. He said that the company’s management did not even flinch but were totally supportive with his decision to take time off after each child was born. He and his husband are a strong team, which not only makes for a good marriage, but helps with the balancing of family and career. John is a founding partner in his own law firm, and he and Lam are dedicated to making both of their careers successful, to being great fathers, and hope to raise two well-rounded boys.
I asked if the boys were bi-lingual. “Our children are bi-lingual with a language that I do not speak.” Lam said. “They both speak Mandarin.” Lam stated that his family are descendants from Beijing, China and his father really wanted his grandchildren to speak fluent Mandarin. The two boys attended a Mandarin daycare center, and have a Mandarin tutor, resulting in both speaking Mandarin and English. “We hope that they will continue this throughout their studies, and because the Chinese are expected to be a powerful force in the world to come, it would be valuable for them to speak Chinese Mandarin.” He added.
Regarding balancing his time touring with the Boston Ballet, Lam does not think of his situation to be any different than any other family. John has the type of job that allows him the flexibility to get off work early enough to pick up the boys when needed. Giovanni is in school and enrolled in an after-school program and Santino is in day care. So, the boys are immersed in their education until one of their fathers can pick them up. When Lam is on tour and John needs help, they, like other families, have on-call sitters and John’s father also pitches in to help with taking care of his grandsons.
The subject came up regarding how Lam’s family felt about his being gay, married to another man and having children. “I think that it is still very hard.” Lam said. “I don’t think that it is hard in terms of me being gay, but in that they have to face their own friends who are from a culture that does not yet understand or accept diversity. It is a social thing that puts pressure on people who are culturally set in their ways.” He feels that when his parents’ friends see him with his two kids, they want to know where his wife is. “My parents still will not say anything. They won’t say he has a husband or that he has a wife.” Lam stressed, however, that his parents love him and his family and that they are very supportive.
As in many situations, Lam does not think that it necessary to educate another person if they are not willing to be educated or be empathic to others. He used to take these encounters personally, but now he simply “goes with the flow”. He stated that he is far too busy being a good dad and a dancer to bother with how others feel. He does not blame his family for not understanding about his “lifestyle” because they were not educated in a way to understand it. What seemed important to Lam is that they love each other, and he is willing to let them cope with all of it in their own quiet way.
Lam appears wiser than his years when talking about the relationship between parents and children. “I think that society puts pressure on families to accept every single aspect of a child’s path. As a father, I am now seeing that.” He said. “We can love our children and support them, but we don’t have to agree on every choice that they make because they are their own human being or individual. We can help mold them and help to make the best decisions, but at the end of the day it is their choice.” Perhaps this wisdom comes from the experience of following his dreams of becoming a professional dancer and to live an openly gay life with his husband and children.
As for the future, Lam is 34 years old and in the ballet world that is getting close to the time when he should be considering plan B. He and John are partners in a commercial mill, the “Kilburn Mill”. It is not the kind of mill that produces lumber, etc., but a large rehabilitated former mill factory that now houses various business tenants and also artists; a “special place for artists to do their work“. Lam is considering one day opening a school there teaching ballet, or creating a space to present a “mega arts fair“.
Lam has many interests. “I love teaching, I love coaching and I enjoy choreographing.” Lam said that he also became interested in dance on camera when the director, Mikko Nissinen, asked if he would be willing to create a film dance event for the company. He said yes, and with financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), was able to make his first film, which was widely applauded.
Once his interest in film was peaked, Lam soon became immersed in creating and releasing a non-narrative dance film. The working title is Structural Movement and he described it as an experimental non-narrative dance film, which he will submit to several dance film festivals. “If we win, it will hopefully have a ripple effect”. Lam said.
The future, like for all of us, is uncertain, but Lam is grateful to have many options available to him. He is interested in many things and on top of all his other obligations he is also in the end of his sophomore year at Northeastern University earning a BA in Leadership. The program is a collaboration between the university and Boston Ballet, and his scholarship from Boston Ballet pays about 80% of the costs.
The triangular connections of Lam’s life continued with the meeting up of his west coast agent, Geena Russo. Lam was one of the featured dancers in a documentary titled Danseur and Russo is the publicist for the director of that film. “I have a connection with Russo through the agency she works for in Los Angeles. Life is a connective web of opportunities for those willing to seize the moment“. Lam said. John Lam is not only willing, he works tirelessly at creating opportunities for himself and for others.
For more information on the Boston Ballet, click here.
For more information on Performing Stars of Marin, click here.
Featured image: John Lam – Photo by Karolina Kuras