Boston Ballet Principal John Lam Opens Up About Leaving Home to Train, and Being a Dancing Dad
Who was a role model for you growing up?
Mikko Nissinen. When I was around 14, he retired from San Francisco Ballet and took over my school, Marin Ballet. He was my first male ballet teacher and role model in the dance world. Then he left to direct Alberta Ballet, and I went to Canada’s National Ballet School. He later became artistic director at Boston Ballet, and when I graduated he invited me to join the company.
How did you decide to attend NBS?
Cynthia Lucas, who succeeded Mikko at Marin Ballet, said, “Listen, if you want to make it in the ballet world, you need to go to a pre-professional school.” She had been a dancer and ballet mistress at National Ballet of Canada, and felt the school was a good match. It had academics, which is why my parents allowed me to go.
John Lam in William Forsythe’s The Second Detail
Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet
Was it hard for your parents to let you go away to study ballet?
It wasn’t a conversation about making it into a company, it was more like “You can’t go because we don’t want you to be gay”—and that was during my coming-out years. I came out to them later and everything is fine now. But initially it was very daunting for them, letting me go train there.
How do your parents feel about your ballet career?
My parents are refugees from Vietnam. They don’t really know about ballet. They saw me dance as a child, but they still haven’t seen me perform on a professional stage. I don’t blame them—it’s not their culture, their education, their exposure. But that helped me navigate whether ballet was something I truly wanted.
What is your greatest challenge?
Managing being a dad, being fully present for my two boys and my husband, while I’m still so committed to honing my craft on a high level. My husband is very supportive and understands there’s a time line on a dance career. I’m very grateful to him and to our boys, who see Daddy dance and still come home to a home-cooked meal every night.
John Lam in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude
Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Buying bags and shoes. There’s a brand called Fauré Le Page that you can only buy in Paris. I went there when we were on tour and got a beautiful handbag. It makes me very happy.
What do you do on your nights off?
I love to cook and host dinner. Food makes people come together; it gives a sense of community. That’s important to me because my whole family is on the West Coast.
Do you have advice for pre-professional dancers?
When you’re choosing a school or conservatory, the key thing is what that artistic director sees in you. You cannot bank on the name or the institution. Find people who inspire you and will help you find your own voice. After being trained at a school you have to be confident in who you are as an artist and a dancer.