As John Lam Retires From Boston Ballet, He’s Busier Than Ever

May 13, 2024

As principal John Lam prepares to take his final bow with Boston Ballet on May 19, he isn’t looking back so much as he’s looking forward. “I thought things would slow down when I announced that I’m retiring from a 20-year tenure with Boston Ballet,” he told Pointe during a rare quiet moment. But the opposite has happened. In addition to having just gotten his master’s in nonprofit management and writing a memoir, he’s preparing to become a professor at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and take part in a new Amazon Prime series. He’s also launching his own nonprofit where he plays the roles of dancer, director, and administrator all at once. Oh, and he’s also a father of two kids.

Pointe had a chance to chat with Lam about what it’s like to reach this time of transition in his career. 

It’s the end of an era! How are you feeling as you approach retirement?

I always thought retiring would be like, “Oh, what am I going to do next?” or a loss of identity. But I feel like my identity is even more clear. Dancers in big companies are in submission to the organization, to our director’s choices. That was a little bit scary, knowing I’m not going to have that anymore. But there have been so many opportunities and incredible organizations and people wanting to collaborate [going forward]. It’s very humbling.

What are the plans for your farewell performance?

[In Spring Experience,] there’s a world premiere by Ken Ossola, who is such a dear friend. And then I asked to close with Jiří Kylián’s Bella Figura. I’m flying my whole family here. It’ll be my parents’ first and last time seeing me dance on a professional stage. So it’s going to be a lot of emotions.

John Lam hovers in the air in a sous-sus position, his arms in a wide V overhead. He wears a light blue shirt and matching tights.
John Lam in William Forsythe’s The Second Detail. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy Boston Ballet.

What drew you to the Boston Conservatory as a next step?

I want to stay in Boston. I’m married and I have two beautiful kids, aged 10 and 8, and I’ve cultivated a great community here. I love teaching, and, with a conservatory, I saw this great opportunity where I could help develop the dance department.

What do you hope to offer as a professor of dance?

My parents are refugees from Vietnam. They came from nothing, so I had to support myself as a young child; I had to hustle. I hope that story will help students understand that everyone has the potential—it’s a matter of just how you view yourself in this art world.

What do you plan to do with your master’s in nonprofit management from Northeastern?

I’ve decided to create my own nonprofit, which right now will be more or less a one-man show. I want to do a two-season program, bringing different choreographers to create a 45-minute evening for a smaller venue. I already have some choreographers slated, and am trying to get this off the ground next year. I will be part of the company, though I may slowly leave the dancing part to others, and then I would just direct it. I still want to dance, but I’d love to be an artistic director eventually.

John Lam poses for a photo in the air, his legs tucked underneath him in parallel as he twists his torso toward the camera, looking off to the side. He wears black tights and a purple blazer.
John Lam. Photo courtesy Boston Ballet.

Then why did you decide now was the time to step down from Boston Ballet?

Two years ago, I started to notice that the company was bringing back ballets that I have done more than twice. Revisiting a role is great, but I found that my fire wasn’t being ignited as hot as it used to be. And I was yearning for more collaborations outside of my job.

I also was very cognizant that I was not that younger dancer anymore. I want people to remember me as a thriving dancer rather than a dancer on the brink of getting injured.

What other opportunities have come your way?

I was approached by Amazon Prime last year for a new series. And filming starts literally the next day after my farewell show! I don’t know what the script is going to be like, but it focuses on dance primarily, and my role is a dancer in a New York company.

Is this your first time acting?

No, my first was in a Disney movie called The Game Plan, with Dwayne Johnson. And then with Shakespeare on the Common, here in Boston, I played Ariel in The Tempest. Since then, I’ve been connected with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and they are hiring me as their movement director for A Christmas Carol that they’re going to try to do every year.

John Lam pitches backward in a sauté, his right leg extended forward 90 degrees. He wears a navy biketard with long sleeves.
Lam in William Forsythe’s The Vile Parody of Address. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy Boston Ballet.

I hear you also have a memoir coming out?

I’m on the brink of having it done. The last chapter is about my final bow, and I want to go through that in order to really stay honest in how I feel.

Hopefully it inspires readers, especially [with my story] as a Vietnamese-American dancer. I don’t know of any other Vietnamese ballet dancers in a U.S. company right now. I know there must be a lot of young Vietnamese dancers who want to be where I am, but maybe don’t have the courage or know how to manage culture and family and dance.

How have you balanced all of these things?

Well, I’m also thinking of getting my doctorate in education, too! But dancers, we are always under stress. And I think that I thrive in stress. As I say, everybody has things on their plate. I just like to pile it all really to the edge of my plate.