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The venerable company's newly minted principal Marcelino Sambé shows off his range at the two-week Ballet Festival
These days, New York dance lovers only get rare glimpses of The Royal Ballet, Britain's leading classical company. Once a regular visitor, the troupe was last here four years ago. But from August 6 to 18, fans can get a mini-fix at the Joyce Theater's annual Ballet Festival, which is showcasing four intriguing programs overseen by The Royal's director Kevin O'Hare and performed by his company members alongside dancers from American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada.
While works by The Royal's gold-standard 20h-century choreographers Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan are on the lineup, the two-week event also features pieces by contemporary dance-makers, including four world premieres. In addition to giving audiences a peek at the company's ever-evolving identity, it's also a chance to see The Royal's newest principal Marcelino Sambé, who was just promoted last month. Known for his warmth, engaging smile and eclectic dance background, the spirited 25 year old is performing in three of the programs.
Born and raised in Lisbon, Portugal, Sambé started out doing African dance as a young child. At age 9 he earned a spot at the National Conservatory of Lisbon, which was his introduction to classical ballet. "One of my friends from the neighborhood joined the school a few years before me," Sambé recalls. "He really made it sound exciting. I knew this would be a step up, that I would get a better life for myself. It was such a natural transition -- I just fell in love with it so quickly. Everything came quite naturally, it was not a big struggle. So that encouraged me to keep going."
In his early teens, Sambé made the rounds of various ballet competitions. His first visit to New York was for the prestigious annual Youth America Grand Prix. His second time there, he won a top prize.
Despite the tendency to emphasize technical tricks over artistry, ballet competitions allow aspiring dancers to be seen by important directors and coaches. Sambé caught the eye of the late Gailene Stock, then the director of The Royal Ballet School, who invited him to train there.
In 2012 he graduated into the company and began nabbing occasional featured roles. His buoyant jump and powerful technique made him a natural for the virtuosic Bronze Idol solo in La Bayadère, one of his earliest showcases.
He rose gradually but steadily through the ranks of The Royal, a very hierarchical troupe. Since he's not very tall, he wasn't initially cast in princely leading roles. Finally, this past season he made his debut as the male title lover in MacMillan's celebrated Romeo and Juliet.
As The Royal continues to expand its repertory by commissioning pieces from contemporary choreographers, Sambé has kept very busy dancing new works. "Now there are these incredible new creators like Wayne McGregor, who really explore other sides of the dancers," he enthuses. "Then you have Christopher Wheeldon, who has such a fresh approach to ballet. It's never boring when you're in the studio for a new creation. These ballets take you to a different sphere. It's a very exciting time to be in The Royal Ballet because it's a creators' company."
He appears in three works at the Joyce's Ballet Festival: a duet with Sarah Lamb from Wheeldon's Within the Golden Hour; as part of MacMillan's divertissement Elite Syncopations; and in Two sides of, a duet crafted by up-and-comer Juliano Nunes' specifically for Sambé and fellow Royal principal Lauren Cuthbertson. "Juliano's been a very smart choreographer," says Sambé. "He has built an amazing platform on Instagram. He has interest from so many dancers because he's so creative. He has a very, very particular point of view on what dance is. The flow is immense -- there's just so much flow. You feel very natural. I feel like he's someone to really watch, an incredible new talent."
Sambé is thrilled to be back in New York, having felt a strong connection to the city from his earliest experiences here. He mentions that the Metropolitan Museum's Camp: Notes on Fashion and the immersive spectacle Sleep No More are both on his agenda to see.
"The people here really get my personality," he says. "From a very young age, I felt it was a very special place for me, that my energy really connected. Every time I dance here, people are really warm and receptive. I feel very comfortable -- but also nervous, because I want to be really good."
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Top image: Marcelino Sambé as Basilio in Don Quixote. Photo ©ROH, 2019 by Andrej Uspenskiby.