Too many seasons have slipped by without my having caught up
with Smuin Contemporary Ballet. It was heartening to see how seasoned the small
but surefooted company, treasured in the San Francisco Bay Area for its
showmanship, has become under the hand of Celia Fushille. The three pieces on
the Dance Series 1 program, “Take Five” by Rex Wheeler, a send-up of the jazz
age with a splatter of current day sizzle, Smuin’s tour de force, the venerable
“Carmina Burana,” and James Kudelka’s “The Man in Black,” a rhythmically
sophisticated story-telling work seeded with Rubik’s Cube-like challenges which its
quartet of dancers fashioned into a company triumph, gave such dancers as Terez
Dean-Orr, Zachary Artice, and João Sampaio a chance to show a brand of
brilliance that lent the work a reverential patina.
Sampaio, who joined the company in 2019, studied classical ballet in his hometown of Tres Rios, as well as in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He won the 2019 International Youth Grand Prix and 2014 World Ballet Competition, and has danced with Tulsa Ballet and the Providence Festival Ballet. We spoke by phone on Sept. 25, 2019.
Toba Singer: What were the circumstances led you to a career in ballet?
Joao Sampaio: I was attending a new high school in the town of Tres Rios in the State of Rio de Janeiro. All the girls in my class danced, and since some of the boys in that class tended to be bullies, I became friends with the girls. I went to the studio with them, and when I saw them dance, I wanted to do dance
TS: The quality of your training is evident not only in your
beautiful feet and technical excellence, but in the musicality and energy that
infuses even your most ephemeral preparation or transition. Your dancing never
asks the audience to wait to see the next step. It’s always “just there.” How have
you achieved such mastery so early in your career?
JS: Mostly I feel that I’m courageous and not shy about trying new things. Because I started so late, my teachers worked very hard to bring me along. I’d take three or four classes a day, both intermediate and advanced. It was so hard that I cried, called my parents to complain, and I’d threaten to quit every day, but the big push that my teachers gave me helped me to grow technically and artistically. Thank God I didn’t give up!
TS: Based on that experience, would you advocate that boys start later?
JS: Sometimes I wish I had started earlier, but because I started late, I had to really push, and maybe that helped me to develop good work habits and fearlessness.
TS: Though there have been exponents of Brazilian ballet, in the U.S., beginning with Stuttgart Ballet’s Marcia Haydée and later on, Pollyanna Ribeiro (Boston Ballet), Leticia Oliveira (Texas Ballet Theater), Vitor Luiz and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira (San Francisco Ballet), and Jeraldine Mendoza (Joffrey Ballet), and in Chile, Ballet de Santiago’s Andreza Randizak, Brazil has largely gone unnoticed as a training destination. Can you give us a little background on ballet schools in Brazil?
JS: The story of ballet in Brazil is very daunting, because
the only places you can study in a serious way are in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paolo.
Luckily, it turns out that we Brazilians are a tough race of people, and even
with the political problems we face and the corruption in our society, we manage
to make it work. When we want something, we are strong and focused. At the
Municipal Theater School, you must audition, be accepted and certified. It’s
one of the two biggest schools. The
other is the Bolshoi, where the teachers are all Russian, a kind of baby
Bolshoi located in Santa Catarina, which we are lucky to have. I tried to
audition for those schools but was told I was too old. Other smaller schools
are as they are everywhere else, started by teachers who danced with big
companies, returned home to Brazil and opened their own schools. That would be
an option for me someday when my performing career is over: to teach everything
I learned and pass it on.
TS: Of the pieces in Smuin’s Dance Series 1 this season, which did you most enjoy dancing and why?
JS: I was most excited to dance in James Kudelka’s “A Man in Black.” Kudelka’s process is genius. Every single step has a count, but in spite of that, it made me feel like I was in my own space, just me and three other dancers. Even though it can exhaust you because you are onstage for the entire 25 minutes, the reward is that it is unique. In this last performance, Peter [Kurta, a fellow Smuin dancer]was crying onstage because it is so tough on the body, but when you’re done, there is a great feeling of accomplishment, and I think that is why he was crying. You are dancing in cowboy boots, which takes time to learn how to do, but once you’ve mastered it, you enjoy the dancing more. The only other ballet that I felt the same about was Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table,” which I danced with Festival Ballet. It was so hard to learn and required so much technique and artistry, but to master it felt amazing!
TS: Given the opportunity, what classical role would you most like to dance and why, and which version?
JS: I love classical and don’t know what the future holds, but after a big injury to my foot, I began realizing that contemporary treats your body a bit more kindly, but really, the role I would most love to dance is Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet.” I danced the role of Paris in it when I was with Tulsa Ballet. I remember lying onstage in the death scene and thinking, “I want to dance Romeo!” – the Royal Ballet version, preferably with Marianela Nuñez!
TS: The public, up until recent scandals this season and last, has been kept abysmally about ignorant about male ballet dancers. What are your thoughts about the alleged hostile acts by one or more male New York City Ballet principal dancers toward a female student at its affiliated School of American Ballet, the board members who provoked and abetted that behavior, and the investigation exonerating Artistic Director Peter Martins of acts of sexual harassment? Could you also comment on the manifest prejudice that we saw and heard in Laura Spencer’s remarks on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” for which she subsequently apologized when a trio of male dancers took her to task on the air?
JS: The ballet world is very small, and so we all end up knowing what goes on from one company to another. It’s hard to hear that such indecent treatment of women dancers took place under the wing of a company so prestigious as NYCB.
I am acquainted with so many girls who have been harassed or
TS: Could the union play a bigger role in holding its
JS: The union could play a much bigger role in insisting on a code of behavior for its members that emphasizes respect for one’s coworkers, but it won’t happen if out of fear, nobody says anything. The union really stepped up to make sure that no bad precedents were set by the company taking advantage of the situation, at the same time that it took the behavior to
I also want to say something about Laura Spencer. I’m pleased that not only
When I danced with Providence Festival Ballet in the role of Robin Hood, a mother of one of the children in the audience sought me out. She told me, “ I want to thank you: because of you, my daughter wants to be Robin Hood for Halloween!” Later, she sent me a photo of her daughter in a Robin Hood costume. She was unhesitatingly open about supporting her daughter portraying a male character. I wish every single parent was just like this mom, and if royalty has committed some very unbecoming acts across history, you have to admire this singularly elegant one on the part of Prince William: that he and Kate have supported their son’s choice to take ballet class.