Interview with Smuin Ballet Dancer João Sampaio

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Toba Singer
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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 like they did. I didn’t want to do ballet because of the bullying. So, at 15, I enrolled in the dance academy they attended and took the hip-hop class. After one year my teacher, Carlos Henrique Bonforte told me that I was “made for ballet.” So, at 16, when I realized that my teacher was right, in tears, I took off for Rio, the capital city, and entered Balletarrj, a school geared to train me for a professional ballet career. Through that school, I became a contestant in competitions and won several prizes. My teacher had been a principal dancer at the Municipal Theater in Rio. My training, with Ana Palmieri and Romulo Ramos, was a combination of Russian Vaganova and Cuban. I loved the Cuban style. My dream today is to go to Cuba and experience ballet class there.

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 mistreated, and decided to keep silent about it for fear of losing their jobs or not getting promoted or cast in a role they wanted. It’s sad that for those real-life reasons not everyone has the courage to stand up and tell what happens. I’m glad that student stepped up; if she hadn’t, it’s likely that no one would continue to. Those men thought they could get away with it because they were principals. Thank God she stepped up, and I hope that others continue to do so.

TS: Could the union play a bigger role in holding its membership to a standard of behavior that makes solidarity with coworkers a priority, at the same time that it protects its members from paying the freight for anti-woman practices encouraged by company policy, whether explicit or implied?

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 task. The company, and especially the board wanted to hide this story, but the union helped bring it out in the open.

I also want to say something about Laura Spencer. I’m pleased that not only men, but women defended men’s right to dance, seeking not to do harm to Spencer but at the same time not hesitating to set the record straight. Male dancers are always bullied. The elephant in the room is the assumption that if you’re male and a dancer, you must be gay, which carries a double-edged kind of bullying. It should be fine to be gay on the one hand, and a dancer; on the other, if you’re not gay and are a dancer, you shouldn’t be baited or challenged to prove otherwise. I am gay, and though I was bullied, the only support I received was from my twin brother, who is not gay or a dancer. In school, he and I were in the same classroom, where the class was entirely made up of boys. He defended me in every way. When I came out to him, he was the most supportive person in my life. What does a child who is the age of five (referring to Prince George, whose interest in ballet drew Spencer’s comments) feel like when bullied? If it made me uncomfortable in my teens, what impact does it have on the self-esteem of a young child? I’m glad Spencer apologized, and while it’s bad that this takedown happened, it’s also good, because everyone who shared the same bias, who had a closed mind, was given the opportunity to  change it based on the public apology she modeled, which looked to be sincere. She paid the price, but everyone who had same thoughts, learned something. As a result, I’m sure she’ll appreciate the men and women who dance ballet a lot more as time goes on. Just as men should be able to dance, girls should be able to box or engage in activities that in the past they have been excluded from or discouraged from being part of.

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.

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