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Interview with Marcelo Gomes

by Jerry Hochman

April 1, 2013 -- New York, NY

In a review of La Bayadere several years ago, I described Marcelo Gomes, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, as the most valuable dancer on ABT’s roster. I am aware that my opinion is shared by others. But whether that assessment is accurate or not (ABT has a plethora of extraordinary dancers), Mr. Gomes’s reputation has only grown over the years through his ABT performances and as a guest artist with companies around the world, and I know of no danseur currently performing who is more universally respected and genuinely liked.

In connection with the premiere of the film “Ballet’s Greatest Hits,” which was produced under the auspices of Youth America Grand Prix and in which he danced Prince Siegfried in the White Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake, I spoke with Mr. Gomes over lunch in Manhattan on April 1, 2013. He arrived having just completed a workout; I arrived having just completed my workout. His is working better than mine. In between his attempts to stop answering my barrage of questions long enough to finish his lunch, we had the following conversation:

Before we begin, there are a couple of things I need to address up front. First, how’s Lua? [Lua is Mr. Gomes’s dog, a cute little light brown dachshund that Mr. Gomes has previously said is the love of his life.]

[A big smile on his face] She’s good. She just turned ten years old. I’ve had her since she was eight weeks old. She’s started to grow little white hairs on her face, so she’s beginning to get old. I am too. I’m getting white hair (pointing to the side of his head, between his temple and his left ear, which to me looked as dark as the rest of his thick head of hair).

Tell me about it. But I think you have a few more good years left, Marcelo. [Mr. Gomes is 33.] The other question has to do with rumors that you’re recovering from an injury. Is that true?

Yes. I’m getting over it. It was an injury to a tendon in my left ankle, the deltoid tendon. I’ve been recuperating from it for a few months now, and missed some of ABT’s tour. And I was supposed to dance with the Mikhailovsky, but didn’t.

Will it affect your scheduled performances with ABT in DC, or at the Met?

No. I’ll be fine for them. I’ve had surgeries twice before, an ankle injury in 2007, and a knee injury three years later, and compared to those this was not serious. You know, you do twenty-three shows in two months, and something has to give. But it gave me time to go home to Brazil and spend some time with my mother in Manaus, and with my father in Rio. It gave me time to rest, and also a chance to connect with my birthplace (Manaus) and identify with people from there. I left Manaus when I was five to go to school in Rio, and went from there to Harid [the Harid Conservatory in Florida], and from there to school at the Paris Opera Ballet, and from there to ABT, so this time back home was very special for me.

Getting to “Ballet’s Greatest Hits,” you saw the film at the same theater on East 59th Street as I did yesterday. Was that the first time you had seen the completed film?

Yes. I had previously seen some of the footage, but not the entire movie.

What did you think of it?

I thought it was very good. It’s interesting and informative, and I like that it’s a real dance film – you get to see the complete dance, from beginning to end, not bits and pieces of it. And I like that you can see the emotional connection between the dancers in the roles; that’s an important quality for me, and I think for the audience. It’s pretty incredible that they were able to put it together so quickly – it was shot in January.

Was it all done in one take?

Oh no. There was a full day of filming and interviews, using different camera angles, the day before the live performance, and repeated performances the day of the live performance also. They took the best from all of it.

So that’s how they got those great camera angles. I was wondering how the audience could see the performances with all those cameras that had to be moving around the stage.

Yes.

In the film, you dance Prince Siegfried in the White Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake, with Veronika Part dancing Odette. Did you have anything to do with selecting that role, or with selecting the other pas de deux that were chosen to be included in the film?

A little. There were discussions with the producers, and with Larissa and Gennadi [Saveliev].  We decided that it was better for me to dance in one role, to show different dancers in each role, and to let up and coming dancers dance as well. I think Matthew [Golding] was the only dancer to perform in different roles.

Are there other dancers you would have liked to have seen in the film?

There are so many great dancers. Julie [Kent] has great experience, and it shows through. And David [Hallberg] and Gillian [Murphy]. But YAGP is very good about building up young dancers, and at presenting newcomers, and I think it was good to show dancers like Hee [Seo] and Isabella [Boylston] and the others.

Did you have any connections with YAGP prior to the filming?

Definitely. Ever since ’98 or ’99, when it first started, soon after I joined ABT. Larissa and Gennadi asked me to dance in the gala. I danced the Black Swan pas de deux. Since then I’ve danced at YAGP galas at City Center, and at the Koch Theater [both in New York]. They’ve also been very supportive of my choreography. They let you experiment and be creative. I was very green, and very grateful for the opportunity.

You won the Prix de Lausanne, and of course, aside from the gala performances, YAGP is a competition. What do you think of student competitions?

There are some really great things about competitions. They open a lot of doors; they give students the opportunity to be seen by other directors and companies, to look at other dancers and learn from them, and to learn about the differences between different schools of dance.   Mainly it’s a chance for students to put their training into practice by performing what they’ve worked on. That aspect I like. Unfortunately, sometimes the students are so young and so nervous that they can’t see past their nerves. I don’t like to see little kids being pushed too soon, like little girls going en pointe too soon.

Have you been involved in the competition aspect of YAGP?

No, I have not.

From what you’ve seen, is YAGP different from other student competitions?

I think that schools that normally do not get to compete usually end up having a chance at YAGP, which is great. You never know if there is a talented young girl or boy from a small school - or from Manaus, Brazil. [laughs]

What about the ballets in the film? Are there other ballets that you would have included as ‘Ballet’s Greatest Hits’?

Sure. There were some wonderful pas de deux that were left out. But they did the best they could given the time they had, and it’s difficult to get the rights to more recent ballets. I would like to have included [Sir Frederick] Ashton’s The Dream. It’s amazing how Ashton told the whole story in one act. I learned Oberon from [Sir] Anthony Dowell, who’s incredible, the way he knows every gesture.

Yes. Did you see Anthony Dowell dance the role?

No.

I saw Anthony and Antoinette Sibley.

Wow. That must have been amazing.

It was.

And MacMillan. What he did was revolutionary. He included certain themes and choreography that you didn’t see anywhere else. Like the off balance arabesque, and the choreography for Lady Capulet. Her movement doesn’t look like anyone else’s in the ballet. And also the scene with the Shades coming down the ramp in La Bayadere.

Would you have included any contemporary ballets?

Yes. [Jiri] Kylian. It’s like watching a watercolor, the way his movement flows. A lot of my movement is inspired by Kylian.

Funny you should mention Kylian. I’ve written that ABT should bring back at least one Kylian piece.

Like Sinfonietta. With the trumpets from opposite sides of the house. Have you seen it?

That’s the one I meant. I saw Nederlands Dans Theater when they came to City Center in ‘79. His choreography was like this incredible breath of fresh air.

Yes. And Petite Mort.

Any other contemporary choreographers, either represented in the film or whose work you’d like to see ABT do, or do more frequently?

Sure. [William] Forsythe. And [Jerome Robbins’s] Fancy Free. I love the way he combines dancing with acting, and that it tells a story. And Wayne MacGregor. His stuff is really interesting and challenging. And Crystal Pite. And Georgina Parkinson was always hoping they’d do [MacMillan’s] Mayerling.

Yes. That’s been on my list too. Is there anything about the film that you didn’t like? I noticed, for instance, that in many of the old images, and performance excerpts, the dancers weren’t identified. Some were; some weren’t. Like [Natalia] Osipova in Flames of Paris.

I noticed that too.

I noticed also that there seemed to be more dancers during the final curtain call than who performed in the film.

Yes. They had to cut some things, or it would have gone on too long.

Do you know what ballets that were danced in front of the live audience that were not included in the film, and the dancers who performed them?

I don’t actually recall what other ballets were performed; I’m sorry.

Let’s talk about you a little. You’re the only danseur I know of about whom no one ever has anything negative to say. You do it all. But I think, overall, your most important quality is your partnering. You don’t need to confirm this, but I know that ballerinas ask for you to partner them, and some insist that you do. You seem to know instinctively that when your ballerina looks good, you look good, and the whole performance looks good. You don’t need to show off. Was this the result of something you were taught, something inherent in your personality, or a combination?

I had very early training in partnering. I wanted to do presses like the older boys, but before I was doing presses, I was doing promenades, so I learned the importance of presenting the ballerina. Later, when I took classes with Laura Alonso, Alicia Alonso’s daughter, she pushed me to be in class with the older boys. When I eventually could do lifts, it was a discovery, and it became something added on to what I already did, not separate from it. Then it became a ‘thing’: what else can I do? And all that got added to the basic understanding of presenting the ballerina.

A lot of male dancers look at partnering as two different things: the partnering, and the dancing. For me, that’s not how it goes. It’s both together. You don’t just want to show yourself off. Sometimes, while I’m warming up, another male dancer will ask me why I’m spending so much time warming my legs, since this particular role is ‘just’ partnering, not dancing. I tell them that I am dancing – I’m dancing with my ballerina, and if I’m not on my leg, the partnering isn’t successful.

I always see partnering as consisting of a fine balance between humbly presenting the ballerina and driving the car. She needs to be complete, to feel secure, to feel free.

That’s what you said during the interview in the film, with Veronika [Part]. That you want the ballerina to feel free.

Yes. And it’s also a certain kind of respect for your ballerina. But you also have to drive the car;  to know what’s happening around you, and around her, at all times, and to control that. You can clearly see when it’s not in balance. If I had a school, I would try to have the boys have similar experiences as I did.

I recall you saying that very early in your training in Brazil you were shown videos of male dancers, and decided that you wanted to be like them. Who did you see in these videos?

Nureyev, in Corsair; Baryshnikov in Giselle. And Fernando Bujones in Paquita and Julio Bocca in Don Quixote.

Did you ever get to see Baryshnikov dance live?

No. I’ve seen him in classes, but not live in a performance.

I led the standing room line at the Met for Gelsey Kirkland’s first Giselle, with Baryshnikov.

[Dreamy eyed disbelief] Wow. That must have been incredible.

It was. Anyway, it seems to me to be very clear that Kevin McKenzie doesn’t have confidence in his home-grown male dancers, since I think he’s always bringing in new male dancers to fill a perceived void in ability, as opposed to bringing them in to sell tickets. Do you agree that younger male dancers don’t have this ability? And why is that quality that you have as a partner not common to other male dancers at ABT?

I think young dancers do have the ability, but they need time and coaching like I did from the beginning. We have a lot of dancers coming from different backgrounds, with different skills. I was lucky to have the right training early. Now we have the JKO [Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis] School, which is a great school, and a lot of dancers are coming to the company from the school.

Speaking of bringing in guest artists, and members of the company who really are guest artists [Mr. Gomes smiles like he understood what I meant], what do you think of ABT’s guest artist policy?

I’m really all for home grown dancers, having risen through the ranks. Like David [Hallberg] and Gillian [Murphy]. I know what it’s like, and the sense of camaraderie, and sense of being part of a company, that develops, and that’s necessary. I think guest artists can be good; someone fresh can be inspiring. And I enjoy seeing guest artists, and I think a lot of the audience wants to see the best.

I agree. ABT has always had guest artists, and I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity to see them, but to me there needs to be a balance.

Exactly. I’m on record on this. It’s about opportunities. I’ve been able to build something for myself because I was given opportunities. When it comes to giving a chance to someone who’s been working hard, who wouldn’t be able to have an opportunity, and then give that opportunity to a guest artist, that’s a shame. Only by experience and getting out there and falling and getting yourself up again can you learn and grow in a role and as a dancer.

Yes. It seems that a dancer rises to the level of soloist, and then gets stuck in soloist purgatory.

[Grins and nods.] Soloist purgatory. That’s funny. But it’s tough for Kevin [McKenzie]. He has to deal daily with eighty dancers, and to consider dancers that audiences like to see, and an eight week season, and the financial backers.

I love going to other companies and guest, it opens my eyes to different productions and dancers, but I know that for the dancers in that company it can be a very eye opening experience or a frustrating one. I can see both sides.

Speaking of guest artists, it seems to me that you have a particularly special relationship with Diana Vishneva. Do you agree?

[Mr. Gomes smiles with a twinkle in his eyes] Yes. How to describe it in words. It’s about a feeling. About how I’m able to be in control and be humble and she’s able to be as free as she can be. And the way we can both be in the moment on stage. Even in rehearsals. It may be just the way I take her hand, or look at her, and the way she responds. We both start smiling. And when we dance together on stage, it’s always different. I’ll do something different, like touch her cheek in a different way, and she’ll respond in a different way, and I’ll respond to that. It’s like improvisation.

It comes across that way. I’ve seen both of you dance the same roles many times, and it’s never exactly the same. There’s always some difference.

Yes. We react to each other like it’s the first time I’ve danced the role with her, because it is. We’re living in that moment at that time. We don’t imitate what we did before. I look forward to each time I dance with her.

Are there other dancers you enjoy dancing with, or dancers you would like to dance with but haven’t?

Of course. I enjoy changing partners – they give me something different. I enjoy dancing with Gillian [Murphy], Julie [Kent], Paloma [Herrera], Polina [Semionova], Veronika [Part]. I miss Nina [Ananiashvili] a lot. And not necessarily partners who are all the same type or size. Alina [Cojocaru] and Dorothee Gilbert, for example. I think I listed everyone! [Laughs]  Once you get comfortable with a partner, you fall into a trap of everything looking the same.

What about companies? If you could dance for a company other than ABT, what company would that be?

[Lengthy period of thought before responding] The Paris Opera Ballet. Finding the time would be difficult, but it would be like returning home since I went to school there; like going full circle. I studied a year there, but haven’t been back. I learned so much when I was there. I grew up as a man there, as well as a dancer. And fell in love for the first time there. Besides, Paris is my favorite city. I think I’d feel comfortable there. I just danced several performances of Don Q with Dorothee Gilbert. It was fantastic.

I’ll bet it was. I wish I’d been able to see her when the Paris Opera Ballet was here last summer. But speaking of the Paris Opera, what do you think of Benjamin Millepied’s appointment [as Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet]?

I think it’s fantastic. It’ll change a lot of things for the company. Benjamin is a type of person who’s very driven; whose opinions are very strong. He’ll have to be careful, but some changes are good.

So you wouldn’t have any problem dancing for him?

Not at all.

Just a couple of more questions. I know you have to run. [The interview was supposed to last an hour; it was already fifteen minutes longer than that.] If you could be a different dancer, from any point in time, who would that be?

Wow. I never thought of that. [Very long period of thought.] Julio. Julio Bocca. For one, he’s South American, like me. But he was such a great dancer. I looked up to him before I came to ABT. To deliver such steps, without commenting on it! The spontaneity! And when he was dancing with Alessandra [Ferri], it was breathtaking. The whole company would come down to watch. They didn’t play at acting; it was like it was acting and it was reality.

Have you ever danced with his company?

[Big smile] Yes. I did six Giselles with Maria [Riccetto]. She’s a national treasure there.

I’ve heard. That was a terrible loss for ABT.

[Nods]

You dance before audiences all over the world. New York audiences seem to me to be particularly knowledgeable, and particularly opinionated. What do you think of New York audiences?

Yes. Both. Everybody passes through here; they can see everything. Where else can you see two different versions of The Sleeping Beauty, or Swan Lake, on the same day, just by going to a different theater. There’s an energy in the house [in New York]; an anticipation; a sensibility you don’t see in other places. That’s something to be proud of.

But that’s good and bad. Sometimes dancers can work their hearts out, and New York audiences don’t appreciate it. But at the Met, when you get that ovation, you really feel like you’ve been recognized by the most knowledgeable and toughest audience in the world. Like when we did C. to C. [Close to Chuck], that ABT did several years ago. That was a real artistic collaboration between [Philip] Glass, Chuck Close, Jorma Elo, and the dancers. And to see and hear the audience go wild for something new was incredible.

I’m sorry I missed that.

Lots of times, when I’m at the Met, and the audience is cheering us, I go out of my body, and think to myself in amazement: ‘Who do you think you are?! Look at you now! Look at what this little boy from Brazil has done!’ I appreciate having the opportunity to feel that.

You throw him a softball, and he hits a home run. And with that, and the characteristic twinkle in his eye (and already half an hour late for a rehearsal), Marcelo Gomes quickly exited the restaurant with his usual flourish.


 

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