Interview with Marcelino Sambé

Photo: Frederico Martins

Interview: Cláudia Pinto

A Portuguese who plays his cards right in London on the stage of the Royall Ballet School. It sounds like the prelude of a novel, and the story of Marcelino Sambé could very well originate a wondrous Nobel. But, for the moment, it is in the dance that the awards, international recognition and the newest challenge of being the face (and feet) of the Portuguese footwear industry for next year dwell.

He has just been chosen as the personality of the year, the Martha de la Cal prize for the foreign press, awarded by the Foreign Press Association in Portugal. A recognition he views “with great happiness” because it allows him to achieve such a popularity level by only “doing what I do”.

He started dancing quite early, at the age of four or five. “I always thought I was different from other kids. But whenever I danced at parties or weddings, I felt that everyone else’s eyes were on me differently. I felt special. I always knew that what was extra about me was my dancing and the way I entertained others”. From there to the Alto da Loba Community Centre was a hop. “I started dancing in Alto da Loba, essentially African dances like funaná and kizomba… The community centre was a great reference for me because it provided me with the opportunity to perfect my gifts. It was a community of emigrants from Angola and Mozambique, and we had great cultural diversity. It was the first sport modality that I took more seriously”.
And it was at that community centre that he began drawing attention to his talent, when Maria Coelho Rosa, one of the coordinators, proposed he auditioned for the Lisbon Conservatory. “One day, we went to Lisbon, to Bairro Alto. She told me: you are going to audition. If you get in, you get in, if not, it was a good day visiting Lisbon”. That was the beginning of his journey at the National Conservatory, at only 9 or 10 years old. He recalls the train journeys and the grandeur of a cosmopolitan Lisbon that was dazzling for its architecture, colours, and atmosphere.

He started competing while at the Conservatory, first in Portugal and then abroad. From Italy to China, Marcelino collected prizes along the way. “I was very young, but I never looked at those moments as competitions. I always thought I was a guest artist, and I was going to present myself to the country. It was my way of dealing with the pressure”.
At the age of 15, he took part in the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland (where he will be a guest artist next February). The international competition was very demanding, and the jury included the director of the Royal Ballet School (RBS), who Marcelino wanted to impress. “When the curtains closed, I was only a finalist and did not win any of the prizes. What I wanted more was the scholarship at the Royal Ballet School. And I thought, ‘I didn’t get it’. But then the director of RBS came on stage and said, ‘you should have won, but that is OK because I am going to give you the scholarship anyway’. A few months later, I was on my way to London with the RBS scholarship and another one from Gulbenkian. It was a dream come true”.
However, not all moments were happy. Entering the school was a challenge. “When I arrived at the Royal, I had many doubts about my talent. I was very young, and the environment was sterile, very different from Portugal. There was no idea that everyone could dance. There were around 40 of us dancers, all with carefully crafted bodies”. Later, “I began discovering the English style, much more focused on interpretation”.
The doubts continued, but they were quickly dispelled. At the end of the second year, RBS offered Marcelino a contract. “It was incredible. I was only 18 years old, and it was a shock”. At 18 years old, the Portuguese was one of the names in the RBS ballet company. Now, as he completes his 10th season, he is in Portugal as a guest artist with the National Ballet Company.
“Dance taught me the meaning of living. It is strange saying this, but it really did. There is a huge lack of understanding about children knowing that there is something that binds them and they are passionate about. Especially being an LGBTIQ child, when you are growing up you are really scared of society, of being out there and being who you are. And suddenly, you find an environment where you can be you 100%, you can explore how you are and who you are. There is nothing better than finding a space where you can be safe”.

Marcelino wants to be a part of the change in the dance universe. “I think about it more and more. What will I take from this life when my career is over? What have I done to expand this world? What have I given to this art? I always think that I am part of the change”. There are several issues worth thinking about. “There is still prejudice. I often say I am a dancer, and people ask me instead what my profession really is. It is a concept that is still very difficult for society to grasp, and so I feel this great sense of responsibility”. On the other hand, “I often think about what I give society. I often think about that, but then I get letters from children who have seen me dance and who tell me that I am an inspiration… that counts a lot”.
For the future, he guarantees that the will is to participate in this coming change. “I am very curious to discover new stories, new choreographers. Besides, the dance world is made up of many LGBTIQ people. And we do not tell those stories on stage. Why? It is weird. We have classical stories, but we do not have same-sex stories. I want to develop that. Classical dance can be the future, representing much more than it does. I would really like to lead my company in that direction, and change mentalities and prejudices with the body, stories, etc.”.

In 2023, the dancer takes on a new role: be the face of the Portuguese footwear industry’s campaign. “When I received the invitation, there was no doubt. My DNA, my identity, will always be Portuguese. A few years ago, I made a film about some magic shoes, and they represent exactly the feeling that a pair of shoes can give you”.
And if there is one thing that makes a difference when it comes to dancing. “Shoes are my basis. Shoes are very important. They are one of my biggest tools, and represent my health as a dancer. In the morning, I wake up and the first exercises I do are exactly with my feet”.

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