Boston Ballet's John Lam Pushes His Comfort Zone With Commonwealth Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday July 8, 2021

John Lam
John Lam  (Source:Instagram/Mark Shaw)

Fittingly, there is a burst of rain, wind, lighting, and thunder just as EDGE connects with John Lam via phone to discuss his role in this summer's Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of "The Tempest," set to run July 21—August 8 on the Boston Common.

Lam, a principal dancer with the Boston Ballet, comes to the play directly from the world of dance, this being his first theater role. It's exciting casting, given that Lam plays Ariel, a spirit that has been bound into servitude by the magician Prospero (played by John Douglas Thompson), the rightful Duke of Milan who has been banished by his scheming brother Antonio (Remo Airaldi). Prospero has lived on a remote island for many years — long enough to have both learned the art of magic from his library and to have raised a beautiful young daughter, Miranda (Nora Eschenheimer). Prospero has a second servant in the person of Caliban (Nael Nacer), a terrifying creature who is as hideous and brutal as Ariel is nimble and gracile.

A play suffused with family drama, political intrigue, and magic, "The Tempest" shares plenty of fantastical (as well as poetic, comic, and dramatic) DNA with another Shakespearean enchantment, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." John Lam chatted with EDGE about leaping from dance to the theatrical stage, his singularly apt rehearsal process, and the airy nature of his character, Ariel.

EDGE: Let's talk a little about your background. You're quite an accomplished ballet dancer, and you've got a lot of productions on your resume.

John Lam: And now I'm a principal dancer with Boston Ballet. I'm going into my 18th season this coming year.

EDGE: How did you come to be in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production of "The Tempest" this summer?

John Lam: During the summer you usually get furloughed, and we have summer holidays. Typically, we take on either teaching gigs or gigs where we dance at big galas around the world. This year I decided to put myself in a very uncomfortable situation in a world that I am not familiar with but has lots of similarities to the dance world.

EDGE: You play Ariel, a spirit whom Prospero presses into his service. It's a stroke of inspiration to cast a ballet dancer in that role. Was that something the director, Steve Maler, approached you with, or had you suggested the idea?

John Lam: Steve has been wonderful. He approached me two years ago. Actually, we were supposed to do "The Tempest" last year, but COVID hit. So they did a virtual Zoom reading of "The Tempest," which I wasn't part of, and now they're bringing it live on stage, and he approached me to see if I would be interested in taking a crack at it. And I figured, "Why not?" My attitude is, as an artist you always have to continue to stretch the limits, put yourself in uncomfortable situations in order to grow, and find new ways to do your art. I think I've done that as a dancer, and this is a whole different level of artistry. I'm blessed that this is my first acting role, officially, because I feel like it's a dancing role — [Ariel] is a spirit of the air.

EDGE: I think of "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as Shakespeare's two most magical plays.

John Lam: It's similar to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and that play's relationship between [mischievous sprite] Puck and [King of the Fairies] Oberon. I danced the role of Oberon in [George] Balanchine's dance version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," so I've been over on the other side [of that master and servant dynamic], where I am telling Puck what to do for all the [human] lovers [who are wandering through Oberon's woods]. So, now being Ariel and having that relationship with Prospero, where he commands me to do things to all these other characters, is similar, and that has given me some grounds for how to react and handle myself with Prospero.

EDGE: How are you adapting to the different performance style that's needed in this case?

John Lam: This is day three of rehearsal. It's coming along. At first, I was really, "I don't know, it's gonna be a lot of work and I'm not sure if it's something that I want to do." But when I thought about it more, I thought, "You know what, I am an experienced principal dancer. Why not? This will only enhance me as an artist, as a human being."

I'm trying to be as calm as possible and not be so hard on myself. Being a dancer for so many years, I've learned how to hone my craft, and how to stabilize things when they feel uneasy. But it's hard because as a dancer the result is quite quick; we find and correct the result within 10 or 20 minutes. And here, in acting, there's a lot of exploratory moments where you're just exploring what the character is. It's a lot of digging into the character, which I'm absolutely in heaven doing. I love digging into the why and what.

I'm new to this world, but it's not new to my own body — I'm doing a lot of gestures and dancing and quick movements, which is quite easy for me. I'm more worried about the execution of the word, and how I'm saying the words, and how it makes sense in my body while I'm dancing. The analogy I use is, I feel like "Tempest" is this huge ocean, and there's only this small little island of rock; I'm jumping into the ocean, and I have to get there using my own skills. I only say that because I just came from Hawaii, where I was practicing my lines while doing these trails with waterfalls, and just screaming out the lines and being very uncomfortable in front of random people. I figured, "Hey, if I'm uncomfortable in front of these people, it'll be much better when I'm on stage in front of thousands of people."

EDGEWhat better place to rehearse "The Tempest" than the Hawaiian islands? It's also interesting that you think about jumping into an ocean because as a ballet dancer you throw yourself into the air. Like Ariel, you're defying gravity.

John Lam: Correct, correct. That's an aspect of the dancing — finding the air, being quick, being sharp. It's something that's very second nature to me, and I am not worried about that. What I am worried about is the other little things that come with it — like, there's like this sand that's going to be on stage, and I'm like, "Okay, how do I deal with the sand?" It's little tactical things that I have to figure out. But you're right. There are a lot of similarities [between this role] and dancing. I think that's why Steve may have asked me, and I'm grateful that he did.

John Douglas Thompson and John Lam in a rehearsal photo for Commonwealth Shakespeare's 'The Tempest.'  

EDGE: What's it been like working with the choreographer or the movement director for this play?

John Lam: Everybody has been completely, amazingly supportive. As for the choreography, it's like, "This has got to be much different than doing a ballet dance; you're in a theatre production." And yet, you have got to have choreography [for this role]. The choreographer/movement director Levi [Philip Marsman], he's been in rehearsals with me and everyone else. This is more of like a collaborative choreographic thing for Ariel. Because I'm a dancer, and a choreographer as well, I know what my body can and cannot do — how I'm reacting to movement, how do I react to people? Levi makes sure that [what I'm doing] reads well: "Maybe bring your arm down a little more," or, "You're stuck on here on this word." I was a little hesitant [at first], because I was like, "Okay, I need to learn new choreography from someone that maybe doesn't know ballet, you know, they may be the totally different genre." And then also, to learn my lines and remember my lines and then put that all together. So far, I think it's been fine. I think that as we continue, we will layer the choreography more, and bring Ariel more to life,

EDGE: As Ariel comes more into focus for you, how are you starting to see him?

John Lam: Ariel is very interesting. You don't want someone to just be always dainty and airy, because he is a very powerful character, and Prospero allows him [to use his powers in different ways]. It's the back and forth with being submissive to Prospero, yet he can do things to other people. He is obeying Prospero, but he really wants to just be free; he wants to get out and not be told what he needs to do.

I bring it to real-life situations — like, being an openly gay man of Asian descent, you know, when you're told what to do. I bring real-life situations to the character, to make them real, and for the audience to experience that. So I'm trying to find the realness of what Ariel is as a spirit. There's a fine line. I feel like it's like a big mashup of a choreographic collaborative experience, which I'm happy to do and I've done that at Boston Ballet.

EDGE: You are working with some of Boston's most beloved and acclaimed actors, including Nael Nacer, who plays Caliban.

John Lam: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean I am so, like, humbled and so grateful and inspired to see these amazing actors do what they do. [On] my first day, I was just flabbergasted and, like, "Oh my god. Okay, this is real. This is happening."

EDGE: And Caliban is also a kind of magical creature — maybe a mirror of sorts to Ariel.

John Lam: I don't know if he's a mirror image, exactly, or a bookend to Ariel, but they definitely have some kind of connection, dramatic or otherwise. Nael Nacer is amazing. I'm trying to find the opposition of Caliban and myself because Caliban is such a strong character. Our characters are both slaves, but Caliban is much more of the... I'm worried to say "the ground" because the thing is that I also use the ground for my powers, but I'm more of the air and more of a spirit. Caliban is almost grotesque, and he's very angry — an angry character who wants to be free but doesn't know how to get there, or get out of his own head, [whereas] Ariel somehow figured it out.

I think the more [Nael] goes into his characterization, and the more that I go into my characterization, [they] will only enhance each other. But I don't interact with Caliban. We're showcased separately. The presentation of each one of us should be quite memorable. Nael [inspired me] to dig into the character even more. I've been wowed; I'm just like, "Okay, I really need to instantly up it."

"The Tempest" plays from July 21—August 8 at Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common. For more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.