Marcelino Sambé in 'The Cellist' at the Royal Ballet's Royal BallBill Cooper

Royal Ballet Principal Dancers Sarah Lamb and Marcelino Sambé are – unsurprisingly – passionate about their craft. Upon discovering ballet as a child, Marcelino instantly “felt more comfortable than I ever felt in any other environment”. Sarah evokes a similar sense of affinity. Despite the great emotional and physical challenges of building a successful ballet career, “I never thought of walking away”.

Sarah, 41, has a star-studded career behind her already, while Marcelino, 27, is a rising ballet star, and the second ever Black male dancer to be a Principal with the Royal Ballet. The two dancers are set to co-star in the Royal Ballet’s production of ‘Giselle’ on Wednesday 24 November and Thursday 2 December.

We begin our interview by discussing the most underreported aspects of being a professional dancer. Sarah is eager to emphasise that it can be easy to forget the physical strain of ballet, a sentiment Marcelino echoes enthusiastically: “We sweat, but we go off stage and people powder our nose and our foreheads.”

Unlike more traditional sports, such as football or athletics, ballet is “all about an illusion”, says Sarah. “It’s sort of a magic show at the same time as being a very physical and energetic performance.”

Achieving Sarah and Marcelino’s level of success in ballet is a long and arduous process, requiring many years of intensive training.

Asked about his path to performing at London’s world-famous Royal Opera House, Marcelino describes it as an “unusual” one: “I stumbled upon classical dance through African dance”.

As a child, Marcelino was heavily involved with a local community centre “that really incentivised us to keep on track, to dance and to be active.” While there, a community psychologist spotted his potential.

“One of the psychologists that worked with us thought I had the talent to perhaps pursue a career in dance, because I was naturally flexible and never stopped dancing. And so she decided that I should try to audition for the conservatoire, which for me meant nothing.”

With no knowledge of ballet, Marcelino – then only a young child – improvised an African dance routine for the audition panel of the National Conservatory of Lisbon, and was accepted.

“The moment that I started doing ballet, I just felt like, oh my god, people look at me in a different way”

“Once I started doing ballet, it just really connected with me. It’s such a foreign thing and such a foreign style of dance, but somehow I felt more comfortable than I ever felt in any other environment.”

“I understood that maybe I had something special and should actually invest in it because I had never before felt like a very special child. But the moment that I started doing ballet, I just felt like, oh my god, people look at me in a different way [..] I think that’s when I knew that I had to stick with it.”

Coming from a background that had “nothing to do” with the traditional world of ballet, Marcelino has, from a very young age, “always been really aware” of trying to “look for those inspirations that really made me believe that this was the place for me”.

He’s eager to emphasise the importance of platforming diverse role models. Indeed, it was upon watching a performance by Cuban-British dancer Carlos Acosta – the London Royal Ballet’s first Black principal dancer – that Marcelino began to have faith in his own ability to pursue a career in professional ballet. “I connected instantly”, he says.

By contrast, Sarah’s route into ballet was “much more traditional”. Born in Boston, she explored a range of sports as a child, but remembers settling on ballet as a career path at the age 14, although her parents remained eager for her to continue a more traditional academic education.

Sarah Lamb performing the role of Aurora in Sleeping BeautyJohan Persson

She joined the Boston Ballet at 19, before moving to the UK in 2004 to join the Royal Ballet, where she has worked ever since – starring in a huge range of classical and contemporary productions.

Comparing herself with Marcelino, she says: “We have very different backgrounds, but [...] we approach things quite similarly, which is an excellent foundation for us to work together because we have the same ideas about where we want to be and what we want something to look like in the end.”

Despite the inherent challenges of working so closely together, the two dancers seem to have maintained great admiration and affection for one another. Marcelino says that it’s “refreshing” to work alongside and learn from, a mature dancer like Sarah, while Sarah emphasises that it’s “really exciting to be alongside [Marcelino] at such an important part of his career”.

Overall, the two dancers are cautiously optimistic about the future of ballet.

When it comes to diversity, Marcelino says that ballet is “definitely changing”, and “not only on the stage”.

“Since we came back from the pandemic, looking around all sectors I see so much more of me everywhere, and I feel like that’s so refreshing for someone that might join the company now, who will come in and feel more welcome. It’s not just who your colleagues are, it’s who’s eating with you in the canteen, or who’s working with you in the costume department, or on your hair and makeup team.”

“It’s so important and it really emulates what’s happening on the streets of London”, he adds. Indeed, It’s precisely because of this cultural diversity that Marcelino – who was offered numerous other ballet scholarships around the world – chose to come to London back in the early 2010s to train and develop his career. “Every time I’d come to London, I would feel so at home and comfortable [...] When I came here, I thought wow, I can really grow and fulfil my venture in a very honest and uninterrupted way.”


Mountain View

‘It’s a privilege to be at the helm of an institution so important’: An exclusive interview with Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope

Attitudes, too, are changing for the better, argues Marcelino. “It’s really interesting to see the people who have recently joined the company – the new kids – come in with a completely different outlook on what a ballet dancer can be today. And I feel like it’s kind of refreshing because they’re bringing a new energy [...] There’s less fear connected to it and there’s more greatness.”

Sarah concludes, based on the experience of working with young dancers like Marcelino: “I think the future of ballet is in a pretty good place”.

This evening, November 9, Sarah Lamb and Marcelino Sambé will be performing extracts from Giselle at the Cambridge Union. There will also be a moderated Q&A and discussion with the dancers, alongside Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare.