John Lam. Photo by Jade Young.

Principal dancer John Lam has traveled a long way to train in ballet and land a coveted position at Boston Ballet. Originally from San Rafael, California, he began dancing at Marin Ballet at age four. 

This early training had more than just an artistic focus. “Being a child from refugee parents from Vietnam, I was placed in community afterschool childcare, which happened to offer free dance classes and extended supervised care,” Lam said. “This obviously appealed to my parents, as it would allow them to work a couple of more hours to help make ends meet.”

Lam considers Marin Ballet’s program Performing Stars to be his guardian angel. “I fell in love with ballet first when the program brought me to a performance of the San Francisco Ballet,” he said. “I was a shy child and kept to myself and I connected to dance for its ability to communicate without speaking and for the music that made my four-year-old self want to move.” 

But this initial passion didn’t eliminate the challenges of a career in dance. “The world of dance is tough,” Lam said.  “I have been so lucky to watch and dance next to so many incredible artists who have been a constant source of inspiration and motivation, pushing me to be a better dancer every day.” 

Lam found that some of his personal struggles paralleled his work in dance. “My favorite role that I have danced is Prodigal Son, by George Balanchine,” he said. “As a gay man who left home at the age of 14 to pursue a profession that my parents were not particularly supportive of, the themes really speak to me.” 

He sees himself as walking in the shoes of the original prodigal son who leaves home and is then betrayed and robbed. “Wretched and remorseful, he drags himself back to his forgiving father,” Lam said. “Now a father myself and raising two boys, the parallels of my personal life fueled my performance with incredible depth in this role that I keep very close to my heart.” 

With 15 years at Boston Ballet, Lam has seen his career change over time. “Dancing in big company has its amazing moments and has its dark moments,” he said. “From feeling at times there is a lack of effective and mindful directorship, to living in a culture where youth is more celebrated than experience, I have been both passed over for roles and opportunities and praised for incredible performances.” 

These professional experiences bleed over into the personal.  “Now the most senior male principal dancer at Boston Ballet, I have seen many colleagues move on and leave,” Lam said. “Being at the top is lonely, and people don’t talk about that.” 

Lam’s response is to turn introspective. “It is hard to sustain the fire year after year, but I do,” he said. “I have been so lucky to create a family with my husband and their constant presence in my life makes coming into the studios and facing hard situations easier.” 

Ironically, Lam’s biggest support has also been his biggest challenge. “The biggest issue for me is that I decided to have a family and still dance,” he said. “Juggling both of these has been successful thus far for me, but it is one of the trickiest pas de deux of my life!” 

Lam credits his husband, attorney John Ruggieri, for his ability to balance home and work.  “In addition to a rigorous rehearsal schedule, my days are full of school pick-up and drops-offs, soccer games, packing lunches and more, and I need to find time for my creative projects, too,” Lam said.  “It’s easier to dive into life when you have a partner who is 100 percent behind you working alongside you to build a family.” 

At Boston Ballet and beyond, Lam is still diving into his ambitions. “I used to have dream roles, but as I dance such versatile repertory, I have been lucky to dance so many ballets,” he said.  “I think at this point in my career, the question for me is, which choreographer do I dream about working with!” 

Lam has an answer to that. “Crystal Pite is an incredible human, soul, visionary, and artist whom I would love to work with one day,” he said. “Whether it could be a revival of her work, or a new creation in the studio with her, I have been drawn to her as a human being, her choreographic voice, and her multi-dimensional works.”  

But more generally, Lam seeks to practice authenticity and acceptance. “My forever long-term goal,” he said, “is to have integrity in what I do, be honest in the choices I make, and inspire those who walk a different rhythm than my own.”   

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