Tough guys do dance

When American Ballet Theatre’s powerful Brazilian star, Marcelo Gomes, takes on the role of Romeo, audiences learn why it’s hot to be out

BY Joseph Carman

January 21 2003 1:00 AM ET

Alto, bronzeado,
e bonitão. That’s Portuguese for “tall,
dark, and handsome,” only three of the
attractive qualities apparent in American Ballet
Theatre principal dancer Marcelo Gomes. Even in a company
studded with talent, he is striking. At 6 foot
2—and only 23 years old—the Brazilian
ballet star is already known not only as a skilled partner
but also as a gifted and versatile dancer who adeptly
fields roles ranging from the strictly classical to
the smartly contemporary. Choreographers like Twyla
Tharp, Lar Lubovitch, James Kudelka, and Nacho Duato have
placed him on their list of must-have dancers at ABT. Now he
becomes the first star from the world of classical
ballet ever to come out on the cover of The Advocate.

A native of Rio
de Janeiro, Gomes (pronounced emigrated at age 13 to
study ballet at the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Fla.,
without his family and without knowing a word of
English. Three years later, after a period of intense
training at the Paris Opera ballet school, Gomes won
the Hope Prize at the Prix de Lausanne, a top competition
for prodigious fledgling ballet dancers. Since joining
American Ballet Theatre in 1997, he has shot through
the ranks of ABT to become one of the company’s
surest box office draws.

Gomes’s
sunny Brazilian charm and sense of humor belie his
tremendous stage presence as well as his capacity for
performing staggering technical feats, including the
bravura jumping that makes audiences gasp. Whether he
is dancing the elegant prince in Tchaikovsky’s
Swan Lake, blazing around the stage as the slave
in Le Corsaire, or sensuously stretching his
long limbs to Richard Rodgers’s “My Funny
Valentine,” Gomes exhibits a rare musicality
and an even rarer understanding of how to make a
character seem real.

On February 21 at
the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Gomes will star
in one of his signature roles, Romeo, in Kenneth
MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, a ballet made
legendary by the performances of Rudolf Nureyev and
Dame Margot Fonteyn. On March 6 and 8 he portrays the
randy Latin sailor in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy
Free
. Later this spring, American Ballet Theatre
will feature Gomes in several full-length ballets during its
two-month engagement.

Now an
assimilated New Yorker who speaks perfect English, Gomes met
with The Advocate in Chelsea,
Manhattan’s gay enclave, where he talked about
his career, about being out in the ballet world, and
what makes Brazilian men so sexy.

Marcelo, you project a very masculine image
onstage. Is that important to you?

When you are a prince, you are a prince; you are
not the swan. It’s supposed to be a love story.
In most ballets that is how it is, whether you like it
or not. In Romeo and Juliet you are not supposed to see two
Romeos—or two Juliets, for that matter.

Is ballet as taboo for men in Brazil as it is in
the United States?

Yes. I would say even more so. I had a really
hard time dancing in Brazil because I was a male. A
woman can play volleyball or be a doctor or a truck
driver. Why can’t men just dance? And men do dance,
but because it’s ballet it’s not seen as
a normal thing. And I always ask myself why. I found
no reason, so I just kept on dancing. But I think it is
getting better. I’ve gotten a lot more
recognition at home. It’s just unfortunate that
I had to come here to prove myself. Like Carmen
Miranda—nobody thought she was a good singer,
so she came here and she started singing Portuguese
with a little English [mixed in], and everybody loved her
sensuous voice. And she went back to Brazil and said,
“Look who I am now—I have fruit on my
head.” [Laughs] And everybody loved
her.

When did you realize you were gay, and when did you
come out to your family?
It just happened gradually. It wasn’t like all of
a sudden I said, “I’m gay!”

So when did that process happen?
In my early teens. My parents actually always
knew. They want me to settle down and love someone,
but they don’t really care what sexuality they
are, which is great, because I don’t feel like
I’m doing anything wrong. My mom and dad will
always be there for me.

When you first came to America by yourself at age
13, you had to learn English, pursue your career as a
dancer, and deal with being gay. What was it like
handling that stress?

It was very hard.

Did you have anyone to talk to?
No. I would call my parents a lot. But I think
that was part of growing up for me. I had to deal with
living on my own in boarding school. I grew up with a
nanny who did everything for us—all the cooking, the
laundry, clean the toilet; I didn’t know any of
that. All I knew how to do was to dance. That’s
how I got my stress out—I just danced the hell out of
my day.

In the same way that some film actors are afraid to
come out of the closet for fear of being perceived as
someone less than a leading man, are some ballet
dancers afraid to come out?

I don’t think [coming out] is necessary.
If they want to say they are gay, that is up to them.
I don’t think people should care. They should
enjoy the ballet and not worry about that person’s
personal life.

I think there are
dancers who are afraid. But when you are ready, you are
ready—when you’re not, you’re not. The
most important thing in life is to be happy and live
as you want to live. You see this 9/11 tragedy, and
I’m constantly reminded of that. I feel that
there is no time to get frustrated at things. That
completely changed my life.

I think it’s good, though, for people in America
who tend to marginalize gay people to see someone like
you, who is very masculine, who’s a
fabulous dancer, and who is gay.

Right, I’m gay, but not because I dance.
That’s what I want to tell people: Ballet
doesn’t make you gay. There are plenty of men in
ballet who aren’t gay, and I can do the same
roles that they are doing.

Are you attracted to women?
Yes, I think women are very beautiful, and I love being
friends with women and being intimate with women. But
it’s my choice of not being in a relationship
with a woman. In the ballets I dance there is a lot of
physicality with women, and I have to grab their bodies or
we have a really intimate kiss for a long time, and
that can’t look awkward.

Do you have a lot of fans, both gay and straight?
I have fans who come to every show I do, everywhere in
the world.

Including a stalker, I understand.
Yes, she lives in Japan and travels to a lot of
my shows. It’s funny—I’ll be
getting my coffee in the morning, and there she is. But I am
honored that I can touch her.

As long as she doesn’t go psycho on you.
That’s the last thing I would need.

How did you first get interested in ballet?
I always liked to dance around the house. One day my
sister was doing her aerobics class in this studio.
Upstairs there was a musical theater class. I said,
“I think I can do that.” The teacher said,
“OK, come up to the stage and show us,”
and I just started singing and acting.

It was quite natural for you.
I said to my parents, “I would like to go
back,” and they said,
“Absolutely.” Ballet didn’t come until
a couple of years after, when I was 8. A teacher saw
me in one of those little performances—to Madonna
music!—and she said, “I think you have a great
body for ballet, and I’d like to work with
you.”

So your parents were supportive?
Oh, yeah. I don’t think I could have made
it without them. They gave me all the inspiration I
needed for my whole career.

Who were your ballet role models?
Julio Bocca, because he is from Argentina and he would
come to Brazil to do performances. I would say to
myself, I want to be like him, because he went to
American Ballet Theatre to become a principal dancer, and
Misha [Baryshnikov] asked him to be there. It’s
wonderful when young boys tell me I’m their
role model and they are studying ballet.

Let’s talk about Romeo and Juliet and
what the role of Romeo means to you.

It’s one of those ballets that is
timeless, that has so much beauty and emotion. I love
roles like Romeo. You feel so so fulfilled that your work
has paid off. I’m dancing it with Paloma Herrera. She
is from Argentina, and it’s a wonderful
partnership that we’ve established. In partnering,
everything should be about the ballerina. She’s a
diamond jewel.

Do you bring the romantic passion from your own
life to the role of Romeo?
Yes. I’ve loved so many people in my life, and
there is no reason why I shouldn’t use that to
be more real. It’s just a feeling, rather than
thinking about a past relationship I’ve had.

Are you ever aware that some of the gay men in the
audience are fantasizing that you are their Romeo?

[Laughs] Oh, my God, absolutely not! That
would not work for me at all.

What is your favorite role to dance?
I love Albrecht in Giselle. [Dancing the
role] has been one of my dreams ever since I was little. I
knew all the music before I was 14. I live for this
kind of passion and lyricism. I’m definitely a
romantic kind of guy and a sucker for that.

What roles will you be dancing during the ABT
season at the Metropolitan Opera House in the spring?

Romeo; Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. I
will also dance my first Basilio in Don
Quixote
. And I am doing Oberon in Sir Frederick
Ashton’s The Dream. Lar Lubovitch is also
choreographing a new piece.

Your gay uncle was very influential in your life.
Can you talk about him?
My uncle Paulo meant a lot to me. He was a very
important influence in dance for me. I grew up seeing
my uncle living with another guy, so being gay in our
family was very natural—they were both my uncles.
From the very start he would take me to see ballets,
theater, a lot of art. He was always the life of the
party. Like I did, he packed his bags and went away to
live in London, and he would come back with such funky
clothing that we had never seen before.

When I finally
left for America, my uncle was already in the hospital
dying of AIDS. He had this dream: I would be bowing in this
big theater, and the president would be there and the
queen. [Laughs] And at one moment I would look into
the wings and gesture, and my uncle would come out and
take a bow. I think about that a lot.

I’m sure he would be proud of you.
Since I have achieved the goal of being a
principal dancer with ABT, I think he would be so
proud. He would love the way I’m writing my life.

Your uncle died before you came to America?
Yeah, right before. It was very hard for me. He was like
my other dad.

Is his partner still around?
Yeah, my uncle Wolf. I love him dearly. He came
to my New Year’s party.

You’ve said that your spirituality is important
to you. What’s the connection between your
spirituality and your artistic side?

I was brought up Catholic. I believe in God, and
I pray—

As a Catholic?
Not in a Catholic way, no. I believe that there are
spirits all around us and that they help us through
things. I believe that my uncle, even though
he’s dead, he’s right next to me. I
don’t think I’d believe in anything if
this experience hadn’t happened to me. My soul needs
to be good with me and with others for my dancing to
go well.

If the Roman Catholic Church were to miraculously
become more liberal, would you become a Catholic again?

No, I don’t think so.

Do you see any connection between sexuality and spirituality?
I think you are born how you are. But who am I to say?
For me, my spirituality is a completely separate thing
from my sexuality. But I can see how people can see
these two things connected. You can see a married man
and have that feeling that he is probably a homosexual, but
he stays married forever.

Why are Brazilians so sexy?
You really think so? I think it all depends on
what you’re used to looking at. I go to Europe,
and these people are so beautiful and
exotic—their facial features are so different;
they’re so white and blond. It’s true,
in our country you’re always seeing sex on
TV—definitely, skin sells in Brazil.

There are fewer inhibitions.
Yeah. Body language is different there. Also,
we’re born with music played at home or with
dancing around the house. People like to move their
bodies. I think it’s in the blood, and people may see
that as kind of sexy.

Your mom is a writer?
She writes a column for a newspaper in Brazil. My mom is
a worldly lady. She loves fashion and good food, so
she and I get along really well. [Laughs] My
dad is a lawyer, the decision-maker of the
family.

Your brother is a writer also?
Yeah, for a comedy show in Brazil. He is
contracted to write skits, sort of like Saturday
Night Live
.

Compared to other Latin cultures, is it really
important for men to be macho in Brazil?
Yes, I guess there is a little bit of that
role-playing—not that I think, I’m going
home, so I have to act more macho than I do here. If
everybody would be who they are all the time, I think
we’d have much less problems.

Are you familiar with gay culture in Brazil?
I left when I was so young, and now when I go
back, it’s just to see my family. It’s
so difficult for me to go out to a gay bar or whatever. My
life is more here than there.

Between ABT and the Met, your life is deeply
connected to New York. What is your favorite thing about
the city?

I go to other big cities, but whenever I come
back, I’m so glad that I live here, because
everything is so on the ball. It’s amazing how you
can eat such great food or see such good shows in one
city. I don’t feel out of place, because my
culture is also different.

When you retire from dancing, would you like to go
back to Brazil?
Oh, yeah. I am definitely retiring in Rio—buying
my beach house there. I would love to choreograph or
coach, and I have a big desire to become a director of
a company.

Advocate readers would like to know, What are the
best ballet exercises for glutes?
What are the glutes? Your ass! [Laughs] Oh,
my God. Jeez.

Ballet boys are known for that.
I can’t give any specific exercise. Ballet just
takes care of your whole muscularity. Everything in
ballet works your butt. [Laughs] I am always working
my butt off.

Changing subjects, I wonder what you do for fun. I
know you’re a big fan of Bette Midler.

She’s fantastic! I am really drawn to
people who started out so little and became so big.
She has a whole gay relation, but it’s not just
because of that that I like her. I’ve always loved
big divas and their music, like Etta James. I love
jazz and opera. Everybody should go to the
Metropolitan Opera at least once.

What else do you enjoy?
Catching up on movies. And I have two new
passions—India.Arie and Margaret Cho. And I
love to eat everything!

The readers are going to hate you.
I think if I didn’t do ballet, I’d be
overweight. I love good food. I grew up with a
nanny—I called her “the walking
kitchen”—she could cook everything, from
a lobster to a huge steak. I grew up with those
tastes.

Are you dating anyone now?
I don’t really want to answer that.

Let me ask you this: What would you be looking for
in a mate?
I don’t really have a type. Any relationship has
to be right. I travel so much and have so much on my
plate right now that I don’t have time to have
a relationship. But when I meet the right person,
I’ll definitely give it a try.

Does it matter whether that person is in shape or not?
[Laughs] Because dancers are surrounded by
bodies every day—that’s just the physicality
of the dancer—we expect some kind of equality.
But that doesn’t really matter to me.

How does being gay fit into your life as a whole?
I am only 23, but it is amazing that all of this
has happened to me. That matters to me much more than
just being gay—if I’m single or I meet
somebody or if I love. I am just very happy to be in the
position I am in now.

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