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Tough guys do

Tough guys do


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

Alto, bronzeado, e bonitao. 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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