Mark Sampson, dancing his way around the globe


I love the art of dance and, last year, I saw an amazing group of performers at the Prince, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. When I heard they were coming back, I tracked down one of the performers to get an inside glimpse. I spoke to dancer Mark Sampson via FaceTime between his rehearsals in a beautiful old building that used to be a library, but now functions as office space for the government Arts Council and Ballet Jazz and a number of different arts organizations. 

PGN: We have a neat place in Philadelphia called the Bok Building that used to be an old trade school and now they rent out the old classrooms to artists and small businesses like designers, jewelers, painters, etc. They also have a bar on the rooftop. It’s really cool.

MS: That sounds awesome. I’m so excited to come to Philly.

PGN: It’s a great city. Tell me about where you grew up.

MS: I grew up all over the place. I was born on the East Coast of Canada, in Sydney, Nova Scotia and then moved to the states when I was 3 years old. We lived in West Virginia for nine years.

PGN: Have you always loved dance?

MS: Yes. From the age of 3, I’d always dance around the living room and insist that everyone watched. I think my parents got tired of being my solo audience so they enrolled me in dance class. I lived quite an idyllic life. They were both loving, open-minded people who exposed me to a lot of culture that most people don’t get to experience at a young age. When I was about 12, we moved back to Canada to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and they still live there. At 14, I left home to study dance professionally at the National Ballet School of Canada. I studied dance, finished high school and then moved to New York to study at Julliard. They were supportive the entire time.

PGN: I read that you got interested in dance from watching a VHS tape of the Irish dancer Michael Flatley’s “Riverdance.” Does that mean that you started dancing with your arms pinned to your sides?

MS: [Laughing] I think I was a little too flamboyant to keep my arms at my sides! My intention was probably to do that, but I doubt I executed it very often. I’d watch those tapes every day and then put a cape on and try to get that machismo Michael Flatley “Lord of the Dance” thing going but it didn’t quite fit me. Obviously, I still haven’t mastered it to this day!

PGN: [Laughing] I interviewed someone once about an early sign he was gay and he too wore a cape, but then he also fashioned armbands and a tiara out of tin foil and would spin around on the lawn pretending to be Wonder Woman until his father yelled at him to get inside!

MS: Ha! I think my tell was that when I was dancing in West Virginia, I had this blue sequined vest and I wore it everywhere. I thought it was the most gorgeous thing in the world. I thought I was the most fabulous person ever when I wore it.

PGN: In West Virginia, you probably were! Yeah, I’d say that was a subtle sign that you were gay. And why were you watching VHS? You’re too young for that!

MS: No. I remember VHS. We had it growing up. I distinctly remember the switch to DVDs but we had a lot of old tapes in the house too. A lot of dance tapes and I’d watch them over and over.

PGN: There’s a video showing young kids looking at cassette tapes. They had no idea how to work them; they kept pushing spots on the tape to try to make it play. Describe yourself as a kid?

MS: I was quite a vibrant child, easily excited about anything and everything. I was very colorful and very loving and I think I had a happiness and enthusiasm that was infectious. And I think that’s carried on through my adulthood, I’m pretty upbeat. I had a LOT of energy, probably too much, which is why I thrived in dance class. It helped direct some of that excess energy in a positive direction. I kind of knew dance was my fate from early on and was quite focused, even at the beginning.

PGN: You say you were excitable: Do you recall a Christmas or birthday present that would have sent you squealing like a kid in one of those viral videos?

MS: Oh God, yes! Probably several, but the one that stands out was when I was about 10 years old and my mother surprised me with a trip to New York. We traveled a lot when I was a kid and I loved museums and shows, but I’d never been to New York, which was like the be-all, end-all for me. I knew that I needed to get there. I needed to see it, so I was beyond excited. I still remember the joy that I felt when she said we were going. It was pretty exceptional.

PGN: You went off to school by yourself at 14. How was that experience? Best and worst parts?

MS: I completely loved it. Being a gay man, or boy at the time, it was really easy to be in a ballet school. I didn’t encounter any bigotry or bullying and everyone was quite loving. I had a second family at school. Plus, I was very independent. As much as I love my family, I didn’t have a hard time leaving. we kept in touch and I felt their love from afar every day. I did have some rough times that first year: I was a little bit chubbier than most dancers when I arrived to study at the National Ballet School and after the first year, I was asked to leave in part because they didn’t think my body was a balletic type. That’s a big challenge for a 14-year-old to handle on his own. I was going through puberty at the time, so my body was changing. I developed some body issues until I developed the fortitude to say I’m good enough as I am, and to move forward. That’s when I really missed my family, because they weren’t there to physically console me. We’d talk on the phone but it wasn’t the same. Luckily, I did get plenty of support but it was a big mental hurdle. It was tough but a good learning experience. I still learn from it today. It gave me a resilience and taught me self-love. I knew I was a dancer, and refused to let anyone stop me.

PGN: And especially ironic, because from what I understand when you got accepted to Julliard, one of the teachers said in part, “Mark had good training, a beautiful body, in terms of proportions and good facility in the hips, physically, I saw that he had tremendous potential.”

MS: Yeah. I left National Ballet School and went to Winnipeg Ballet School, where I had excellent support. The faculty loved me and gave me lots of help and support. And Julliard was the same thing. I absolutely adored it. I had many great mentors there who truly believed in me. It restored my confidence and stability.

PGN: So when they asked you to leave National Ballet, that was pretty harsh.

MS: Yes. They didn’t so much ask me to leave as they didn’t give me an invitation to come back after the first year.

PGN: Ouch! I understand the Julliard audition was pretty tough as well.

MS: Yeah, I auditioned in Chicago. It was the only school I applied to because I figured, if this didn’t work out, I’d still have another year at the Winnipeg school to finish. But I knew I wanted to do contemporary dance and Julliard was THE place for it. So I put all my eggs in one basket. My parents came with me and my mom still talks about how the other parents were bragging, “Yeah, my daughter has auditions for 16 different schools” or “My son has 18 auditions scheduled” and she thought with horror, Oh my, he really did put all his eggs in one basket. There were 52 dancers in my audition and five rounds to the audition process. The first part was basic ballet and I didn’t think they’d make a big deal out of it because it was a contemporary school but when it was over, they cut 35 dancers so there were 16 of us left. The next rounds included everything from a modern-dance class to an interview to a challenge and then learning a piece of choreography in 15 minutes. We had to wait six weeks to learn whether or not we made it. It was excruciating! In the end, about eight of us made it through and one of them became my best friend, so it was a neat experience.

PGN: I’m always amazed at how dancers — at least in movies like “Fame” — can go into a room and the choreographer can instruct, “OK, turn, shuffle, jump, twist”— give a whole routine. And then two seconds later, yell, “OK, from the top!” And everyone does it. Does that really happen?

MS: Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty intense. You don’t want to be the one that messes up, but I’ve always been a quick learner so I’m pretty comfortable in those situations. But it is a lot of information to process. You have to be on your mental as well as physical game.

PGN: You also choreograph. How do you get ideas?

MS: I’m an art nerd. I like the visual arts, paintings, photographs, films, plays, and I get inspired by the thoughts that other people put out and my reaction to them. I think of ideas and the images just come into my head. They’re almost surrealist images that I have to translate to dance. So in my mind, I’m a visual artist, but my medium is movement.

PGN: Describe the work of the company you’re with now.

MS: Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal: They’re a wonderful company to dance with — a lot of young, vibrant, energetic, quite interesting people. We travel all over the world. Last year, we were in France, Germany, Switzerland, China, Hong Kong, the states, all over the place. It’s a dream.

PGN: Where are your favorite audiences?

MS: My favorite place that we visited was Hong Kong. It was amazing. Such a dynamic city; it’s really Western actually but still has its cultural roots. The best audiences are in Germany. There’s a respect there for contemporary dance that you don’t find many other places.

PGN: When I went to Seoul, South Korea, my first thought was, This is just like New York, but bigger.

MS: Yeah, they’re such incredible cities and so much like the cities we’re familiar with, but even newer and more contemporary. It’s fascinating.

PGN: What was your biggest onstage mishap?

MS: Mishaps … I don’t know. Nothing big. I’ve had moments where I’ve forgotten the choreography and had to start improvising. I’ve stumbled and fallen quite a lot. Sometimes my limbs just get out of control and I become a baby deer.

PGN: Any crazy performances? I think of Brian Sanders here in Philly. I once asked him about his inspirations and he said, “It can be anything, I can see a cinderblock on the curb and think, I wonder if we could dance with those on our heads?” And sure enough, his next show, the dancers were running around with cinderblocks on their heads!

MS: [Laughing] No, I think my wildest was with a classmate at Julliard. He asked me at the last minute to do a cameo in a piece he was doing. I was known at the school for being fairly outrageous. Right before I went on, he gave me heels, a dress and an ugly wig. It was hideous hair. I probably looked more masculine in the dress and wig than I did just as me on a daily basis. I was supposed to just walk across the stage three times eating various pieces of fruits and vegetables — an orange, a banana and then a cucumber, more phallic with each passing. It was absurd and great fun. I loved it.

PGN: What fun does LBJM have in store for us in Philly?

MS: We’re doing a new work by choreographer Itzik Galili called “Casualties of Memory,” which is quite a hard-hitting, exciting, energetic piece of work. Pure dance. Though we get to do a little drumming in it, which will be fun. And we’re premiering a piece called, “Dance Me.” We were given the rights to do works based on Leonard Cohen’s music. It’s very meaningful for us especially coming from Montréal but people everywhere will love it, and we’re doing another piece from Itzik called “O Balcao de Amor,” which is really fun and energetic. You’ll notice that a lot of what we do has a lot of energy and joy, but this will be a lighter piece than the other two.

PGN: So, here’s a random question. If you invented a robot, what would you call it and what would it do?

MS: Oh gosh! I’d call it Xavier and it would clean my floors. I hate doing them.

PGN: You need a handsome stranger to buy you a Rumba!

MS: [Laughing] Oh yeah, I guess they have those already! But Xavier would clean and mop and take out trash, take care of my house in Montréal when I’m away.

PGN: I really want to get there!

MS: You have to. It’s such an exceptional city, especially if you’re in the LGBT community. Everyone is so open-minded.

PGN: Your name is Sampson. Favorite word that begins with “S”?

MS: Sensual! For many, many reasons…

PGN: Ooh, good one. A scent that makes you stop and reflect?

MS: The scent of baked bread. It brings warm thoughts.

PGN: Something interesting about a family member?

MS: When she was young, my mom worked for the airlines and since they flew for free, she and a friend would travel all over the world. Spend $100 for a hotel and go to Paris for the weekend. She has some great stories. I’m totally envious.

PGN: You must have inherited her wanderlust, as you also travel the world now.

MS: That’s true. And instead of paying to go somewhere, I get paid to go there.

PGN: What non-dancer would you want to do a duet with?

MS: Meryl Streep. Who knows if she can dance, but it would be great just to have a conversation with her.

PGN: Is there still a stereotype of ballet dancers being gay?

MS: Not really. Many of the dancers I work with are straight. It might allow you to be more in touch with your sensitive side or more self-reflective, but those aren’t gay qualities. Those are qualities of caring people.

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