Marcelino Sambé is an unlikely ballet superstar. Today, he is a principal dancer at the British Royal Ballet, one of the most famous ballet companies in the world. He is Romeo in its 2022 production of Romeo and Juliet and Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. But his road to the ballet Olympus was not straight or easy.
Sambé was born in 1994 to a Guinean father and a Portuguese mother in an immigrant district outside Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal. He has always loved dancing and was the only boy in the African dance class at a local community centre, where a psychologist encouraged him to audition for the National Conservatory of Lisbon. He didn’t know any classical moves, so he performed an African improvisation, which impressed teachers. Soon after Marcelino had been admitted to the Conservatory, his father died. The poor mother was not able to provide for two children, and the 8-year-old boy was adopted by a foster family. Luckily, the family was very loving and further motivated him to pursue his passion.
In 2010, at the age of 16, Marcelino won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne and a scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet Upper School in London. There, he worked relentlessly, which made his rise rocket-quick. In 2019, at 26, he was promoted to Principal, the second black dancer to reach this rank in England after Carlos Acosta (in 2003).
The press likes to compare Sambé with ballet legends Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Such comparisons make sense, because apart from technical perfection, Marcelino also has charisma, personality, and the intelligence to know and feel what he performs. He doesn’t just do pirouettes on stage — he acts a role. He can play anything: a tragic prince, nutcracker, or cello — yes, he dances the role of the instrument in a modern ballet titled The Cellist, which premiered on the Royal Opera House stage in 2020. That is theatre at its best.