Skip to content

Published on 

‘Double Husky’ John Lam
is retiring from Boston Ballet.
He’ll be busier than ever

The 20-year ballet veteran has balanced fatherhood, college and the grueling demands of life as an elite professional dancer. Northeastern has helped him do it — and prepare for his next chapter.

John Lam dancing, midair in black and white.
John Lam will retire from the Boston Ballet on May 19 after 20 seasons with the company. Photo by John Lam by NYDance Project

There’s a lot to look at in “Bella Figura,” the 1995 landmark modern dance piece that caps off the Boston Ballet’s “Spring Experience” program. Set to a mashup of Baroque-era music, the piece calls for dancers to pull off picture-perfect forms while weaving in and out of dropped curtains, follow smooth lyrical passes with awkward contortions, and switch up the vibe at the drop of a hat: profound one moment, goofy the next.

John Lam, a 20-year Boston Ballet veteran, is at the heart of the shifting commotion. His body — a taut, precise instrument — anchors group formations and careful lifts, then abandons that sense of consideration by springing into unexpected action. In the middle of the piece, he lurches forward without warning and crumples loudly to the ground, prompting a collective gasp from the audience. Later, he gets laughs miming exaggerated gestures with a partner.  At the end, the music drops out for several bars; the pair dance in silence, then walk casually offstage. 

Next Sunday, May 19, that finale will mark the end of John Lam’s time with Boston Ballet, as well. “Bella Figura” will be the longtime principal dancer’s last piece with the company. He announced his retirement just a few weeks ago, after about six months of planning.

“I feel great,” he said in an interview a few days before “Spring Experience’s” opening night. “It’s great to reflect on the 20 years that I’ve had here, but I’m really excited for the future. I’m still going to be dancing.”

Jon Lam in graduation regalia, smiling in an empty theater.
John Lam graduated with a master’s in nonprofit management from Northeastern University in May. Courtesy photo

It’s Lam’s second “graduation” of sorts this month. This spring, he finished his master’s degree in nonprofit management at Northeastern University, making him a “double Husky.” He earned his bachelor’s in 2023, both degrees thanks to a partnership between Northeastern and the Boston Ballet that offers company members tuition scholarships and flexible frameworks to tailor their degrees around the all-consuming demands of professional dance careers.

Most of us might take a breather after achieving two major milestones within a few weeks of each other. Most of us, though, are not world-class ballet dancers, who thrive on full days, exactitude and high expectations. Lam is no exception, and he has zero intention of slowing down. “He’s always incredibly busy, that man,” says Ari Schaaff, the academic liaison between Northeastern and enrolled Boston Ballet dancers.
In the fall, Lam will join the dance faculty of Boston Conservatory at Berklee. He’s looking forward to the position’s fixed schedule, which will allow him to be home most afternoons with his 8- and 10-year-old sons. He’s also finishing a memoir and hatching plans to put his Northeastern degree into practice by founding a dance-focused nonprofit.

Still in its infancy, the idea is to partner with renowned choreographers to create new solo dance pieces in intimate settings, with the goal of making dance performance and education accessible to a broader audience.

In whatever time is left, he’s also thinking seriously about pursuing his doctorate of education from Northeastern, his academic home for the past decade.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him experiment in many different arenas,” says Anthony Randazzo, a rehearsal director at Boston Ballet who has worked with Lam since he arrived at the company as a teenager in 2003. “He may be busier in the next 20 years than he was in the last 20 years.”

NGN Magazine, in your inbox.

Sign up to receive thoughtful stories that chronicle innovations and examine inspiring solutions to global problems.

‘There was something unique’

Ballet has been the cornerstone of Lam’s life since he was 4 — the foundation upon which his family life, physical health, education and other artistic pursuits have been built. The son of Vietnamese refugees, he grew up in Marin County, California, and started dancing by way of a scholarship program that allowed low-income, inner-city kids to study the arts. He began taking classes at Marin Ballet School, where his talent was quickly obvious.    

“I realized around 9 or 10 there was something unique about my dancing,” he says.  “People were always amazed at the way I moved.”

At Marin, he caught the attention of Mikko Nissinen (now Boston Ballet’s artistic director), training with him there as a teenager. At 15, Lam joined Canada’s National Ballet School on scholarship; when he graduated, Nissinen, who had since joined Boston Ballet, offered him a job in the second company. He was 18. He’s risen steadily ever since, becoming a principal dancer in 2014 — the first male Vietnamese American at a major U.S. company to achieve that rank. 

Throughout his long career, Lam’s trademarks have been storytelling and versatility: he’s played every male role in “The Nutcracker” but one and figures prominently in the edgier, modern dance programs Nissinsen incorporates into Boston Ballet’s repertoire.

John Lam performing ballet, jumping in the air wearing a gray bodysuit. Other ballerinas wait in the background.
Lam was appointed principal dancer at Boston Ballet in 2014, the first male Vietnamese American to achieve that rank in a major U.S. company. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

“The Space Between,” a world-premiere ballet that kicks off the “Spring Experience” program, makes use of that range. Following a loose narrative of bodies being molded like clay, the choreography progresses from primal, loose individual movements to dancers, lockstep, in more typical “ballet-style” formations. Lam is front and center, slithering alone on a bare stage to a jazzy, 1940s-style xylophone line in the score and partnering with a female dancer for textbook lifts. 

“He has beautiful classical line, technique, musicality: all of those elements required to fit within ballet’s definitions, but he has a contemporary dance ability” Randazzo says. “He’s really fit in with Mikko’s vision for his dancers. They need to be well-suited to a variety of styles.”

In conversation, Lam is frank and bubbling over — he’s proud to share all he’s achieved, eager to talk about his ongoing plans and projects, and doesn’t mince words recounting things that have alternatingly delighted and disappointed him. “When you meet John, you get all of him at once,” Shaaff says. “The way that he presents himself is at 100, but in the most authentic way.”

Perhaps due to that openness, Lam has earned raves for his ability to create characters through his dancing. His goal for each portrayal, he says, is for audiences to “understand who this character is, even if you didn’t read about it or you know nothing about this ballet.”

That facility extends beyond dance: In 2021, he played Ariel in an area production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest;” the Boston Globe called the performance, his first ever theater role, “very impressive … so spectacularly acrobatic that you may wish he was on the U.S. men’s gymnastics team at the Olympics.”

‘Half a point!’

But even the sturdiest ballet careers are short and punishing; dancers in their 30s are considered elder statesmen. Lam will turn 40 in November. Though he’s kept in enviable physical shape, his time at the top of the ballet world has taken its toll — a torn ACL, a broken ankle, neck surgery, a strong likelihood of future arthritis.

In 2013, Northeastern and the Boston Ballet announced their partnership; Lam was one of the first dancers to enroll. He started out slow.

“The beginning of my undergrad was rough. At first, there was just too much,” Lam remembers. He and his husband had just welcomed their first child; the following year, he was named a principal dancer. He thought, “I just can’t do this.”  

Northeastern, however, puts no time limit on dancers completing their degrees, and a fellow company member encouraged him to keep at it. “John, just take one class a semester,” he remembers her telling him.

Gradually, he found ways to optimize his time, loading up on classes during the slow(er) seasons and using downtime at the studio to catch up on assignments.

Schaaff, who advised Lam the last few years of his undergrad degree and into his graduate program, says she spends a lot of time encouraging the elite dancers not to let their ingrained perfectionism get in the way of forward progress. She gives her favorite example: During the academic year, Shaaff visits Boston Ballet’s rehearsal studio twice a week on lunch breaks, giving student dancers a chance to talk through any issues.

John Lam performing ballet, jumping midair wearing black pants and a purple blazer.
Lam will start as a dance professor at the Boston Conservatory in the coming fall; afterward, he is considering pursuing a doctorate in education at Northeastern University. Photo by John Lam by NYDance Project

During one visit, Lam wheeled by in a huff. He was upset, he told her, because he had turned in a paper with APA citations formatted incorrectly and lost points.

“How many?” Schaaf asked.

“Half a point!” he said.

“I said, ‘OK, I don’t think that that’s going to negatively impact your grade in a way that you will ever be able to see. But let’s talk about ways you can improve your citations,” she laughs. “Losing half a point was something that he needed to talk about. I tease him about it now, because I thought it was going to be such a big catastrophe.”

“He never made that mistake again,” she adds.

Lam’s high standards have served him well at Northeastern. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership in 2023, earning the university’s Compass Award and Huntington 100 distinction along the way. Once he got a taste of achieving his long-held academic goals, he wanted more; his education, which during undergrad had moved at the leisurely pace his career and family life allowed, kicked into a sprint.

“Walking during commencement, I saw how it all came together. … This is what it’s like to go to college and to feel proud of all this hard work,” he remembers. “In that moment I realized, ‘this isn’t enough. I need to get a master’s.’”

He started graduate school right away, condensing a two-year degree in nonprofit management into a year and a half. He earned yet another accolade along with it, becoming part of the inaugural class of Northeastern’s Lux. Veritas. Virtus. Society for outstanding graduate students.

“I was probably not getting enough sleep,” he admits. “I was going to sleep at 1 or 2 a.m. every night and waking up at 7. But I just plowed my way through doing it, and no one can take that degree away from me.”

‘You have to look at me differently’

Someone with as much artistic success as Lam might view those degrees as a bonus — he could doubtless teach at the highest level, with or without them. But earning an education, he says, has made him more confident in his future prospects and expanded their scope.

“You have to look at me differently,” he says. “Even though I have 20 years’ lived experience in the industry, it’s helped me advocate for myself and amplify it even more. And now I’m thinking about getting my doctorate in education.”

Michael Boudreau, who has advised Lam off and on at Northeastern, says the dancer even has an idea for his research focus. “He’s one of the first Vietnamese Americans to be a principal dancer,” Boudreau says. “There is a lot of diversity in the dancers themselves, but not so much in [dance] administration. He wants to explore why there might be a gap there.”

I’ve stopped making guesses about what John Lam will do next.

Ari Schaaff, Northeastern University liaison to the Boston Ballet

For now, Lam is focused on closing his Boston Ballet chapter in style. Scores of friends and loved ones are flying in for his final performance. That includes his parents, who, remarkably, have never seen him dance professionally. “It will be like a wedding,” he says.

Afterward, he’s looking forward to more family time, leisure (not work) travel, and something that eludes those in the ballet world during their careers: a typical Christmas.
“For 20 years and plus, even as a child, I’ve been in a production of ‘Nutcracker,’ and that’s very during Christmas,” he says. “I love Christmas and I’ve always wanted to just, like, make the house really Christmassy. I never have time to do that.”

Schaaff hopes Lam will take some time to really enjoy his achievements before diving headlong into everything he has on the horizon. But she has her doubts.

“I’d imagine he’ll pause for a bit, but every time I say that he defies my assumption,” she says. “I’ve stopped making guesses about what John Lam will do next.”

Schuyler Velasco is a Northeastern Global News Magazine senior writer. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @Schuyler_V.