Originally born in Miami, the Haitian-American Lambert has been living in New York for almost 20 years.
“As soon as I was born, my mom told me I was moving,” Lambert notes. As a kid, “I was enthralled by Michael Jackson, and always looking for something to get into. I watched Kung Fu films and saw how, when they found the right teacher, they would improve and become masters, and subliminally I channeled that and began looking for teachers.”
He found his share, both in his home, where music was an integral part of life, and in the diverse cultures of his North Miami neighborhood. A white couple that owned a dance studio mentored him, a lesbian Jewish woman saw his talent and exposed him to the wider world of creative movement, and he found his sensei in Reginald Yates, of the New School of Performing Arts. But first, he had to prepare.
In elementary school, Lambert was constantly active; he literally couldn’t keep still. An astute teacher, rather than showing annoyance, noticed his love of movement and told the Lambert family about an open audition for a nearby performing arts school. He got in.
“When I showed up, I thought we were going to learn hip hop dance, but there were ballet bars in the studio. I did a plié and went still inside for the first time. And I knew right away, ‘This is what I need to be doing.’ ”
Despite his natural talent, the young Lambert realized he was woefully behind his peers, many of whom had been taking dance lessons since they could walk. He began asking around about places to get more training, and that is how he discovered Dance Exchange Inc., run by Yayi Saretta and Linda Albritton. The spirit was willing, but money was a problem for the 12-year-old. Undaunted, he asked if there was a way to work in exchange for classes, and Albritton said if he was willing to clean up and help out at the desk he could take any classes he liked.
“I took so many classes, I would be there from the time school let out until 2 a.m. in the morning. I took all levels of classes, with the babies to adults, all ages, just to get a solid foundation.”
It was an education in more ways than one. Despite Miami’s wide-ranging cultural diversity, color politics rears its ugly head on a regular basis, especially in the lives of young black men. Lambert was no exception, citing rude treatment or people not wanting him in their establishments because of prejudice, but he found freedom at Dance Exchange.
“I never dealt with racism in her studio,” Lambert recalls. “She groomed us professionally as well, taught us how to conduct ourselves in an audition, how to dress and talk to people, promote ourselves.”
In high school, he was accepted to Miami’s prestigious New World School of Performing Arts, where he started modern dance training and met lifelong mentor Reginald Yates.
Yates stressed not only dance, but an appreciation for history, discipline, morals. He built Lambert’s confidence and self-esteem as well as technical skill, eventually seeing his protégé win first prize at the National Federation for Fine Arts Young Arts Competition. Lambert received a gold medal from then-President Bill Clinton, his heart swelling with pride. He would need every bit of it for the next step of his journey: Juliard.
“At Juliard’s program, they try to tear you apart. I didn’t go there with any insecurities. I had high self-esteem, but they treat you as though you’re nothing—as though you’re not good enough for the program. It’s the culture of the school, to tear you apart in order to build you up, but it’s brutal,” Lambert remembers, with some emotion.
He credited Yates with helping him to overcome, graduating from Juliard at the top of his class.
“There was no tap at Juliard,” Lambert says. “Tap came with Linda. I have an old school approach to tap, a unique style. I call myself a tap stylized dance artist, because I incorporate modern dance and ballet.”
That unusual style pairing led to a fateful call in 2009, when his agent told him Bill T. Jones was looking for a contemporary trained African-American dancer, trained in ballet, who could act, tap and sing for a new Broadway show. A visionary choreographer and director known for his rigorous ways, Jones had a hard time filling the bill. Lambert took a deep breath and went to the audition.
“When I showed up to the audition, there were people doing some dazzling things. Dazzling things. But they may not have had the whole package. I kept it simple and did my best. There’s no telling what people are going to respond to when you audition; it could be they like that person’s hair color, or they’re short enough. There are so many factors, you can’t get caught up in that or it’ll drive you crazy.”
As a seasoned pro, Lambert had long ago learned not to wear his heart on his sleeve at auditions.
“The energy in the waiting room is electric, but the person behind the desk has the final say. I’ve been doing this 20 years. If you’re chosen, so be it. If not, move on. As an artist, you have to develop a thick skin because it’s a long road.”
It was his first in-depth introduction to the sounds of Fela Kuti. “Fela believed we are all entitled to a life of dignity, respect and equality, but he didn’t get a political awakening until 1969, in LA when he met Sandra Isadore,” played in Charlotte by Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child. “She basically told him that African Americans were making revolutionary changes and that as an African, he needed to go home and change things, too.”
“Not all of Fela’s music is positive,” Lambert notes, “because there is some misogyny and sexism there, but his genius is in creating music we can groove to and listen to his lyrics and say ‘Wow, this is still going on to this day.’ It’s still current. It’s part of the human experience to struggle toward equality.”
Since becoming part of the original Broadway cast, as well as the first world tour and now the second U.S. tour, Lambert has absorbed some of Fela’s creative influence. When not on the road, he does solo concerts and one-night shows in New York, combining live music, traditional African dance, contemporary-modern, some tapping, and singing.
“I try to bring the entire human experience,” Lambert says. “In African culture, music, dance, theater and performance are an integral part of the culture. It all moves seamlessly in day-to-day moments, not compartmentalized like in America.”
He grows pensive, then speaks his mind: “I don’t like art for art’s sake. Art needs to inspire and rebuild. I’m not in here to glorify an aesthetic; there are too many issues going on these days and that’s a waste of everyone’s time. There are people pushing each other in front of trains and kids picking out bandannas every day. My whole thing is about growth.”
Fela!’s traveling cast has seen some changes on this tour, including the aforementioned addition of Michelle Williams as Sandra Isadore. The titular star is now Adesola Osakalumi, not the original Sahr Ngaujah, and all in all seven new people have been added to the cast of 20. The performers run the spectrum of the African diaspora, including representatives from Paris, Trinidad, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and more.
“We’re still finding our paintbrush,” Lambert admits. “We’ve been together just over a month.” At the time of this interview, they had just opened in Washington, D.C.
Asked what kinds of personality issues crop up on the road, Lambert hedges. “There are always problems and there are always solutions. Personalities and egos are components of theater and artists have to negotiate all the time. But you have a real education, problem-solving skills, and must realize we’re fortunate to have jobs because we’re in a recession and the struggle is real. I honor and recognize that.”
Aside from ego issues, the nature of performance itself can be melancholy. “I love strolling in a city and having people, strangers, sincerely thank me for my worth,” Lambert says. “It can be a thankless job at times; you can’t take the applause at the end of a show with you. … That’s a little bittersweet. This business is not a fair one and you’ve gotta be strong. It’s not always fair how things move in terms of advancements, notoriety or opportunities.”
The toll on personal relationships can be tough, too, given distance, time apart, and the near-obsession exhibited in most gifted dancers. But here, Lambert is more optimistic. “Real recognizes real. When you find love, you’ve got to fight to keep it. Relationships require work, but if you want to be in someone’s life you make an effort to do it.”
But nothing compares to Lambert’s excitement when talking about tonight’s show at the Belk Theater. “What resonates with everybody is the fact we’re giving everything we’ve got onstage. Energy is transferable, and people are going to take that home. That’s the uniqueness of live theater, what makes it irreplaceable.”