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Alexander Campbell

Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet

interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London, 24 August 2017

DAVID WELCOMED ALEXANDER and suggested he began by telling us about the Company’s recent tour to Brisbane, Australia. Alexander said it was great for personal reasons. It was the first time in 15 years that the Royal Ballet had been to Australia. Then they took Giselle and Swan Lake touring in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney his teacher wanted him to have the chance to see the Company and there was the opportunity to audition and he got a part. So, aged 14, he appeared on stage in Australia with the Royal Ballet and now all these years later it’s come full circle and he returned as a Principal to perform there again, which was quite surreal and very enjoyable.

 …aged 14, he appeared on stage in Australia with the Royal Ballet and now all these years later it’s come full circle and he returned as a Principal to perform there again…

This time they took Woolf Works and The Winters Tale. It was exciting as they are both quite recent creations which was a positive thing but possibly difficult to sell to the locals. They struggled initially to get sell out days but as soon as the notices went out the tickets went like hot cakes and the audiences were appreciative. Alexander was in the second section of Woolf Works and debuted as Florizel in The Winters Tale. He’d not been involved in the ballet previously but the first time he saw the production he was blown away, thinking it was so clever and enjoyable. He was very grateful for this opportunity to be involved, though he suspected it was because he was Australian, but looks forward to dancing it again in London this year. The local company, Queensland Ballet, has a very famous director, Li Cunxin. The tour supporters and some of the dancers were invited to take class, see a rehearsal and have lunch afterwards. Alexander was free and was keen to go as he’d met Li a couple of times and been impressed. It was good to see him in an artistic environment having not seen the company when they performed in London.

Fifteen members of the company went to dance in Cairns which is a long trek from Brisbane. There was a clash of timing with the State of Origin, a famous rugby league match between Queensland and NSW. Kevin O’Hare said the organisers had mentioned there might be an issue over ‘some sporting thing’ and had suggested they brought the performance forward so people could go afterwards to the game, and that worked. People came from all over to the new outdoor venue, with its covered stage. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere and you can take a picnic. Having had wall to wall sunshine all week, on the afternoon the clouds came over but they had the largest audience ever of just under 3,000 people who sat in the rain and created a great atmosphere. They had to delay the start a bit till the stage was dried but Kevin came out to say they were ready to go with Tarantella in which the lead dancer was Australian – hooray – but from Sydney – booo! Everyone was pleased with the way it went and they were able to do their tourist bit afterwards instead of having to perform on the rain day scheduled for the following day.

Tarantella is a real party piece which he’d not been familiar with until he performed it in London last season having only seen it once in a gala in Birmingham. When Pat Neary had been over earlier for Four Temperaments there’d been random calls for people to learn Tarantella. It’s a great piece but the most challenging that Alexander has experienced stamina-wise. For the female is probably not so tough but slightly more exposing technically. For the male the stamina is all-important – you’re seeing stars long before the end and there’s not enough time off stage to recoup. At their last show Vadim Muntagirov was in the wings. Alexander came off, desperate to catch a breath before going on again, and Vadim, looking very relaxed, said ‘Hi Alexander, did you see the NBA finals?’ Alex gasped, ‘not now!’ The fitter you are the harder you want to push yourself when you know it is going to hurt. You probably wouldn’t think it was Balanchine from the style. Alexander doesn’t like all of his works though they did Jewels which he found fantastic and really satisfying.

Asked why Alexander decided to make the change from Birmingham to London he said he’d been ready for a new challenge. He’d had a good six years there and did a lot of great stuff…

Asked why Alexander decided to make the change from Birmingham to London he said he’d been ready for a new challenge. He’d had a good six years there and did a lot of great stuff but given the opportunity to come to London he couldn’t say no. He’d not had a very enjoyable time at the Royal Ballet School and was a bit worried about how he’d feel coming into the Company but he’s quite ambitious and it was wonderful and a privilege to be promoted to Principal last year. There was so much positive going on and part of being in the Royal Ballet was very positive. A good move. It can be a difficult place at times but wonderful all the same. You have to acclimatise to a new company and way of working, e.g. the way performances are organised and structured. In Birmingham there’d be seven or eight productions a year and when he came in Monica Mason’s last year there were 12 or 13 productions so a lot more to learn. It was relentless with performances beginning in September through to June or July doing a show every week while learning new productions. He found it difficult to get used to rehearsing for more than five hours a day and then performing Sleeping Beauty in the evening. It was alien. You were meeting new people, working in a new environment. No-one here knew him and he started again at the age of 25. It’s hard to change a first impression but here he came with experience and maturity and was treated differently.

His first role was in Jewels – the Emeralds pas de trois. He has a lot to thank Monica for in terms of management in his first year. It was a new season and opening night. Monica put him in roles that covered all sorts of ranks. He worked with a broad spectrum of people within the Company. He could prove himself in rehearsals as well as on stage. In Song of the Earth he partnered Sarah Lamb which was exciting and terrifying. When the part came up later she remembered from the first time that he was OK! It’s a competitive environment trying to produce excellence. When Monica left and there was to be a change of director he didn’t know if her successor might change everything but he was keen to take the opportunity and see what he could do. When Kevin took over not a lot changed, most of the staff stayed the same though the rep changed a bit.

Alexander’s first Principal role was in Carlos Acosta’s Don Q. It came about during a rehearsal of Birthday Offering, Benn Gartside was injured so Alexander was partnering Laura Morera. Christopher Carr was taking the rehearsal and you don’t mess around. Roberta Marquez was on the other side of the studio and came over to him and said “partner me”. Afterwards she said “good” and walked off! Chris was talking to him when Roberta came over again, saying “lift me” and “do a pirouette”, then “I’ll talk to you later”. Carlos was making Don Q and had seen Alexander as the Fool in Kenneth MacMillan’s Prince of the Pagodas (important timing). As a child he’d been influenced by Baryshnikov. He thought it (Don Quixote) was pretty good and fun to do. It’s hard not to be biased as he had a wonderful experience doing it.

His next role was in new choreography with Kim Brandstrup making Ceremony of Innocence. He really admires Kim and genuinely likes his work but although he’s so nice he’s one of the most infuriating people to work with. He makes something, then next day it’s done in reverse. Following that it’s without music and then different again. You don’t know where you are with the finished article but you are very familiar with the material! It was an interesting piece which worked particularly well in Snape though perhaps it had less impact in the Opera House because of the size and lack of intimacy. An interesting experience.

After Kim came Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets. Liam and Alexander had been together at the School so it seemed a bit strange at first but he is very good at involving everyone in the process while being clear in what he wants. It was a good experience with flexible costumes which made movement easy.

Alexander had recently been in The Winters Tale and had earlier created a role in Chris Wheeldon’s Aeternum. Because of other commitments they tried to split the cast and it was rushed and became quite tense and stressful for everyone. It was a strange piece but Chris is good to work with and has an interesting way of working with the music and the more you become familiar with his style the better you can make the performance.

His first involvement with Wayne McGregor had been in Limen. When the casting went up Ed Watson was first cast with Alex as cover. Melissa Hamilton’s cover was Beatriz Stix Brunell. Wayne’s work is very different stylistically and physically and there’s no common denominator. Ed does a very slow leg lift up over his head. Alexander was copying it to his own level when Wayne said “you can do it full out back there!” There wasn’t a lot of rehearsal time and Wayne is quite demanding but a very interesting guy and he’s had great times and horrible times with him in the studio. He makes you think differently and it’s a big challenge to the norm. He has a slightly different process for everything he does. He tends to use the same people all the time and you have to be aware of individuals’ strengths and weaknesses to have the same common denominator.

Of the heritage works, Alexander did quite a lot of Ashton in Birmingham and again did Enigma Variations with the Royal. It’s the same piece but each of the different people staging it swears they are right! It gave Alexander a break mentally after learning all the new pieces. Dancing Voices of Spring gave him a big opportunity as, although initially second cast, he did the opening night because of injury. It is challenging in the same way as Tarantella with your lungs exploding by the end. La Fille mal gardée was the first ballet he ever saw at the Opera House and was his first ballet as Principal so it squared the circle nicely. Speaking of the challenges of Ashton choreography, Alexander said as a male dancer he is what ballet is all about. If you aren’t musical it doesn’t work and it is obvious. You have to know what you’re doing as there’s nowhere to hide. People think Colas is just a nice role but it’s very challenging technically while having to dance with a relaxed air and sunny disposition. It’s easy to put Ashton in a box and Alexander thinks he can be unfairly pigeon-holed (no pun intended) but having had the opportunity to do a vast array of his works he finds they are quite varied and each has a different challenge. He also knew of the Two Pigeons from Birmingham but hadn’t danced it before and it was one thing he really longed to dance. The Royal hadn’t put it on for a long time and when Kevin said it was coming back his chance came. Dancing it was every bit as enjoyable as he hoped it would be. Sometimes this isn’t the case. With Bluebird in Sleeping Beauty he really wanted it until he actually did it when he was about 18 and half way through he knew he wasn’t enjoying the experience.

While in Birmingham Alexander had been involved in some MacMillan works – Solitaire, Romeo and Juliet and Concerto – but one reason why he wanted to come to London was to have the opportunity of doing other big ballets like Mayerling and Manon. They are very satisfying, particularly if you get a really good cast together. When he did Romeo in Birmingham he only had two weeks to learn it and it was a bit of a surprise as the summer before David Bintley had told him he’d never do it. It’s a great role and makes sense musically. He’s done it his entire career and it’s just as satisfying. Fantastic designs and the steps, while tricky, express what the character is about. The great thing with Ashton and MacMillan is that the choreography is an extension of the character itself.

Asked if there were roles he coveted, Alexander said he didn’t like to think about it too much as he might be jinxed but the Crown Prince in Mayerling would be one as he feels there’s a lot about it he could explore.

 This season there’s Alice and he’s looking forward to dancing Jack with Akane Takada. She’s flourishing in her principal status and it’s good to watch her really stepping up in the nicest possible way…

This season there’s Alice and he’s looking forward to dancing Jack with Akane Takada. She’s flourishing in her principal status and it’s good to watch her really stepping up in the nicest possible way. There’ll also be Nutcracker. Alex likes the fact that it’s so popular and people keep coming but he doesn’t enjoy doing the shows in January or February which are ‘out of season’. He’ll again be doing Florizel, a very satisfying role, in The Winters Tale. Acts I and II are very different and Chris has created a little world in Act II. It’s good to have done it recently as Alexander said he doesn’t retain everything. After a long period he has to relearn a part. It’s different from Birmingham where you do a lot of performances of the same show. Monica gave him a lot of shows and Kevin has shown he’s keen to cast things differently with Principals not necessarily in principal roles and Alexander likes this as he enjoys being part of the whole. He recalled Roberta saying she hadn’t met people as she came in as a guest and then a Principal. At the time he didn’t understand but now he does. As a Principal you work on your part, do one full call with everyone and then you’re on stage. Doing secondary roles gives you the opportunity to be part of the inclusive whole.

On partnerships, Alexander said they don’t exist as they did in the past and that is everywhere. If you enjoy working with someone you want to maintain it but there are positives to working with different people as you can become blinkered. Kevin tries to mix it up a bit. It is nice to develop an understanding with someone. Last season for three or four months the only person he worked with was Francesca Hayward. Their understanding benefited from the number of roles and different challenges. This season he’ll dance Alice and The Winters Tale with Akane and Nutcracker with Frankie Hayward. They did a documentary last year which went out on BBC on Christmas Day. He’s flitting between Akane and Frankie, two very different dancers but exceptional in their own ways.

Away from ballet, Alexander’s great interest is cricket and he’d recently played for the Opera House team against Glyndebourne. (David commented that the Ballet Association used to play cricket against the Opera House but looking at our membership he doesn’t think that would be possible now.) Alexander has also been a guest on Test Match Special on BBC Radio during the England v. Australia Test match – Australia lost, but it was one of the best days of his life. He went to the media centre and had an enjoyable 35 minutes interview with Jonathan Agnew. He’d been a bit concerned on how it would go as you can be asked nonsensical things sometimes but Jonathan was well prepared and engaging and asked good questions so he could talk comfortably. He was offered two tickets for the match so called a friend who was very keen and said “I’ll be there – I’ll just have to reschedule my daughter’s birthday party”! Alexander had been connected with cricket from birth through his Dad who was a ‘professional’. He met Glen McGrath and Trevor Baylis who had taken over as England coach and said come and say hello. The approach from the BBC had come through the Royal Ballet Press Department who asked if he’d heard of something called Test Match Special! He also did some work for the England and Wales Cricket Board. They were running modules and introduced people from different disciplines in other fields so Alexander was involved as a speaker. His dad was heavily involved in cricket and Alex had always had access to the best equipment. He had a favourite bat which he never let anyone use until one day when he relented, thought afterwards it didn’t sound right and the bat split in two. Luckily a new, and even better, one was presented to him.

In conclusion David thanked Alex very much for a delightful evening and said our members were very excited about his promotion and were looking forward to seeing his progression for years to come.

Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Alexander Campbell and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2017

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