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    Alexander Campbell 2023

    Alexander Campbell

    Principal, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    American International Church, Tue 28th February, 2023


    This original schedule was to interview Alexander Campbell and his wife Claire Calvert. Claire sent her apologies but she unfortunately did not feel well on the day due to a good reason - her pregnancy. But she’s well and everything is going as it should. Alexander felt it was nice to share the news with people now.

    Alexander mentioned that he and Claire were married on August 20th and it was a magic day. Such fun to celebrate with family and friends, particularly during people’s summer travels. On August 22nd he flew to Australia – pre-planned that way - where he performed in a gala – Manon pas de deux with Francesca Hayward and the White Swan pas de deux with Benedicte Bemet (principal in Australian ballet). Rehearsals were in Melbourne where he knew the director, David Hallberg, from the past. And he ran into Joseph Caley, former principal from Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet - they greeted one another with the mutual comment “what are you doing here?”

    Back to the Royal where the season included Mayerling and Crystal Pite ballets until they got to Nutcracker. Previous seasons had been disrupted by Covid and the lockdown. 

    Alexander told how his father (a professional cricket coach) enjoyed the physical aspect of ballet. While watching in the very deep wings at the Royal Opera House, his father was amazed that people were crossing in front and back in many directional traffic, sometimes people would come off breathing very hard – seats already occupied had to be evacuated at short notice. Clearly people had different personality from their onstage performances when in the wings. His dad asked how did they did this, and he said “practice”.

    Sleeping Beauty was with Francesca Hayward. Alexander said it was nice to work with Frankie again and to revisit the ballet. It is a very long, great role for the Princess but a hard slog at times. For first time, Lesley Collier did not coach them and her replacement was Isabel McMeekan. That gave a fresh perspective and new pair of eyes from someone who doesn’t know them as well, although she had been at BRB when he was first there. Alexander found it a really enjoyable positive experience and hopes to work with her again.

    Alexander’s first Sleeping Beauty was with Francesca a long time ago. But it is Aurora’s ballet, and the Prince’s job as partner is to support the Princess and make her look her best. The first act is very challenging for the ballerina, and he felt this time Frankie’s approach had changed and was very assured. Alexander likes working with her – she’s very musical and he understands her motivations. For example, when the step before hasn’t worked perfectly, he knows how she will react and doesn’t have to second guess as with other performers. 

    David commented on the decrease in the number of programmes since Covid, partly to raise money – only eight this season and last season. Alexander said that one advantage of long periods of not being involved is that you can concentrate on other things. But it is also good to have many repetitions of same program to develop what the role means. When Alexander first joined, Monica Mason was director; she had 11-12 programs per year and Kevin initially kept it the same, but it became unsustainable, particularly with a new full-length ballet and a few new one-acts. Kevin started to reduce programs to 10.5 with more performances of “safer” programs to boost ticket sales, with more opportunities for different casts. (Every female principal dancer David interviewed preferred more shows of same ballet – to give time for developing the role.) 

    Alexander commented that he does class all the time because he sees it as means to end – but his main aim is to be on stage. If there are ten to twelve different casts, they require two-hour sessions every second day and time with coach, pianist, etc. Everyone struggles to get their time. At first there might be group calls (all princes, all princesses) but then they move toward rehearsals with partners. When Alex was at Birmingham Royal Ballet, he did a lot of shows on tour and hence 10-12 Sleeping Beauty shows in a couple of years. He felt that this could lead to greater understanding of a role. So how do you approach a role if only do one or two performances. How to decide what could be done better or differently? It is a challenge.

    Cinderella returns next month after a very long gap. Alexander had seen Cinderella as a student at the Royal Ballet School, but it hadn’t been performed since his joining the Company, so for almost everyone it is new. Rehearsals are with Wendy Ellis Somes, Laura Morera or repetiteurs – all the princes, etc. group calls, the pas de deux, now split off with partners. When it works, it’s very beautiful and makes perfect sense, but it’s a disaster if it doesn’t work. Now there’s a new set, costume fittings, but how will it look on stage? The mock-ups on paper have been exciting to see.

    Lesley Collier had said that she wanted more time with her grandkids. But Lesley and Frankie have a very special and fond relationship. In the end, Francesca persuaded her (twisted her arm, blackmailed) to come back for Cinderella. It was so nice to see Lesley again, as she is very generous and giving. Also, discussions with former stars are pearls - interesting stories of their times in the role, much better perspective than from just Benesh notation – almost magical feeling to that process.

    At the time of the interview, Woolf Works was being performed. Alexander had performed it twice in the past but not this time but there is no emotional attachment which makes it interesting to watch. “A very satisfying evening.” He particularly likes the first act set with the revolving wooden squares - very magical. Asked, if he ever had plans to do choreography in future? He said he had no desire to choreograph but enjoyed working creatively on pieces, sets and how they work: directing and producing might be in his future. 

    Referring back to a previous interview with Alexander, David asked when and/or how did he decide on ballet over cricket as a career? He had been doing ballet from age five, but made the decision at age 14 as both ballet and sports were time-consuming and needed more concentration. It is very difficult to make a choice at that age. There was an appeal to do something different from his peers at the time. But from a practical aspect, lots of Australians do cricket and do it very well – but it’s difficult to get to the top level. “There is a lot less competition in Australia among male dancers” (laughter). He thought about the choice for a long time and is very happy with the decision, travelling the world and being exposed to different cultures. Though he does miss the time spent with his dad most Saturdays.

    His mother had chosen to home school her children when he was about seven or eight as they were moving house. He quite liked it – and by age 10 full time ballet training in Sydney was on the horizon. Once a year there would be a visit from someone from the Board of Studies and mum would showcase his piano playing and mention the ballet; being well-rounded seemed to override the concern about the academics! 

    Then he went to a small private school for ballet classes in Sydney where the teacher understood his need to be exposed to different styles to maintain interest – and that was perfect. Several classmates went on to professional careers in Britain. His teacher said go to the best ballet school which would best opportunities to get a job: that was the Royal Ballet School and he was aiming for that via the Prix de Lausanne competition. He did 2-3 competitions per year in Australia, because of the opportunities of being on stage (preparing, make up, dealing with pressured environment such as the Genée competition). He was among the youngest competitors in the Prix 16-19 age group and was exposed to the best worldwide. He distinctly remembered a young lad who later joined BRB for a while; his jump was so high overhead that Alexander was ready to quit! But his teacher had prepared him to be confident enough in his own abilities, that he didn’t have to absolutely nail every element and that they were looking for potential. At first there was no concrete offer from the Royal Ballet School, but it came just as he was leaving for the Prix and he was asked to join in the middle of academic year. That was Plan A to get to the Royal Ballet School. It was a fantastic dream come true. 

    When at the Royal Ballet School, Alexander was taught by David Peden in his first year, Christopher Powney, now Director of the School in his second year and Gary Norman in his final year. Formerly, a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet, Gary was married to Gailene Stock. The three had different styles of teaching, particularly about what they wanted aesthetically and it was quite confusing with the different teachers. But it was important for going into a professional career to be working with different choreographers, different directors, realising that there is no one right way. One must be able to adjust and adapt to different expectations or demands. Regarding academics at the RBS, Alexander sat in on a class of history which he enjoyed, and did English literature. He studied Othello with a great teacher but was not allowed to do the exam – “No, you’re not registered, but you can do it just for fun.” Alexander was not sure about that! Ballet was always number one, and academic studies were always the first to go. 

    In his second year, he spent three months with Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB). They needed extra people for the Beauty and the Beast tour. He said it was great to perform with the Company, eight shows a week – “just brilliant.” Will Moore (also his year), who has just finished his career with Stuttgart and Zurich Ballet companies and James Barton, now Ballet Master with Scottish Ballet were among those co-opted to BRB. They loved it. They would do class and then perform eight shows a week. He got the sense that David Bintley, the director at the time, liked him. He was very encouraging, even providing time for extra coaching. Alexander went up to Birmingham again in the third year and he was offered a job presumably because several soloist men of about same height as him were retiring or leaving. It was a good time for him to join and he spent six really good years there. His first solo was called Bootface in Cranko’s Lady and the Fool. He was given the role just months after joining the Company; it was a huge vote of confidence from David Bintley. He identified quickly that Alexander enjoyed performing and was happy to do character roles. Later, when leaving BRB – David said he was sad to see Alexander go and remembered when he decided to offer him a job. Alexander thought; – “was it my quadruple pirouette or amazing double tour - classical skills?”. “No,” he said, “I remember you in Beauty and the Beast in the role of the fat servant as a student, bald cap, grey hair, and enormous fat suit. You pushed chairs and people around. You really inhabited that character and gave it some presence!”

    Alexander told David that he wanted to be a principal. David him and gave him Petrushka quite early on, a wonderful opportunity to perform. Asked about his highlights, Alexander said that he loved doing Hobson’s Choice. It was really good fun and was enjoyed tremendously by audiences. Another ballet he enjoyed was Cyrano. He had a conversation with David Bintley, who wondered if he was mature enough for the role. After some discussion, eventually he let Alexander have a go and said he was ready. It felt very good to do and was another highlight. Another role he’d hoped to do as a student was Bluebird, but realized at the first rehearsal that it was a mistake. It is very, very hard and yet he wound up doing it for about 10 years! Asked if he missed doing David Bintley’s narrative ballets, Alexander said “yes and no.” He misses seeing Hobson’s Choice, but the varied repertory at the Royal Ballet keeps him inspired. He doesn’t feel he’s missing something. 

    Four years into BRB, he’d guested with the Australian Ballet where David McAlastair was Director. He was generous with his time and Alexander was really inspired by the high levels of classes and rehearsals that he’d seen. So, asked himself whether he was getting the best out of himself? He told David that he was looking for a change and was thinking of returning to Australia and he said “Oh that’s very nice (laughter) but not at this time. David asked why he didn’t try the Royal Ballet. 

    At the time very few people went from BRB to the Royal Ballet: Darcey Bussell, Miyako Yoshida – they’re gods, they’re legends. “Would that be possible for me?” But it planted a seed. He came down and watched some shows and decided to throw his hat in the ring, rather than die wondering. He wrote a letter to Monica Mason. It was all a matter of timing, people leaving, people with injuries. Monica always knew what was happening across the UK and said that she’d come to see him perform. It was Sunday performance; He was the prince in Cinderella. David Bintley said that he’s sorry to this day that he had given him that lead role– “if he hadn’t, I might still be with BRB” (Laughter)!

    Monica and Alexander had a few conversations. At the time he was a First Soloist at BRB and knew he was on the trajectory for Principal there - Monica asked if was he interested in joining as a Soloist. It would give him the opportunity to work with Tamara, Carlos, Darcey, Johan Kobborg. Watching them in class, he was blown away by how hard they worked all the time – that level of dedication– something to strive for. He accepted her offer! It was a quick one year till promotion to First Soloist. There was a huge repertoire – the 12 programs “almost frazzled” him; Monica placed him in different roles across the ranks - different styles, different partners. For a Song of the Earth rehearsal, she had him partner Sarah Lamb, “what a great opportunity.” He got to know everyone very quickly. I spent 3-4 years as First Soloist.

    Asked about his first Principal role, it was Fille. While they were doing rehearsals of Birthday Offering with Christopher Carr. “You don’t want to put a foot wrong with him! (Laughter) - Roberta marches over to me and says do a pirouette with me. Who did I want to upset more? Chris Carr or this amazing principal ballerina? So, I did the pirouette with Roberta. She said thank you and walked off. Ten minutes later she was back and said Press me –lift me above the head (Chris Carr will know we’re not rehearsing!) – so I did it and she walked off again.” “What does she want? A partner in a gala? Left me thinking about it overnight. It turns out she’d had a conversation with Carlos Acosta about Don Quixote for the next year and they were discussing casting.” Carlos had seen him do The Fool in the Prince of Pagodas and suggested him to Roberta as a partner, and apparently her answer was “who?” (laughter) –“Can he do anything.” So, she tested him and he got the job. He had some great rehearsals with Carlos and Roberta. It was a very special amazing time for him and felt like he was getting pushed and challenged and it was also great fun. Roberta was very experienced as a partner and had done all the classical rep. He felt this is what he needed. He took that instruction on pretty quickly and then did the role of Colas in Fille with her. He was also privileged to partner Roberta in her final performance. 

    Questions from the Audience

    “You seemed to really enjoy doing Dances at a Gathering.” “Jerome Robbins is very particular and it was a who’s who of the Royal Ballet originally; all the principals including Nureyev. I’d love to be involved in any role in the ballet, but that role opens the ballet, sets the tone, reaches down and touches the stage - beautiful role – I could retire really happy. I was partner to Marianela in Feb. 2020 when we went into lockdown – several months later she messaged me “be careful what you wish for!” We did eventually get back on stage and didn’t have to retire!”

    Question: What is your favourite role and why?

    “I really love dancing Albrecht in Giselle. It came late in my career, so it was an absolute bonus when it came up, especially as it meant working with Francesca Hayward. An amazing opportunity. Another is Des Grieux in Manon – An opportunity came up because of injuries, and I offered to do rehearsals with Akane who had no one to do her rehearsals. Could I be prepared for a rehearsal the following day and a stage after the weekend? So, I did a Saturday rehearsal with a wonderful coach - Sir Anthony Dowell. It was amazing.”

    Question: Is there one role you desperately wanted to do but haven’t done yet? “A part of me has always wanted to do Romeo with the Royal Ballet; I did it with BRB. And there’s Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, though I don’t feel the same attachment to that as to Albrecht in Giselle. I feel very fulfilled!”

    In thanking Alexander for the talk, David commented on how much we had enjoyed following his career and sent the best wishes from all the members to Claire.

    Report written by Natalie Teich and edited by Alexander Campbell and David Bain.

    © The Ballet Association 2023