By Michael Crabb
The Toronto Star
December 6, 2013
[Toronto, Ontario, Canada] – It’s quite the jump from horse’s ass to Nutcracker prince, but that’s what National Ballet second soloist Skylar Campbell has accomplished as the company rolls out James Kudelka’s evergreen version of the Tchaikovsky classic for its holiday run.
Until now, Campbell was relegated to the rear end of a life-size stage horse whose dancing antics are a highlight of this Nutcracker’s opening party scene. Now vaulting the ranks into a principal role — originally played by none other than beloved former star Rex Harrington — Campbell will make his debut Dec. 15 in the meaty lead male role.
“It’s a huge opportunity and really quite unexpected,” says Campbell, as he recalls the discomfort of dancing inside that two-man horse. The horse costume is a bit like a concertina. To get it right you’ve got to maintain the tension. Meanwhile, it’s like a heat chamber in there. You sweat so much.”
This season, instead, Campbell will rub the horse’s neck in his Act I role as Peter, a humble stable boy, in the huge barn Santo Loquasto designed for the lively party scene. Even so, company artistic director Karen Kain says Campbell will still be sweating. “Santo’s Nutcracker costumes are absolutely wonderful to look at, but they can be quite heavy to wear. I always tell our Peters to drink lots of water any chance they have.” The problem is that, apart from one intermission, Peter doesn’t get many watering opportunities. He’s the central character throughout the ballet and hardly ever offstage. “It’s very demanding in terms of stamina, from beginning to end,” Kain says.
From stable boy, Peter transforms into a dancing Nutcracker soldier-doll. Then, once an army of rats and other assorted beasties has been defeated in the spectacular battle scene, he becomes the elegant Nutcracker prince who falls in love with Act II’s Sugar Plum Fairy. Campbell’s Fairy will be principal ballerina Jillian Vanstone.
“I think my big challenge will be pacing myself,” says Campbell, who’s had a relatively short rehearsal period to learn a role that includes a lot of acting and detailed stage business. “You need to give a hundred per cent energy right from the outset; but then there’s so much more to come.”
You might ask, given the National Ballet’s range of male talent, how Campbell, 22, only in his third season with the company and his first as a junior soloist, has earned such a conspicuous role. Kain explains that it requires a particular kind of dancer. “Apart from classical technique and strong partnering ability, it needs a certain sweetness of character. And James Kudelka has been impressed by Skylar’s dancing.”
So have other renowned choreographers. When John Neumeier restaged his Nijinsky for the National Ballet last winter he chose only two men to dance the title lead, company star principal Guillaume Côté and Campbell, still then in the corps.
In his very first season, Kain cast Campbell in Sleeping Beauty’s technically dazzling Bluebird pas de deux. That same season he was cast as Alain, a central role in Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée.
All this for a skateboarding, surfing, drum-playing California boy from Laguna Beach, Orange County, who didn’t commit to ballet until he was 15 and never had the systematic training that’s considered a sine qua non for success. That Campbell didn’t take to ballet sooner is surprising, given that his mother, Kelly Uygan, and stepfather, Viktor Uygan, were both ballet dancers.
In 1996, when he was just 5 and his mother a member of Hartford Ballet in Connecticut, Campbell was cast by Canadian choreographer Jean Grand-Maître in a cameo role in his Ancient Airs. But, as Campbell’s mother explains, she didn’t try to push him, especially when his interests seemed more inclined toward music. However, when Kelly and her Turkish-born husband resettled in Orange County they steered Campbell to a local studio where he learned hip-hop and jazz dance.
Campbell’s epiphany came during spring break 2005 when he accompanied his parents to New York’s top-level dance contest, the Youth America Grand Prix. Campbell was so impressed watching a scholarship level boy’s class that he calmly told his mother, “I’ve decided I’m going to be a ballet dancer.”
After initial classes with Viktor Uygan, Campbell transferred to the studio of Russian-trained dancers Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky. His progress was rapid enough for choreographer David Allan, then a University of California, Irvine professor, to cast Campbell as the young prince in his Ballet Pacifica Nutcracker production. “It was a real dancing role and Skylar never missed a single double saut de basque through 21 performances,” says Allan, referring to an athletic turning step.
Allan, a former National Ballet soloist, became an important mentor and Campbell’s occasional teacher/coach, as did another former National Ballet star Stephen Legate. These connections were among several factors that in 2009 decided Campbell to become a National Ballet apprentice after placing among the top 10 male finalists in that year’s prestigious Prix de Lausanne. He spent two years in the National Ballet’s YOU Dance apprentice program — “I needed that extra time to catch up” — before becoming a full company member in 2011.
“Those of us who’ve been able to help Skylar along the way are all so proud of him,” says Allan. “It’s extraordinary how far he’s catapulted himself in little more than seven years.”
Says the easygoing, quiet-mannered Campbell, with his curly red hair and a face straight out of a Botticelli painting, “It’s certainly been quite the journey.”
The Nutcracker is at the Four Seasons for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W., Dec. 14 to Jan 4. Go to www.national.ballet.ca or call 416-345-9595 or 1-866-345-9595 for tickets.
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