Many years ago a young Australian dancer won a scholarship to travel overseas to London to join the Sadlers Wells Ballet. Her name was Valma Briggs. (“Valma should go far,”declared one of the judges, Eduoard Borovansky, artistic director of the Borovansky Ballet. “She has a beautiful foot and an instep which reminds me of Elaine Fifield's (another Australian dancer who found fame in the UK).” Briggs did go far, becoming a dancer with Ballet Rambert in 1955-56, where she met her husband Mario Desvaux. She eventually returned home and become a teacher and Royal Academy of Dance examiner.
Many years later her grandson, Alexander Campbell, made a remarkably similar leap overseas. He also won a scholarship – the McDonalds Ballet Scholarship at the Sydney Eisteddfod in 2002, which enabled him to join the Royal Ballet School in London. On graduating he was offered a place in the Birmingham Royal Ballet, from which he moved to the Royal Ballet in London. He achieved principal status in 2016, claiming equal place in a starry line-up that includes such international stars as his compatriot, Steven McRae, David Hallberg (artistic director designate of the Australian Ballet) and Roberto Bolle.
Campbell has danced a wide variety of roles in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, including some by the world’s most sought after contemporary ballet choreographers, such as Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor. When I ask him what roles he would nominate as his highlights, however, he singles out the all-time classical role of Prince Albrecht in Giselle.
Campbell is not built in the stereotypical aristocratic mould – more boyish and charming than tall and aristocratic, and such princely roles do not automatically come his way.
He made his debut as Albrecht in February, 2018, partnering Francesca Haywood, and earned high praise for dancing and his interpretation: “He may lack the princely authority of a classic Albrecht – he looks almost as young as Hayward’s Giselle, and almost as naïve,” wrote Judith Mackrell in The Guardian. "But he is a superb dancer, an excellent partner, and I like the way he pitches his character as a posh boy out of his element, experimenting with emotions he doesn’t yet understand.”
Mark Monahan in The Telegraph was equally ecstatic. “. . . Francesca Hayward and Alexander Campbell – made a joint debut of such artistry and chemistry that the story felt astonishingly new-minted. . . . Campbell, still pouncing on every dramatic detail, is superb as a man radiating both love and remorse – his partnering here is terrific, their clinches infinitely touching – but also fighting tooth-and-nail for his life.”
Another role Campbell nominates as a favourite is Des Grieux in MacMIllan’s Manon. He was already dancing the major but sinister role of Lescaut when he was called on at short notice to perform the more sympathetic hero, Des Grieux, at the last moment in the 2018 season, replacing an injured McRae, and earning admiration for his ability to “deliver two deeply thoughtful, believable depictions of such starkly different characters in a single run [...] nothing short of extraordinary,” according to blogger Miris Kusnik.
Campbell is not one to boast but “I have a real affinity with the ballet, and having the opportunity to do two roles from two different perspectives was very special, I loved it,” he reflects. “Both were roles I had aspired to and thought for a long time about how I would approach them. Also I have quite a lot of experience and confidence in my reading of the roles, they came at just the right time for me.”
His partner in both was Francesca Hayward, someone with whom he has established a particularly deep rapport. Both were promoted to principals the same year, and have made their debut in a number of important roles together, such as Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty (in both the lead roles as well as stealing the show as the Bluebirds).
“We dance quite a bit together now,” he says. “The Royal Ballet doesn’t have set partners, we tend to shift around a bit, but it's hard not to develop a bit of relationship if you've worked with someone relatively consistently, and I feel like we have built on each of our roles – we do have quite a special connection, to me anyway.”
One of the qualities that he believes they share and value is musicality. Campbell is admired for his sensitive response to music, a remarkable achievement considering he is hard of hearing. Even his boss, artistic director Kevin O’Hare, wasn’t aware of his condition.
“I’ve had it [deafness] all my life,” he says. “Most of the time it’s not really a problem. It’s different when we’re rehearsing on stage, as I can’t hear the words coming from the auditorium. But the music’s generally loud enough. If it’s particularly quiet I might have to rely on someone to give me a cue.”
Campbell is well known not just in dancing circles. His father is Alan Campbell, who was a selector and manager for Cricket New South Wales, and State Director of Coaching for 20 years. Campbell could well have pursued cricket as a career, only making up his mind to concentrate on ballet when he turned fourteen. However, thanks to his cricketing lineage, he has become something of a spokesperson for men in ballet, regularly appearing as a guest speaker on cricket programs, and has been an advisor to the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) training programs. More recently (in June 2017) Campbell was appointed an ambassador for the Royal Academy of Dance and Marylebone Cricket Club joint project to encourage more boys to take up ballet and more girls to take up cricket. He is happy to help demystify and normalise ballet as an occupation for men.
Campbell is now a British citizen and lives in his own apartment in Clapham. During the lockdown he is spending a lot of time at home or at the apartment of his girlfriend, Clare Calvert, a soloist in the company. Like all dancers at the moment, he is keeping in shape with online classes and trying to keep positive. The UK’s version of our JobKeeper is a “furlough scheme”, which pays 80% of a worker’s usual salary, guaranteed till the end of June.
“It happened pretty much from one day to the next,” he says of the lockdown. “we were doing Swan Lake one day and then we weren't. The lockdown came from the government with very little forewarning. The Royal Opera House has been wonderful communicating and providing support and there's plenty online for joining in. The main thing they’ve been communicating is that these are extraordinary times and we are must look out for each other.”
- KAREN VAN ULZEN