Alexander Campbell In Conversation with Gerald Dowler

June 20, 2024

The Chair of the London Ballet Circle, Susan Dalgetty Ezra, warmly welcomed Alexander Campbell to the evening’s In Conversation. Born in Australia, Alexander trained locally in Sydney and then at The Royal Ballet School. He joined Birmingham Royal Ballet on graduation, moving to The Royal Ballet in 2011. A Principal since 2016, he has danced all the major roles and has now embarked on the next phase of his career as Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Dance. There were mixed feelings, said Susan, in that while we were delighted that he had taken on this new role there was disappointment that he would not be dancing again with the Royal Ballet. This evening he would be conversing with distinguished writer, Gerald Dowler, who Susan also warmly welcomed.

Gerald reiterated Susan’s comment; he too had been a great admirer of Alexander’s prowess as a performer. So, he asked, what are the responsibilities of your new role as Artistic Director of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD)? Alexander responded that he was extremely excited by the job which encompassed many different aspects, with a multiplicity of stakeholders involved. He outlined two major roles, responsibility for the classical ballet syllabus which forms the major artistic output of the organisation, and support for the enormous number of both new and experienced teachers of dance throughout the world. 

He wanted to broaden the scope of the RAD, to continue to open up both its membership and styles of dance and to make it more representative of the world today. The young Alexander had himself been through the RAD schemes of training and examinations, but had not limited his studies to ballet. This diversity had very much allowed him to become the dancer that he is today. ‘Multifaceted’ said Gerald.

Was this a sudden move, he was asked. He had, after all, left the company in mid-season. Alexander admitted that although he had been thinking about his future career for some years, this particular move had all happened rather quickly. The RAD came on to his radar in December; the post had been advertised but he had missed the original advert. Always a passionate advocate for ballet as an art form, and keen to spread the word widely, the post appealed to him as an opportunity to pursue this mission. He thought it over a lot while at home during the Christmas break, put his name forward and had been interviewed in February.

He had then sought an urgent discussion with Kevin O’Hare; the company had just completed its run of The Nutcracker and he was then scheduled to perform in Manon. As a Principal his absence in mid-season would clearly leave a ‘hole’ in the company if he moved to the new post at once. He expressed gratitude to Kevin for making the necessary alterations which enabled him to accept the appointment within a reasonable timeframe. Fortunately the RAD had also been flexible in its requirements.

Manon was to be his last show, and both he and Francesca Hayward, who he described as a wonderful partner, had been coached for the performance by Alessandra Ferri. She had brought a new dimension to their roles, a fresh approach which had terrifically excited him. Alexander admitted that he had been overwhelmed by the reaction of both the company and the audience after the final performance. He believed this had been almost the perfect time to make the switch, and certainly had no regrets.

Gerald wondered how much of a ‘gear change’ the change of life had been. He replied that for the first five or six weeks he enjoyed the freedom of not having to take part in daily class. In due course, however, he began to feel somewhat lethargic. The continual diet of office work, meetings and emails forced him to realise that he was lacking exercise and losing fitness. Accordingly he restarted class, not necessarily every day; as well as toning him up he felt that it reconnected him with the artform itself, which was important.

They went on to discuss what Alexander might want to achieve or develop at the RAD, to which he responded that he would wait to see how his first year went. Above all he wanted to be an advocate for ballet. There were, for instance, countries in which it remained less than socially acceptable for boys and men to take part in such an activity; he would like to have an impact on change in those societies. He would like to see dance accepted as a job; to encourage some of those who initially took it up as a hobby to go on to look upon it as a profession. Would this necessitate a lot of travel? While there would undoubtedly be opportunities to go places because the RAD operates in 80-odd countries, face to face discussions were sometimes essential, However, Alexander considered that online calls could be helpful in obviating many such visits. 

This discussion on the future inspired a question about Alexander’s connection with and love of cricket. The RAD already had a partnership with the MCC called ‘Dance down the wicket’ which showed how the two, on the face of it, very different disciplines might assist each other. For instance, Alexander noted that both involved the body being used in ways that might be considered ‘unnatural’ – turnout in ballet and the use of a rigid straight arm in throwing the ball in cricket. There were many parallels between the activities of dancers and those engaged in sports. All were athletes; he believed that cross-fertilisation of this kind could be extremely beneficial and wanted to pursue it.

Gerald then went back to Alexander’s early life and his introduction to dance. At about the age of four or five he had been taken to a show on which his grandmother was working. Up to then his interests had encompassed football and cricket but over the summer his parents talked about extra-curricular activities in general and whether he might want to try anything else. Apparently he himself suggested ‘ballet’. Both his grandmother and grandfather had been dancers and probably that is where the inspiration came from. And also probably because of this connection his father was very supportive – even though Alexander would turn out to be one of just two boys in the local ballet school. 

As a dancer his grandmother had been an examiner for the RAD – so he had an introduction to the organisation at a very early age. She had related her experiences of examining in other countries, leading him to realise that the movements he was learning were being practised all over the world. 

Later, at around 11 or 12, it became clear that if he was to make real progress there was not time to do both cricket and ballet, and he came under pressure from both coaches to choose one or the other. Alexander was very drawn to the mystique and magic of the theatre and the idea of performance and elected to concentrate on dance, beginning to consider the possibility of becoming a professional dancer. If that was to be his aim then he was advised that he should try for entry at one of the top ballet schools. 

Accordingly he auditioned for the Australian Ballet School, and was accepted. The offer was not a scholarship and no funding was included. He also passed an audition for The Royal Ballet School – and was offered a full scholarship. This, however, would involve leaving home and moving halfway round the world. Because of the funding on offer coming to London was actually the cheaper option for his family! And although the Australian school was in his home country he would be moving to another state, so that would also have seemed quite definitely like leaving home. 

Nevertheless, responded Gerald, it was a bold move to make. Alexander agreed, saying that he didn’t think he was afraid of taking difficult decisions once he had properly considered all the aspects, even though there might be a degree of risk involved. He did not consider himself courageous and preferred to avoid conflict, and was usually prepared to wait until all the elements appeared to be in place. Take the opportunity which has been offered, but make sure you have fully prepared yourself first – that was his motto.

Thus Alexander joined The Royal Ballet Upper School in 2003. He didn’t think he had settled easily into the new environment, which he found quite challenging. His classmates had all been together at White Lodge and consequently were very familiar with each other’s personalities and ways of working. And he started part way through the school year, which did not help. There were many good things to be appreciated, however; for instance the opportunity to cross the bridge to see, and occasionally take part in, the ballets on stage at the Opera House. 

To some extent he was homesick, the feeling that he was far from home and family still persisting today. His family remained very supportive. Nevertheless, he was very aware of the separation; for instance, that conversations always seemed pressurised by time. Achievement, he said, always comes at a cost to all those involved. 

In Sydney you had been almost a solitary male, said Gerald, and now you were surrounded by equally talented men, all vying for attention. Alexander explained that he had not found that situation difficult, actually rather enjoying its competitive aspects. Comparison with his peers spurred him on to become more proficient. And the sheer intensity of the training brought them all together. This had been a terrific year group, with almost all of the cohort gaining company contracts. 

During his second year at the school Alexander spent two six-week periods dancing with Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB). Wonderful times, and a very positive experience. The environment suited his personality. In particular he cited Robert Parker in Apollo as a dancer he would like to emulate. And so when David Bintley, then Artistic Director of BRB, made him the offer of a contract with the company he jumped at the chance, wanting to start immediately! 

He commenced in Birmingham in 2005 and was offered lots of opportunities from the day he joined. The ethos of the company was terrific and he felt that he matured as a dancer. The Royal Ballet School had very effectively installed in him the foundations of ballet, the technical aspects. During his time in Birmingham he learned so much more about ballet as an artform, its ability to tell stories, responding to its audiences. David Bintley’s own choreography was also both interesting and fun to perform. The overall repertory was considerable and he didn’t think he would have been exposed to such variety of roles had he been in a big national company. 

He thrived in BRB and felt properly challenged by the roles he was offered. In particular he paid tribute to a fellow dancer, Natasha Oughtred, who had encouraged him to develop the possibilities within a partnering role – maybe taking some risks, which was not how he had danced up to that point. In his last couple of years with BRB he took many Principal roles and believed he was probably near achieving that status with the company. It was all good. 

Over the years Alexander had maintained contact with David McAllister, then Artistic Director of Australian Ballet, and now had been invited to guest with the company (as Franz, in Coppélia). He had been somewhat surprised and certainly most impressed with the commitment and hard work of the dancers. The company appeared to be operating at a higher intensity than BRB, he said. It made him realise that really he was ready for a change if he wanted to make the most of his potential. 

Alexander discussed these thoughts with David McAllister, very much hoping that he might be offered a job with the company. That didn’t happen, however; instead David suggested that he remain in the UK and try to join the Royal Ballet. To Alexander that seemed an impossible goal – the Royal Ballet was the epitome of his profession and he did not think he could possibly aspire to its ranks. Nevertheless the seed had been planted and he knew that was the company which would allow him to get the very best from himself as a dancer. He was able to audition before Dame Monica Mason, who offered him a soloist position in the Royal Ballet. Although almost a Principal in BRB it took him no more than 30 seconds to accept the offer. He so wanted to join the company; to be around top level dancers! 

Since then he has performed many major roles with the company, rising to become a Principal in 2016. Among his favourite roles he cited Colas in La Fille mal gardée and Albrecht in Giselle. And Des Grieux in Manon; he had planned just how he wanted to portray the character and had been coached by Anthony Dowell who, in a note which he treasures, had said what a pleasure it had been to work with him.  

Gerald then praised Alexander’s performances as Franz in Coppélia, and in Jerome Robbins’ wonderful Dances at a Gathering, in which Alexander had partnered Marianela Nunez. Another brilliant role, said Alexander. Rehearsing for Dances had been interesting in that the couples had all rehearsed separately, only working together towards the end to share their experience. But it had all come together as a piece, and there had been tremendous camaraderie among the dancers.

Were there roles which he would have liked to dance, but hadn’t, enquired Gerald. Not really, was the response. He had performed all manner of parts, all over the world. Maybe he would have liked a crack at MacMiIllan’s Mayerling? And also disappointed that he would not be taking part in Ashton’s Rhapsody. 

And what about sharing a changing room with Vadim (Muntagirov), asked Gerald in a slightly off-beat question. Alexander replied that, having left the company, this may be something which he misses the most. As a Principal one can feel somewhat isolated, but they ended up sharing a room. Vadim has described how at first they moved tentatively around each other like a pair of lions, trying to make each other out. But Vadim then sent him a text, referring to something which Alexander had done in rehearsal. Apparently Vadim had been afraid that might make the situation more difficult, but Alexander simply laughed his head off and that was the start of their very warm friendship; Vadim had been best man at Alexander’s wedding to Claire.

Then came the basketball; somehow Vadim got a basketball net which could be attached to the wall, and together they would practise endlessly. Even after a difficult and tiring rehearsal, when one or other was feeling completely shattered, once back in their room they would be practising ball skills all over again….  With seemingly endless energy…..   Who was the better? We play in different positions and thus have different strengths, parried Alexander. 

Alexander was then asked about other projects with which he was involved, one of which was Alexander Campbell Productions. At RAD there was an appetite for him to pursue this and there had been inquiries about new work. However, he would only pursue this project when he considered the time to be just right. He very much enjoyed acting as advocate for others, believing that dancers would work hard and give of their best for him. In fact, he confessed that he felt more comfortable acting on behalf of others than he did about promoting himself. 

Finally he was asked if he had ever danced with his wife, Claire (Calvert). He thought that she was a great dancer and they had performed together just once – in Manon – and that had been fun. They had also been cast together in Prodigal Son but that show had never got to the stage because of the pandemic.

In concluding the evening, Susan, as Chair of the London Ballet Circle, thanked both Alexander and Gerald. Their conversation had been absolutely fascinating and she praised Alexander’s open personality. The Royal Academy of Dance was clearly in very good hands. The evening had been extremely interesting and entertaining, and she thanked both contributors most warmly. 

Written by Trevor Rothwell, approved by Alexander Campbell and Gerald Dowler

Copyright LBC 2024

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