Skylar Campbell, a Laguna Beach native son and principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, has launched a touring troupe of illustrious dancers that will make its debut in Irvine.
The Skylar Campbell Dance Collective will premiere at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in June 2020, assembling leading artists from the Toronto company, New York City Ballet and Boston Ballet. A roster of Orange County talent is working behind the scenes: philanthropist and principal donor William J. Gillespie is executive producer; choreographer and retired UC Irvine dance professor David Allan is the collective’s artistic advisor; former Ballet Pacifica dancers Kelly and Viktor Uygan (Campbell’s mother and step-father) are ballet masters; and Michel Gervais, an Irvine-based ballet teacher and choreographer, is artistic assistant.
In a recent phone interview from his home in Toronto, Campbell said he started planning the project a year ago. At first, the group will tour in summer only.
“Orange County was home. I think it’s the perfect place to start off and I think launching it there was kind of my dream,” said Campbell, who joined National Ballet of Canada 10 years ago and was promoted to principal dancer in 2018.
“I don’t want it to be anything like a gala of the stars, not another vanity performance by a person trying to sell themselves. I want it to be a true evening of classical and contemporary dance for everyone.”
The 20 men and women have already begun rehearsing. Many of them wouldn’t normally share the stage because they come from different “home” companies. This gives audiences a unique opportunity to see, altogether, Sterling Hyltin, Lauren Lovette, Andrew Vyette (New York City Ballet), Greta Hodgkinson, Evan McKie (National Ballet of Canada) and Patrick Yocum (Boston Ballet), plus others. The programs are still being finalized, but contracts have been signed for two pieces that Allan made originally for New York City Ballet, “Reunions” and “Pastoral Dances”; George Balanchine’s “Tarantella” pas de deux; and “Bolero” by Guillaume Côté, a principal dancer and choreographic associate with National Ballet of Canada.
The plan is for the collective to hit the road when the dancers are released for vacation. Campbell admitted he does think about returning to Southern California eventually and hasn’t ruled out the idea of establishing a permanent company there. He knows first-hand how challenging that can be, though, remembering the 2007 closure of Ballet Pacifica.
Keeping a professional company alive, Campbell said, “has been attempted in the past. Because of its attempts and failures, it’s daunting for me to think that far ahead.
“I’m carrying on my own dancing career and focusing on that, too. It (starting a company in OC) is definitely a thought. I just got married last summer and we’ve always had a deep connection to the area; it’s where my family is. I have to get my foot in the door first. I haven’t been there recently to have that physical experience with the people, the supporters and the audience members, just to see what the people want to see more of, what their taste is.”
Campbell was raised in Laguna Beach and his early passions were going to the beach and playing the drums. At 14, however, he gave ballet a try, taking lessons in south county from Russian dancers Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky. He progressed rapidly. Through his parents’ involvement in Ballet Pacifica, he has known Allan and Gillespie for many years; the latter is the major underwriter for the American Ballet Theatre William J. Gillespie School at the Segerstrom Center. The philanthropist paid for Campbell’s trip to Switzerland 10 years ago to compete at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition, where he was a finalist.
That experience proved critical. Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, was impressed with Campbell and invited him to join the company as an apprentice. He was singled out for leading roles while he was still in the corps de ballet, such as when John Neumeier cast him in “Nijinsky.”
Allan has coached Campbell multiple times, and was especially thrilled to see his development at National Ballet of Canada, where Allan had been a soloist in the 1970s and 1980s. This is a perfect time for Campbell to branch out, Allan said.
“While he’s entering his prime is a time for him to reach out and do this repertoire,” Allan said. “I just want him to get out of that comfort zone and reach out to other ballerinas he could dance with. I think it’s going to broaden him as an artist.”
The Collective has been set up as a nonprofit organization in the United States and Canada, and the group has raised about half of the $160,000 they need for the first program. Campbell wants to offer community educational programming in addition to concerts, but that will have to wait for subsequent years. For now, Campbell said, he has to focus on organizational logistics. He’s looking forward to sharing with local audiences the kind of work he’s been doing in Canada, and heartened by how eagerly collaborators have joined him.
“It’s kind of a special thing for me to show, ‘Look what we’re doing in Canada.’ I think branching off to this boutique experience is worth a try. Everyone is excited about it so far. It’s like, ‘Yes (I’ll do it), no question.’”
Laura Bleiberg is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.