This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.

Skylar Campbell, a Laguna Beach native and principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, had put two years of work into coordinating the live debut of the Skylar Campbell Dance Collective at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, until it was all put on hold due to the pandemic. 

The collective is made up of professional dancers from the National Ballet of Canada, New York City Ballet and Boston Ballet, and supported by several Orange County arts leaders including the late William J. Gillespie.

“Getting the news that the Barclay show was canceled was devastating,” said Campbell, who grew up in Laguna Beach and was excited to kick off this new endeavor at home in Orange County in June 2020. 

“I don’t just speak for myself, all performing artists suffered a huge loss. It’s like a chunk of our identity was gone. It was devastating to see something that to us, appeared to be very concrete, seemingly untouchable, just stripped away.”

While the pandemic stilled virtually all in-person, indoor dance, theater and music performances, it also revealed that life is like live theater, full of surprises and things you can’t plan for, and there’s always room for improvisation. 

Just two months after the final decision to cancel the premiere, Campbell was already spinning up his next idea. The early stages of planning took place from his parent’s home in Laguna Beach where he, his wife, and their dog stayed for about four months. 

“Living in SoCal for a few months was really transformative even when so much was still uncertain. I watched a lot of dancers pivoting to video — they were dancing in nature, using individual squares on a screen, doing solos. But a lot of stuff I was seeing was very reflective of the time — sad, lonely, not something that made me hopeful,” Campbell said. 

“I felt I needed to do something that would give us hope and look back on and recognize this time away from our medium is not time lost, but experienced gained.”

The Making of a Dance Film

This concept of hope for the future became the driving force of the next few months to create his three-part video series, “Traveler: Passages Through Dance.” 

The film contemplates an artist’s journey, internally and externally, during a difficult and unpredictable season. In this case, the coronavirus and forced isolation. “Traveler” was filmed on location in Toronto over two days. It features five dancers, including Campbell and his wife Jackie Oakley, with choreography by Miami City Ballet’s Ariel Rose. 

The creative process began in the summer of 2020 and it all started with music by Orange County native, Josiah Johnson. The singer-songwriter, formerly of the indie-folk band The Head and the Heart, was preparing for the release of his first solo album, “Every Feeling On A Loop,” when Campbell reached out about collaborating. 

“I think Skylar (Campbell) said something about how my music would be beautiful to dance to and I hadn’t considered that as a possibility of my music, but I took it as a really sweet compliment. It helped me see my music in a  different way,” Johnson said.

Original music by Josiah Johnson is featured in part one and two of “Traveler: Passages Through Dance.” Credit: Photo courtesy of Skylar Campbell Dance Collective

Johnson, who studied computer science and math at UCI before becoming a full-time touring musician, was grateful for something to replace the disappointment of canceled shows. He said it was a chance to ask, “How can I turn this bad news into sunshine?”

“I felt really inspired by (the dancers’) discipline and their vision to go from idea to execution. It was inspiring to witness their creative process and it created a curiosity for me to watch people who aren’t in my silo. It opens up a different kind of dreaming and challenges the normal artistic boundaries,” Johnson said.

Johnson makes a few appearances in the film, acting as the traveler who starts with this feeling of being trapped in one’s house, or in one’s mind, and ultimately leaving that cramped, dark space with new perspective and growth. 

Campbell and the collective found a silver lining in a mode of performing that defies several aspects of their craft — no proscenium theater, no expectation of pristine technique, no rush of live performance and no in-person audience. But it was this, or not dance at all. 

“It was difficult for me when we were filming the first pas de deux,” said Campbell referencing part one of “Traveler,” featuring a duet between him and his wife. “I didn’t have this visceral response to showing up to the theater and presenting to an audience. There was no shared energy or reaction. That is the reason why I dance and that wasn’t there.” 

While Campbell conceded that creating dance films and other virtual or streaming presentations was necessary at this time, he believes the future of dance and the performing arts relies on a robust return of live, in-person performances. 

“I know that dance on film will continue to exist, but I hope that it does not become oversaturated and somehow cheapen the theater experience,” said Campbell, who likened the availability of dance on the small screen to having candy and popcorn whenever you want, not just when you go to the movie theater. 

Campbell thinks there may be an opportunity for dance companies to include a dance film in their season, as long as it is looked at as a separate experience than what is presented on stage. A teaser, so to speak, that makes people crave more.

Campbell found a new perspective with this temporary segue into dance on film, but he is welcoming back live performances with open arms. There are no dates confirmed for the return of Skylar Campbell Dance Collective, but it will likely be in the summer of 2022. 

“We are forever changed from this, and that change is not bad,” Campbell said. “We had time to reevaluate our priorities, to find that childlike feeling we all had when we first started to dance, and when we get back on stage, it will be incredible for everyone.”

“Traveler: Passages Through Dance” is available to stream at no cost online at skylarcampbelldancecollective.com/performances or on YouTube at Skylar Campbell Dance Collective. The company is accepting donations for future shows on its website. 

Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at kaitline13@gmail.com.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.