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article imageTackling a giant of the dance world Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Nov 20, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Embodying one of the most famous dancers in history is scary — but American-born, Toronto-based dancer Skylar Campbell doesn’t let the fear get to him: "I'm letting the experience kind of take me over."
Nijinsky, a surreal, dreamy take on the life of Russian ballet great Vaslav Nijinsky, made its acclaimed Canadian premiere last December. It will be re-mounted this season, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, from the 22nd to 30th of November.
Focusing on dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s celebrated stage career as well as his tormented private life, the work has been described by its creator and choreographer, John Neumeier, as partly a “quasi-biography.” Neumeier, who also designed the sets, costumes, and lighting, uses the music of Chopin, Shostakovich, Robert Schumann, and Rimsky-Korsakov, in combination with intricate choreography to explore the torturous relationship the Russian-born dancer had with both Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, and his wife, Romola de Pulszky, as well as the dancer's tragic descent into crippling mental illness. The work was created in 2000 for the Hamburg Ballet, where Neumeier has been Director and Chief Choreographer since 1973. Despite the company touring it through the United States in 2004 and again in early 2013, Nijinsky's Canadian premiere in March 2013 marked the first time a company not Neumeier's had danced it.
The Toronto production was hailed for being “powerful and chilling,” with the audience “left to marvel at Neumeier’s choreographic invention and theatrical bravura.” Another critic wrote, "It held me mesmerized, start to finish."
Campbell (then a member of the corps), and National Ballet principal dancer Guillaume Côté, were chosen by Neumeier himself to dance the lead role.
“In the second act you don’t leave the stage,” Campbell says about Nijinsky, speaking between rehearsals on a grey, wintery afternoon recently. “You’re onstage for pretty much an hour-and-a-half […] When learning the ballet, I took notes and had to write corrections down and reviewed them, until the choreography sunk into my body.”
No film footage exists of Nijinsky in performance, such was Ballet Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev’s deep mistrust of the then-new early-20th century technology. Only photographs of the dancer, in and out of costume, offer a sense of his magnetic stage presence and much-praised technical ability. “It’s kind of John’s imagination of what the movement might’ve been just from these pictures,” says Campbell of Neumeier’s work, “I have something that John told me, that whatever the movement is, I'm thinking, ‘why am I doing this?’.”
The combination of actor and dancer is something Campbell has taken to heart. A large part of Nijins...
The combination of actor and dancer is something Campbell has taken to heart. A large part of Nijinsky’s artistry derived from his seemingly-seamless integration of the theatrical and balletic. It’s an integration Campbell is focusing on. “We have technically difficult steps we have to execute,” he notes, “but that’s not the majority of what the role is about.”
Bruce Zinger
The American-born dancer was an apprentice at the National Ballet of Canada after he placed among the top ten male finalists at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne in 2009. For two years, he was a part of the National Ballet’s YOU Dance apprentice program. As he told the Toronto Star last year, “I needed that extra time to catch up.” Despite the fact both of Campbell’s parents were ballet dancers, he only came into ballet later in life (for a professional dancer), at the age of fifteen.
It was “more of an instinct,” he says of his choice to become a dancer, “because I loved music and … without music, I wouldn’t have been a dancer. I loved music before I loved movement; music made me want to move.”
In his early days, Campbell was mentored by choreographer and former National Ballet soloist David Allan, who cast the then-teen in a production of The Nutcracker for his Ballet Pacifica production. He became a full company member of the National Ballet in 2011. Last season, in addition to performing in Nijinsky, the young dancer also performed as the Peter/The Nutcracker in seasonal favorite, as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and danced in both the world premiere of ... black night’s bright day … (choreographed by James Kudelka) and the North American premiere of Spectre de la Rose, by Marco Goecke, part of the company's summer program.
Campbell thinks the National Ballet is the perfect spot for nurturing young dancers in their artistic development. “It has that camaraderie of a small company atmosphere,” he explains. “There’s a lot of young talent here right now and it’s the perfect platform. It’s a whole environment.”
Skylar Campbell performs in the National Ballet of Canada s production of John Neumeier s  Nijnsky.
Skylar Campbell performs in the National Ballet of Canada's production of John Neumeier's "Nijnsky."
Bruce Zinger
When it comes to the experience of Nijinsky, Campbell says the work has “taught me how to become a dancer-actor. You have to do these things that John is asking – not necessarily a technical step or movement. It’s maybe a look, an expression… a feeling.”
In an interview this past February, Campbell said that “(t)he most important thing I have learned in dancing these roles is to always keep a dialogue running through your mind.” Has the dialogue changed in the year since he’s danced Nijinsky?
“It speaks to me different this year,” he says with a laugh. “Last year it was, “Okay, let’s just get through this! Let’s make it from beginning to the end!” This year I don’t know what to expect, but I'm more sure on the perspective of how to approach each act. I think it’s more about letting myself go [...] and having the right balance between the knowledge I’ve gained and what I want to change or do differently — which is not a different step of course, but a new feeling.”
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