From sandy beaches to wooden britches

National Ballet of Canada's Skylar Campbell takes the lead in world premiere of Pinocchio


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Skylar Campbell and Heather Ogden in Pinocchio

Like a lot of southern California kids, Skylar Campbell grew up skateboarding and surfing and playing the drums.

A product of Laguna Beach, the blue-eyed, swirly haired Campbell was set to pursue music at university and was on a steady diet of jazz and hip-hop music. Then the ballet came along, and everything changed. 

Now, the 25-year-old first soloist for the National Ballet of Canada is doing something most dancers dream of. 

He’s creating the original role of Pinocchio from scratch in the world premiere production set to hit the stage at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre on March 11.

“I feel so fortunate and humbled to be leaving a small footprint in National Ballet’s repertoire,” says Campbell, on the phone while on his way to an aerial rehearsal at the Sony Centre. 

“It’s an honour, and is very rewarding.”

The show is the equivalent of a blockbuster in international ballet terms, with a crack team of creative minds assembled, including top-notch English choreographer Will Tuckett along with set and costume designer Colin Richmond (Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House). They have been tasked with spinning the classic tale of the wooden puppet who wished to be a boy for the ballet and, of course, with including some unique Canadian touches including lumberjacks, beavers and Mounties.

As one can imagine, dancing as a wooden puppet has its challenges. But for Campbell, the real challenge is in the acting, and expressing Pinocchio’s desire. 

“Pinocchio is not a static restricted puppet,” he explains. 

“The audience is going to see his knowledge reflected through his movements and through his journey throughout the ballet. It’s like the dancing is the easy part. It’s more the character growth, the precise timing and the nuance [that are the challenges].”  

It’s a big deal, another step in Campbell’s rise through the National Ballet ranks that began back in 2009 when the Toronto company recruited the young surfer-cum-dancer for its apprenticeship program following his award-winning performance at  an international competition in Lausanne, Switzerland. 

It would be a couple years before he signed on to the ballet corps, but since then he’s garnered significant attention for his dancing. Campbell debuted as Hilarion in Giselle and in the title role in the world premiere of Le Petit Prince.

Over the past eight years, Campbell has acclimatized to his life in the northern climes of Toronto. 

“It was not what I was expecting, but I look upon it now as something that really helped my development as a dancer and as a person,” he says.  

It all began with his best coaches, his parents — who both danced ballet on the East Coast before moving to California to concentrate on Pilates and fitness — as well as his childhood ballet school in Laguna Beach studying under Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky. 

“I just became enthralled with the art of ballet,” says Campbell. “With dancing, it all starts at the root with ballet. The level of difficulty in the execution of the steps was more appealing than other forms.” 

Not to mention the possibility of dancing as a wooden puppet come to life on a stage in Canada.

Pinocchio runs March 11 to 24 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, national.ballet.ca.

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Ron Johnson is the editor of Post City Magazines. Follow him on Twitter @TheRonJohnson.

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