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The Nutcracker Returns to the Royal Opera House

Sequins, dramatic music and dainty footwork… No, it’s not the finale of Strictly Come Dancing, but this year’s production of The Nutcracker. Leading star Alexander Campbell explains why it’s the show of the season

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a performance of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House. Spring-loaded ballet star Alexander Campbell will once again leap into the lead role, flying through a gloriously colourful production that brings the magic of the season to life.

The Australian-born star joined the company in 2011 and has won countless plaudits for a series of sparkling performances. Now a Royal Ballet principal, his natural charm and stage presence light up the room when we meet during a break in rehearsals.

The Nutcracker is what ballet is all about. A fantastic Tchaikovsky score, magical costumes and a glittering set. It’s one of the most accessible productions, a fact reflected by an audience that spans all generations,” says Campbell.

The Peter Wright version of the ballet was first performed in 1984 but is now something of a tradition at the Royal Opera House. Sell-out shows mean that this year, Campbell’s performances will also be screened live at selected cinemas across the country on 5 December.

It’s a fairytale come true for a dancer who once had to make the difficult choice between a career on stage or playing professional cricket. Born in Sydney, his father, Alan, was the cricket talent scout who helped develop top Australian players such as Michael Slater and Michael Bevan. Campbell was a talented left-handed batsman who excelled on the field too.

“Dad was a good player and I would go with him to grounds around New South Wales to scout for the best guys. My earliest memories are of knocking a ball about with him in the back garden.”

In the macho world of Australian sport, choosing ballet over the bat might have been an issue, but Campbell had plenty of support he could rely on at home. 

“I was only 14 when I made the decision but luckily my maternal grandparents, Valma Briggs and Mario Desva, had been dancers too, with Ballet Rambert. My gran was a big influence – I couldn’t dedicate the time to both activities.”

Campbell admits not all his friends understood and there were some raised eyebrows. “It wasn’t the normal thing to do but fortunately, I was respected for being good at all sports. I had great support from my family but making that decision to focus on ballet rather than sport was still tough. Fortunately, I made the right choice.”

It was also a decision that ultimately took him 12,000 miles around the world – a long way from his family over the festive period. The season is extra difficult because he also celebrates his birthday on Christmas Eve. “We will speak on the telephone but it has become a lot easier than it was when I first landed in London.”

Campbell won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School with a performance at the Sydney Eisteddfod, in 2002. He went on to win the prestigious Genée International Ballet Competition, and made the finals of the Prix de Lausanne too.

“I had no idea what to expect in England. Mum came along, just to settle me in. Later she told me she was an absolute mess leaving her 16-year-old son behind in a different country. I look back and think I was absolutely fine but I wasn’t really.”

Based at a hostel in Hampstead, Campbell says he felt cut off from his peers, who lived together in ballet school digs, some distance away at Barons Court in West Kensington.  There was a curfew in his hostel, which made him feel even more isolated.

“A few times I wanted to pack my bags and head back home – it just seemed too hard. I had tearful phone calls with my parents. It was a struggle being part of a massive institution, alone in a foreign country and not having anybody to talk to.”

He started to find his way around the capital after moving to a flat in Earl’s Court with a group of friends. “It was much more fun being in the centre of things and I began to enjoy myself.”

Campbell, aged 30, now lives in Clapham but some of his favourite haunts are north of the river. “I like to wander around the V&A if I get a quiet moment. It’s a great place to sit and contemplate. One of my favourite places to eat is Core by Clare Smyth on Kensington Park Road, or a big Sunday roast at The Orange on Pimlico Road.”

Campbell’s fledgling career hit a low point two years after he joined the Royal Ballet School. He began to suffer from osteitis pubis, a condition that sometimes affects ice skaters and dancers. “It’s a really bad inflammation around the muscles of the groin. That was quite gruesome and painful.The injury put me out for five months at the end of my second year. I was diligent in my recovery process but I had to be patient and tough. It wasn’t easy.”

Now 5ft 9ins and 69kg, Campbell says he knows the vulnerable parts of his body and how best to avoid injury. “Making sure my core muscles are really strong is important. If there is one issue, it would be my lower back, so I’m very aware of that when I’m lifting somebody.”

His rise to principal status in 2016 included a dressing room with a window at the Royal Opera House, although he still has to share it with two others – the Russian Vadim Muntagirov and American star Nehemiah Kish.

Understandably, cricket isn’t a common topic of conversation between the international trio, but Campbell did have an opportunity to pad up again recently, when the company played a Glyndebourne team in the summer.

“It has been so long since I played that the handle of my kit bag just disintegrated when I pulled it out of the cupboard! We lost that game but I did take an extremely balletic catch. I was a pretty useful batsmen in my teenage years but top-flight cricketers are so much fitter now.”

Campbell has also worked with the Royal Academy of Dance in conjuntion with the Marylebone Cricket Club, trying to encourage more boys into ballet – and more girls into cricket. He talks to aspiring international coaches about the training an individual needs to excel. 

“Not everybody really understands what dance is all about, or they have preconceived ideas of what we do. From my own career, I know that anything that opened up the door to this world had to be a good thing.”

Recently he branched out into another area of the performing arts by auditioning for a role in the West End production of An American In Paris. “It’s pretty unusual for a ballet dancer to make that transition but I made the last two.

“I’m staying open-minded about the future but who knows, I might still end up being a West End star!” 

Alexander Campbell performs in Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House, from 5 December to 10 January, www.roh.org.uk