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Laguna gave him roots, Canada gave him wings:

The soaring heights of Ballet Star Skylar Campbell

Story by MARRIE STONE

Ballet may be coded into Skylar Campbell’s DNA. His mother, Kelly Uygan (neé Leonardi), was a noted ballerina for 15 years, performing with Laguna Beach’s Ballet Pacifica and as a principal dancer for the Hartford Ballet Company. Skylar’s stepfather, Viktor Uygan, also reached international recognition as a danseur in both the United States and abroad.

Laguna gave black tights

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Photo by Rick Guest

Before ballet, there was music, skateboarding, and the Pacific

But for whatever impact nature and nurture had on him, Skylar still came surprisingly late to ballet. At the ancient age of nearly 14, after expressing little interest in pursuing his mother’s profession, Skylar announced – on the steps of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York – that he had his sights set on ballet. And he had the drive, determination, and ability to achieve it. 

After a mere two years, he was awarded a coveted Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) scholarship and a chance to dance in Switzerland at the Prix de Lausanne at the age of 17. The very next year, in 2009, Skylar was offered a prestigious apprenticeship with the National Ballet of Canada (NBC) in Toronto. This year, less than a decade later, he became one of their principal dancers. This quick success is unprecedented in the ballet world. He came up so quickly, his mother says, that when offered the opportunity at the impossible Prix de Lausanne, he’d never even heard of it.

While it could have been nature (with a ballerina’s blood flowing through his veins) or nurture (growing up around dance studios and stages), Skylar’s innate talent is something all his own. His rhythm is rooted in a deep appreciation for musicality. He retains amazing command over his body, able to execute complicated movements with consistent fluidity and grace. And he has an instinctive ability to wholly inhabit his characters. All this makes Skylar’s stage presence nothing less than extraordinary. 

Laguna gave on one foot

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Photo by Karolina Kuras

Skylar’s drive, determination, and innate talent led him to rapid success

Growing up Laguna

Born in Laguna, Skylar attended Top of the World Elementary from first through fifth grades. Typical of a Laguna Beach boy, he couldn’t get enough of the great outdoors, preferring ocean sports and skateboards to ballet slippers in his younger years. “I was jumbling drums and skateboarding and doing water sports,” he says. “Dance came into the picture much later.” 

Laguna gave drums

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Photo provided by Kelly Uygan

Skylar shows early and avid interest in the drums

His paternal grandmother, the late Lida Lenney, was a former mayor of Laguna Beach. An outspoken environmental activist, Mayor Lenney served during the devastating 1993 fire. The Laguna fire destroyed Skylar’s childhood home on Canyon Acres, and caused his mother to move to Connecticut to dance with the Hartford Ballet before moving back to Laguna when Skylar started first grade.

“I had this kind of duality of two different worlds,” says Skylar. “I bounced between, and was able to pick and choose what I liked of both. I loved the lifestyle of hanging out at the beach.”

Skylar’s maternal grandmother is Carol Leonardi, who was instrumental in helping manage Ballet Pacifica. From 1962 to 2007, Ballet Pacifica was an Orange County institution, nationally recognized for its innovative program. Even if he didn’t yet dance himself, Skylar had a ballet upbringing. His mother took him to countless performances. He brought bouquets to her on stage. Ballet Pacifica became something of a second home.

Laguna gave with mom

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Photo provided by Kelly Uygan

A young Skylar with his mother, Ballerina Kelly Uygan Leonardi

“Throughout late middle school, seventh or eighth grade, I got the taste for what it meant to be a professional dancer,” says Skylar. “I tried hip-hop, jazz, and ballet. Ballet took over all of those other mediums of dance.” He went on to train with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky in Laguna Hills before launching his professional career in Canada.

But first there was music

For Skylar, music always came first. “Even in the womb,” his mother says, “I would play Mozart piano concertos and I could feel him relax. He was always interested in music, even at the youngest age. On snow days, I would find him watching the symphony rehearse in our building. That musicality has crossed over to ballet. It’s a quality that he’s often noted for in his dancing now.”

Laguna gave piano

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Photo provided by Kelly Uygan

Even in the womb, Skylar was soothed by music

 Skylar took up both the baritone and the drums at a young age. He’s still an avid drummer. In fact, his company allows him to keep a drum set in the dance studio to play when he’s not rehearsing.

 “Music was the driving force in me from the very beginning,” says Skylar. “I’ll find nuances in the steps, but it’s important to have this natural ability to feel the music. The music is what makes you dance. It’s such a human quality.”

Skylar’s many starring roles

Skylar’s roles are nearly too numerous to recount. But there are some recent stunning performances worthy of note. Skylar created the title role in the world premiere of Pinocchio by Will Tuckett, described by the Toronto Star as “a heartbreakingly poignant portrayal of wooden wannabe boy from fairy tale.” 

Watching videos of his performance, it’s clear Skylar’s heart and head are as invested in portraying the character as his body. He once said in a 2014 interview with My Theatre Award’s Kelly Bedard, “The most important thing I have learned in dancing these roles is to always keep a dialogue running through your mind. We do not have words to express our feelings, so we have to emote these feelings with our bodies. A story or emotion will not transmit to an audience if you are not keeping specific intention running through your mind.” 

That’s how his performances feel – intentional. I wonder if he calls upon a time before he danced, still the wooden boy without the benefit of ballet, to bring this character so intimately to life. As though ballet itself breathed life into Skylar, giving him the ability to transmit that emotion to the stage.

Laguna gave Giselle

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Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic

Skylar Campbell in the role of Hilarion in Giselle, National Ballet of Canada, 2016

Other recent performances include the title roles of Le Petit Prince and Nijinsky. “His is a Nijinsky of childlike innocence, conveyed in dancing of unaffected, almost angelic purity,” said the Toronto Star. “He simply breaks your heart.” 

“Performing is why we do what we do,” says Skylar. “There’s something transformative about being on stage. It’s an infectious feeling. I never could imagine living without it now. It’s quite crazy. And it’s a little consuming.” 

For a young man so full of focus and mindfulness, Skylar says it’s still difficult for him to remain in the present. “But being on stage gives you those moments of serenity, those moments of feeling present,” he says. “You feel like you’re doing what you need to be doing. Having the ability to move people by feeling this complete abandonment in certain things is wonderful.” 

Other roles from his online biography include Peter/The Nutcracker in The Nutcracker, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Hilarion in Giselle, Gurn in La Sylphide, White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Florizel in The Winter’s Tale, Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty and Alan in A Streetcar Named Desire. Skylar has also danced roles in Swan Lake, Onegin, Cinderella, Manon, A Month in the Country, Don Quixote, Hamlet, The Seagull, Theme and Variations, Tarantella, The Four Seasons, Emergence, Chroma, Being and Nothingness, Symphony # 9, The Second Detail, Genus, Cacti, Paz de la Jolla and The Dreamers Ever Leave You. He also danced in the world premiere of Frame by Frame by Guillaume Côté and Robert Lepage.

Advice from backstage

There are three things Skylar says during our talk that strike me as particularly insightful. First, he says, he wants to challenge the stereotype that ballet is primarily an athletic endeavor. “What we’re doing is more than physical,” he says. “We have to move the audience with our acting, musicality, dynamics. That’s what makes ballet interesting. That’s why people love it.”

unnamed

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Photo by Rick Guest

“Ballet requires both athleticism and artistry. That’s what audiences love.”

 He also urges artists to expose themselves to as many different types of art as possible. “Don’t trap yourself into your niche,” he says. “Don’t only watch shows if you’re a performer, or movies if you’re an actor.” 

Skylar’s insistence of diversifying himself as an audience member enriches his own art. It also deepens his curiosity. “I would never want to do what these [other artists] are doing, but I can apply [what they’re doing] to my craft.” It also allows him to bounce around ideas of possibility outside the structured framework of ballet. By expanding his artistic repertoire, it brings depth to his own performance.

His final advice? He urges people to attend the theater, not simply substitute the experience on their screens. “You’re not going into the theater when you’re on Instagram. Instant gratification posts glorify dancers in a way. But there’s a real push and pull with people living on their phones instead of inside the theater.” Social media, he says, has had an enormous impact on the arts. It portrays the extremes of the art form as consumers ogle over photos, or watch YouTube videos, instead of attending live performances. 

“Ballet is an art that only exists with the bodies that it has. Dancing isn’t like a painting or sculpture that can be viewed for hundreds of years. It’s only alive within the people who are alive right now. It’s important to transport yourself in the theater – go see any live art. It’s enriching.” 

But, he admits, it’s also become expensive. “Ballet’s golden days were in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. In those days, dancers were celebrities. Attending the theater was a regular occurrence for the general public. Now it’s become an elitist art form. It’s an extremely costly business that limits our audience. We’re not appreciated as much as we were before, because we don’t have this world popularity, or national popularity, as individuals.” But, he says, dancers now tend to look at the bigger picture – they love what they have at the moment, and they trust there will be something for them after their careers end. 

That’s a worry Skylar needn’t tackle for a long time. His place on the international stage seems secure.

Skylar’s return to his hometown

On Saturday and Sunday, Oct 6 and 7, Skylar will return to Laguna Beach to perform onstage at the Laguna Playhouse for the Stars of Dance Festival. 

A particularly meaningful performance, says his mother, because he’s dancing on the centennial celebration of Ballet Pacifica founder Lila Zali’s 100th birthday. “It’s a neat thing that he’s dancing in the Playhouse where my first shows as a young professional were performed,” says Kelly. “That’s a big tie for him to the community – Laguna, Lila, Ballet Pacifica. Dancing on her centennial, and performing the Flower Festival, which is an old classic she loved – Lila would have appreciated that.” 

Skylar will join principal ballerina and Breaking Pointe TV reality series star Beckanne Sisk and soloist Chase O’Connell of Ballet West, as well as his colleague at NBC Jordana Daumec. Dores André and Joseph Walsh of San Francisco Ballet will also perform. The Stars of Dance shows will run on Saturday, Oct 6 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct 7, at 2 p.m. More information and tickets for the event can be found at the Laguna Playhouse website at www.lagunaplayhouse.com.

Michael Crabb, in Dance Magazine, may have summed Skylar up best: “Incandescent onstage, Campbell’s laid-back demeanor disguises a burning desire to succeed – and a work ethic that’s enabled him to accomplish it.”

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