The tale of a ‘real-life’ Billy Elliot: How cricketer Alexander Campbell swapped batting for ballet

Today, Alexander Campbell is a principal at the Royal Ballet. But for a long time it seemed that his destiny lay along a very different path. He spoke to Jeremy Taylor; portraits by Richard Cannon.

It could be a storyline borrowed from Billy Elliot: brilliant young cricketer, one day destined to be a top-flight opening batsman, shuns weekend training to risk ridicule as a ballet dancer – in Australia.

‘I don’t think my friends at school quite knew what to think. There were a few raised eyebrows,’ admits Alexander Campbell, a principal at the Royal Ballet, who’s currently dancing the major roles in that Christmas favourite, the Peter Wright version of The Nutcracker.

‘It wasn’t the normal thing to do, but, fortunately, I was respected for being good at all sports. I had great family support, but making that decision to focus on ballet rather than sport was still tough. Fortunately, it was the right choice.’

Mr Campbell grew up in Sydney, where his father, Alan, was the cricket talent scout behind international players such as Michael Slater and Michael Bevan. In the macho world of Australian sport, one might imagine that the reaction of friends could have been a concern. ‘I was only 14, but, luckily, my maternal grandparents, Valma Briggs and Mario Desva, had been dancers, too, with Ballet Rambert. I was also pretty good for my age,’ he explains.

Australian Ballet Dancer Alexander Campbell

Australian Ballet Dancer Alexander Campbell

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After a spell with Academy Ballet in Sydney, it was suggested he went to England. Since then, Mr Campbell’s rise to the top at the Royal Opera House has been based around a commitment to character and a natural stage presence. Since joining the Royal Ballet as a soloist in 2011, he’s won acclaim for performances in productions including Mayerling, The Sleeping Beauty and Manon.

His easy-going nature leaps across the table as we chat in the Hospital Club in Covent Garden. Casually dressed in jeans and an open shirt, Mr Campbell is taking a break between rehearsals.

‘Billy Elliot [in which a miner’s son takes up dancing] was a fantastic film – it broke down barriers and put ballet up for discussion,’ he says. ‘People don’t really understand what dance is all about, or they have preconceived ideas of what we do. For me, anything that opened up the door to this world had to be a good thing.’

Mr Campbell won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School at the Sydney Eistedfodd, in 2002. He went on to win the prestigious Genée International Ballet Competition and made the finals of the Prix de Lausanne. He arrived in London aged only 16 and with little idea of what to expect. ‘Mum came along just to settle me in. Later, she told me she was an absolute mess leaving her son behind. I look back and think I was absolutely fine, but I wasn’t really.’

Mr Campbell was based at a hostel in Hampstead and felt cut off from his peers, who lived together in ballet-school digs some distance away at Barons Court. The hostel’s curfew made him feel even more isolated.

Australian Ballet Dancer Alexander Campbell

Australian Ballet Dancer Alexander Campbell

‘A few times, I wanted to pack my bags and head back home. It just seemed too hard,’ he reveals.

‘I had tearful phonecalls 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.’

Six months later, he moved into a flat with friends in Earl’s Court and found his feet. Things were going well when he was struck by the unpleasant sounding condition of Osteitis pubis. ‘It’s a really bad inflammation around the muscles of the groin. It was quite gruesome and painful. It put me out for five months at the end of my second year – just the time you’re supposed to be looking for jobs and hoping to be spotted by a directors. I was diligent in my recovery process, but I had to be patient and tough. It wasn’t easy.’

Mr Campbell, 30, says he now understands the vulnerable parts of his body and how best to avoid injury. ‘Making sure my core muscles are really strong is important. If there’s 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 comes with a dressing room – with a window – at the Royal Opera House, although he still has to share it with the Russian dancer Vadim Muntagirov and American star Nehemiah Kish. Cricket isn’t a common topic of conversation, but Mr Campbell did have an opportunity to pad up when the company played a Glyndebourne team in the summer.

‘It’s been so long since I played that the handle to my kit bag 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, left-handed batsmen in my teenage years, but top-flight cricketers are so much fitter now.’

Australian Ballet Dancer Alexander Campbell

Mr Campbell has been working with the MCC, 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.

Ballet stars have been known to carry on dancing into their forties and fifties, so how long does he think he has left? ‘If I make it to 40, I’ll be happy. It’s about maintaining my body both mentally and physically, which gets a lot harder as you become older. It’s easy at the moment because I’m relatively young and excited about everything I do. I’m always excited about The Nutcracker – there’s a special magic about Tchaikovsky’s score and it’s fantastic to see so many young faces in the audience.’

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 end up as a West End star!’

  • Alexander Campbell is performing the title role and that of the Prince in the Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, until January 10.