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Dancer comes home to perform at Opera

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Dance has taken Jesse Campbell from Ohio to Italy, from Montana to New Zealand – but now it’s brought him back home and to the stage of the Santa Fe Opera.

“It was always a big goal to come back to Santa Fe and dance. That’s why I’m so excited to be back here at the Opera this summer,” he said, sitting at a table behind the cantina on the flower-filled grounds.

He was taking a break before that night’s final dress rehearsal of the double bill of “The Impresario” by Mozart and “Le Rossignol” by Stravinsky.

Jesse Campbell. (Courtesy photo)

Jesse Campbell. (Courtesy photo)

In the Mozart piece, the dance style is slapstick mixed with ballet, with the dancers’ practice moves sometimes leading (deliberately) to physical collisions.

In the Stravinsky opera, Campbell and his compatriots, wearing glasses, mustaches and berets, act as fluid architects, filling in the scenes and moving the action forward, as if turning the page in a fairy tale.

In a scene where the emperor is ill and troubled, the dancers’ movements appear to inscribe jangled, Joan Miró-like images near the top of the emperor’s bedroom walls.

Other times, they gracefully move the stage furniture or hand out props to extras, making scene changes into a dance, sometimes even positioning the extras as if they were flexible statues.

In scenes with a fisherman poling down a river, they provide the current.

“The dancing is incorporated to be a little bit of a mood enhancer and to facilitate the scene changes,” said Campbell, who is onstage during the entire course of “Le Rossignol.” “I really appreciate that the dance is an integral element of the opera.”

Seán Curran, choreographer, said he thinks the use of dance in the two operas is highly unusual, developed by director Michael Gieleta to help weave together the disparate pieces.

“He and the costume designer (Fabio Tablini) came up with the ‘Pablos,’” Curran said, referring to the Picasso-type characters the dancers portray in “Le Rossignol.”

Curran, Gieleta and the dancers (five men and one woman) got together for a week in New York City – Curran chairs the dance department for New York University – early in the process to develop choreographic sketches and a vocabulary of movement, he said.

The “Pablos” were seen almost as magical agents, Curran said, bringing about transformations on the stage. “They do help push the narrative forward,” he added. “They help you suspend your disbelief.”

In the madcap choreography that livens the overture to “The Impresario,” the actions include some sly references, including a dancer picking up a diva’s discarded scarf and holding it to his crotch in the manner of the faun in Nijinsky’s ballet “L’apres-midi d’un faun.”

Of the local boy who grew up to dance on the opera stage, Curran said, “I’m thrilled with Jesse. He’s got a quiet intelligence that has been so satisfying to watch.” With Campbell’s strong background in ballet, Curran said he wondered if the dancer would be willing to roll on the floor as required in some of the choreography.

“He proved to be quite fluent in many different styles of dancing,” Curran said. “He’s a wonderful colleague. I hope to get the chance to work with him again.”

Martial arts start

Now 26, Campbell said martial arts led his way into dance. As a youth, the dojo where he practiced was next door to a dance studio, whose inhabitants often came over to try to recruit the boys.

The movements in martial arts lent themselves to dance, he said. “I saw dance initially as a really great adventure,” he said. “I didn’t think of it as a profession.”

Locally, he danced with Audrey Derell’s Charisma Dance Company.

“I don’t know if I would have danced if I grew up somewhere else,” Campbell said, commenting on the prevalence and support of the creative arts in this city.

After attending El Dorado and St. Francis Cathedral elementary schools, Campbell said, his mother, a teacher, began to homeschool him. At the same time, he took classes at Santa Fe Community College, so he had a GED and associate’s degree by the time he was 18.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of New Mexico and another in fine arts from the University of Arizona. From there, he moved to New York City, where he had a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School, Campbell said.

“I started with jazz dancing, then modern, but I found ballet was what I really wanted to do,” he said.

The Santa Fe Opera has an artistic hiring presence in New York, Campbell said, where he auditioned for this summer’s season back in February and March. “It’s kind of funny that I had to go through New York to come back to Santa Fe,” he said.

When this gig is over, Campbell said he plans to return to the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, based at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where he also worked last year.

For a dancer, his career began at a relatively late age, Campbell said, noting that most begin right after high school. “I would be 22 and in class with really talented 17-year-olds,” he said.

But he doesn’t express regret for his late start, nor for the early finish that most dancers see to their careers.

“You can have two careers. I think that’s really cool,” he said. “You don’t have to be married to just one thing.”

Campbell said “it would be really great” to move into directing a dance company or doing choreography in his future. Or maybe he could get a master’s degree – “but I don’t know what it would be in yet.”

In the meantime, he said, he’s enjoying catching up with old friends still in town and making his way through a long list of local restaurants he’s been wanting to revisit.

“My biggest thing is that I have to go get some good New Mexican cuisine,” he said.

And he’s acting a little bit as a tour guide for his associates at the Opera.

“I’m going to take them to the mountains at some point, do some hikes,” he said. “It’s nice to be home for an extended length of time.”

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