Sylvester Campbell, acclaimed ballet dancer, 59

March 16, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Susan Baer contributed to this article.

Sylvester Campbell, an internationally acclaimed ballet dancer who taught dance for 15 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts, died March 9 of respiratory failure at the Genesis-Eldercare Randallstown Center. He was 59.

Mr. Campbell, who headed the dance department at the high school for 15 years, danced with ballet companies throughout the United States, Europe and Canada before returning to the Baltimore-Washington area where he had started out.

He was a trailblazer for African-Americans in the world of classical ballet.

Mr. Campbell was celebrated for his dramatic, authoritative style and charisma and had won numerous international competitions.

Born in Oklahoma City and raised in Washington, Mr. Campbell took his first ballet lessons at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet in Washington.

From age 10 to 17, he studied there with Claire Haywood and Doris Jones, who encouraged him and helped him win a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York.

"He was one of the best male ballet dancers in the world. He was just beautiful," said Ms. Jones, who has taught dance for 56 years and described him as "one of my most remarkable students."

"I saw greatness in him even when he was a child. He was very musical and had a wonderful technique, and as a teacher, he was willing to give his dancers the benefit of his experience," Ms. Jones said.

In 1956, he joined the New York Negro Ballet, performing with the small company at night and supporting himself as a secretary during the day.

When the company went abroad to perform in London, Campbell decided to stay in Europe. In the United States at the time, few opportunities existed for a black dancer pursuing classical ballet.

"I stuck with it," he once told a reporter. "I always wanted to dance the classics, and I wouldn't take second choice."

He built a sterling career in Europe, dancing with numerous companies before becoming premier dancer with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam and, in 1969, winning awards in the International Ballet Competition at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre.

While in Moscow, he met American choreographer Agnes de Mille, who suggested that Mr. Campbell explore the Royal Winnipeg Ballet of Canada. He performed with that company as principal dancer between 1972 and 1975.

Through the years, he would return to Washington frequently to appear as a guest artist with the Capitol Ballet, the company of his former teachers Jones and Haywood.

In the mid-1970s, he joined the company as lead dancer and associate director, although he still made guest appearances with companies overseas and, in 1977, won another prize at Moscow's International Ballet Competition.

Around that time, he joined the struggling Maryland Ballet as principal dancer and appeared in lead roles in such ballets as "Romeo and Juliet" and George Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations."

In 1979, he turned his sights on the Baltimore School for the Arts, which was just getting started, and began his teaching career as head of the dance department.

"He was a great, great male dancer of the classical ballet," said David Simon, founding director of the school, who retired last year. "His contributions to the school [were] significant."

Known as an exacting taskmaster, he was highly regarded as a teacher.

"He was an extremely charming man, and his students had great admiration for him," said Mr. Simon. "If he had to walk through a wall to help them accomplish something, he'd do it."

He would often break the tension of the moment for a nervous student or a rehearsal by reciting a humorous story or two from his vast repertoire drawn from his long career.

"One of his favorites was the time he was doing the pas de deux with a ballerina, and her trained toy poodle got out of her dressing room and ran onto the stage. The poodle stood on its hind legs as Sylvester tried to kick him away," said Mr. Simon.

Of some 65 students Mr. Campbell taught during his career at the school, more than 40 are dancing with professional companies around the world.

After retiring from the School for the Arts in 1993, he continued teaching ballet for his close friends Peggy Lynne and Caryl Maxwell.

"He was absolutely devoted to his art and remained a nice person at the same time," said Ms. Lynne, co-founder of Lynne-Rockland Studios in Randallstown, who said that Mr. Campbell came for a guest lesson in 1985 and stayed on.

"He had a most expressive face, nice technique and line, and that's what made him," said Ms. Lynne, adding that most ballet dancers end their careers in their 30s, but he danced into his 50s.

Ms. Maxwell, founder of the Ellicott City Ballet Guild, said, "With his death, we lose an international star who was a kind friend to all."

He last danced in 1992, and his last mime role performance that same year was as Drosselmyer in "The Nutcracker."

Throughout his career, Mr. Campbell performed in more than 70 ballets, dancing the lead male roles in major classics from "Swan Lake" to "Don Quixote." Critics lauded him as "a revelation." "Whenever he performs," wrote one, "he conquers his audience."

A memorial service for Mr. Campbell will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Peter Episcopal Church, 3695 Rogers Avenue, Catonsville.

There are no known survivors.

Memorial donations may be made to Capitol Ballet Inc., 12 Delafield Place, Washington, 20001.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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