Dancers & Companies

David Hallberg: "I Felt Too Safe, Too Calculated"

Henry Leutwyler

David Hallberg's much-anticipated memoir, A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back, comes out today. The book offers insight not only into his journey back from a traumatic injury, but gives tantalizing glimpses into his backstage life and his partnerships with star ballerinas like Natalia Osipova. For a sneak peek, here's an excerpt about his struggle with perfectionism, and the magic that he realized could happen once he finally let go onstage.


That spring, as I prepared for another Romeo and Juliet at ABT with Natasha Osipova, I realized how much my attitudes had changed since the first three times we danced these roles side by side.

In earlier days I was still chasing the idea of perfection that had attracted me to ballet at the start. I had thought that this search for perfection, in the studio and on the stage, would make me a better dancer. In some ways it did, but it also had left me in mortal fear of making mistakes. By this point, I had had enough positive reinforcement and, perhaps more important, enough disappointments to fully comprehend the benefit of mishap. There is a great story about George Balanchine and the legendary ballerina Gelsey Kirkland. During class, Balanchine told the women to perform a diagonal of grand jetés. Gelsey stepped out to do them and fell at on the floor. None of the others fell, but Balanchine said that Gelsey was the only one who had done them right because she was the only one who really went for it, risking everything. I felt too safe, too calculated. I craved that same fearlessness, the willingness to discover an emancipation from caution. I witnessed it in others. And I had come to strive to attain it myself. To this day, it is something that I wish I had aspired to sooner, and given myself the freedom to explore much more.

As a young dancer, when approaching a step or lift or turn I deemed hard, I would say to myself, Don't [expletive] this up. I vividly recall thinking those words on countless occasions, even in performance. At times I wondered if it was a form of superstition, that the very act of thinking Don't [expletive] this up would protect me from any and all regrettable mistakes. But I had come to realize that the common thread among the disparate artists I admire most is that they do not protect themselves at all. Sure, they may question in the studio or doubt just before a performance, but when the moment presents itself they appear fearless. I think of artists in any medium who boldly eschew established norms and notions because they have that burning desire to express themselves in the only way they know how, and from that deep, compelling instinct comes their vision. Francis Bacon and his angst-filled canvases; Willem de Kooning and his singular interpretation of the woman's body; Lady Gaga and her electrifyingly versatile voice; Hiroshi Sugimoto and the overpowering Zen stillness in his photographs of seascapes and theaters; Jenny Saville and her abundantly fleshy human figures.

Their fearlessness and, in turn, originality, became the qualities I prized and desired above all.

From a young age and well into my professional career, I had been obsessed with executing a perfect tendu. The word "tendu" means to stretch; in execution you slide your foot outward, away from the body, keeping the tips of your toes on the floor as your foot arches. It's visually simple and one of the first steps you are taught in ballet class, but it's so imperative to dancing that Balanchine said if you could do this one step correctly, everything else would fall into place.

When I first moved to New York, I would watch Wendy Whelan, an inimitable ballerina with New York City Ballet, execute that very stretch of the foot in Willy Burmann's advanced class. I thought it was the perfect tendu, but as my perspective shifted I realized that it wasn't. What made it seem perfect was that it was emphatically her tendu in all of its uniqueness and individuality. She gave the illusion of the perfect tendu because no one else was creating a movement quite like hers. So in the end, a form of perfection was attained.

Similarly, I continued to learn from Gillian Murphy's willingness to test new ways of executing steps and to gracefully bear the success or failure of each gamble. When something didn't work, she shrugged it off with a giggle. It was fascinating to witness. I would agonize over one jump while she would easily launch into something and see what happened, which consequently made her dancing fresh. I wanted to emulate that ability to throw those dice and not obsess over the perfection of it all.

More and more, I sought to follow the example of great artists like Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca, two incredibly supple, intense, and romantic dancers who let natural emotion infuse every step they took. They would go so far into their characters' feelings that they risked looking over the top. But they never did. They were alive, vibrant, full-blown. Not only fearless but natural. Watching them made me want to be more of a natural interpreter, to go onstage and forget about technique and truly embody a character. To have the role I portray come pouring through the steps that can embody love, passion, fear, jealousy. Emotions we all feel easily in life can feel anything but natural when you have to conjure them on the stage.

One of the most significant, and truthful, critiques of my generation of dancers is that we focus too much on the technique of dance. It's so easy to get caught up in that idea of achieving "perfection" and to forget that being "perfect" can drain your dancing of the force and fire that makes art expressive. Steps are not art. Technique is not art. What you do with them becomes art.

Yes, the audience wants to be thrilled; they love witnessing those superhuman feats of multiple turns and huge jumps. But a performance of pure technique leaves them empty. Like eating candy all day and nothing else. Ultimately they come to ballet to be moved, to be transported. Only artistry, and the emotions that undergird it, can bring an audience to rapture or tears.

I had come to believe something Nureyev once said: "Perfection is sterile, unattainable. You have to match your own ideal. My ideal is not everyone's perfection."

My own ideal had become to have the courage, to play, to experiment. Take fear out of the equation. Seize the opportunity. Spend it. Save nothing. Push myself to limits I didn't think possible. And that could only happen when I stopped telling myself, Don't [expletive] this up.

Instead: Risk it all and potentially [expletive] this up.

Every Romeo with Natasha became more intense than the one that preceded it. I was apprehensive, knowing that because the first one took us by such surprise, this one could potentially not live up to it. We knew what this ballet did to us personally. It allowed us to sink so deeply into the roles that the lines blurred between reality and performance. We were left stunned at the end of each show, still clinging to each other even long after the curtain had gone down. Now, three years after we first danced it together, I was determined to not attempt to repeat past performances. I wanted to approach each performance as if it were completely new and let it unfold on its very own terms. I didn't want to fall into one of the greatest perils for a performer, which is to look back thinking, I know what works, what they want, let's do the same thing again. That slope is slippery: you give the audience what you think they want so they'll like you once more, scream for you once again, cause the theater to erupt in applause. The greatest duty to yourself as an artist is to push beyond expectation. I wanted our Romeo to stay alive, like a new discovery each time.

On the night of the show, I felt the expectation of the audience across the orchestra pit. In Act I, with the scene change complete, the front cloth rose and Juliet's balcony was revealed. The moment arrived: our balcony scene. The hush of the audience is what I always tune in to the most as I wait in the wings. The theater was completely silent. Then the organ softly broke that silence as Juliet stepped out dreamily onto the balcony, high above the stage, and basked in the moonlight.

In the wings, with my long brown cape draped over my shoulders, I reminded myself, Just let it happen. Don't force anything. Let us fly.

I bounded out and a moment later stood center stage, my back to the audience, beholding her on the balcony. Standing so far from her in such dim light, I could not see the details of her face, only her silhouette, which appeared both frail and powerful. She turned toward me, her face now illuminated by a warm, dim light above. Our eyes met and locked. We gazed intently at each other; we breathed as one. Every move we would make after that was intimate, impassioned, conjoined. I danced for her, completely entranced, each step pouring out of me.

She ran to me, gazelle-like, and we merged. It was as if I could do anything to her: carry her, turn her; she had total trust in my movements, she was supple in my arms. I fell to one knee, stared up at her, and took the hem of her dress to my cheek, pressed the soft fabric to my face.

Moments later, we faced each other. Our hands met; just a soft touch of our fingers was enough. The sensation was euphoric. We were Romeo and Juliet. For us, for them, it was like nothing we'd ever felt before. The surge of emotion being too much to handle, she ran from me. I pleaded for her to return. She bounded back into my arms and as she sought to dash away once again, I grabbed her hand. This touch meant something else entirely. We became still, an arm's length apart. She slowly turned to me. We gazed at each other. Without doubt or question, as if drawn by magnets, I walked slowly toward her and our lips met. Then she broke away, dazed, and dashed up the stairs to the familiar safety of her balcony. I watched her run, then raced to the foot of the balcony, arm upraised, reaching for her, seeking to prolong that singular euphoria as the curtain fell.

These intense, genuine emotions were played out in front of a vast audience at the Metropolitan Opera House. Like voyeurs, they watched our every move. We were so deep in our own connection we completely forgot that those 3,800 people existed. There was only Natasha, my Juliet, the movement, the emotions, the music.

At last, I thought, what I felt onstage was total honesty. No pretense of what I thought something should be. How I should walk. How I should stand. How I should react. It was no longer a question of should; it simply was.

When the curtain closed, Natasha made her way down the steps. We could hear the audience applauding as I hugged her tightly, thanked her for the first act, then watched as she walked away to her dressing room. Normally, I go straight to my own dressing room to rest (Act I of Romeo is a marathon) but that night I chose to linger on the stage. Panting, breathless, I needed to savor the moment that had passed too quickly.

On the other side of the heavy gold curtain the audience continued to applaud as the house lights came up slowly, signaling intermission. Through the curtain, I could feel the weight of their clapping. It didn't let up but sounded stronger by the second. As the crew began preparing the stage for Act II, I heard continual shouts of "Bravi!" As deeply as Natasha and I felt the balcony scene, was it possible that the audience was as moved as we were? At times they aren't quite where the dancers are. But this response was affirmation that they went on the journey with us. They remained in the theater, still applauding. There were no planned bows for Act I. The custom for dancers portraying Romeo and Juliet is to bow only at the end of the ballet. An earlier bow would essentially break the fourth wall, that invisible barrier that divides performers from the audience. But as I made my way to the first wing to look across at the stage managers, they stared at me, uncertain. Should they pull the curtain back and let us step in front of it, even though this had never been done before? Or should they just ignore the audience's apparent desire and continue on with the interval? Minutes passed; the applause continued. The stage manager determined that we indeed should take a bow. My dresser (who stayed with me onstage after the act) made a frantic dash to Natasha's dressing room. Natasha ran to meet me. We looked at each other, stunned. The curtain was pulled aside. Slowly, holding hands, we inched in front of it. The audience, on their feet, responded. We were frozen by the cumulative effect of our shared moments onstage and this unexpected one in front of the curtain. I held her in my arms as we humbly bowed.

Live art, live performance, can be euphoria. We had given every fiber of ourselves to each other onstage and shared it with the audience. As we bowed again, tears welled up in my eyes. A moment like that is as rich and fleeting as a dancer's career.


From A BODY OF WORK: Dancing To the Edge and Back by David Hallberg. Copyright © 2017 by David Hallberg. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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