The Rebirth of David Hallberg
David Hallberg almost quit dancing two years ago. The international ballet star, whose talent and drive had made him the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer, was struggling after a 2014 ankle surgery to repair a frayed deltoid ligament. A resulting mass of scar tissue ultimately required a second surgery. Impingements and Achilles tendinopathy hounded him, making it nearly impossible to plié, as he pushed to get back into the studio.
Meanwhile, he was fielding promising offers to direct companies and curate festivals. Unsure of himself, the American Ballet Theatre principal sought advice from ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie: Was it time to retire and move on to a leadership role, or was it worth giving his recovery another shot?
"He was injured and wasn't back on top of the world yet, but it also seemed to me that he was splitting his focus, trying to manage a dancing career on pause when his rehab needed 110 percent," says McKenzie. "If he wanted to direct, he should direct, but if he wanted to dance, he should drop all else and dance." McKenzie urged Hallberg not to let the injury decide the end for him, cautioning that it's best to make career decisions from a place of good health.
The advice resonated. Hallberg reached out to a close friend, Australian Ballet dancer Brooke Lockett, to see if she could talk to AB's principal physiotherapist Sue Mayes about his situation. In his time guesting with AB, he'd observed its premier rehab team in action. "I ended up sending Sue this long email detailing what had gone wrong," says Hallberg. "It was a very strong note, along the lines of 'Save me or I will retire.' " Mayes conferred with AB artistic director David McAllister and wrote back, "How soon can you be here?"
Hallberg booked a one-way ticket to Melbourne, with no sense that it would be 14 months before he returned.
"Sue was always confident we could get David back onstage," says McAllister. "But this was a big responsibility for us to take on because he is a bloody megastar. He basically had to rethink everything he did, which is weird for such a natural dancer. A lot of dancers would not be able to cope, but David never wavered."
An earlier era: rehearsing Sleeping Beauty with Australian Ballet's Amber Scott. Photo by Kate Longley, courtesy AB.
Hallberg let those close to him know he wouldn't be in touch for a while. He needed to create a cocoon for himself. He didn't take calls or answer emails. He vanished from his high-profile social media accounts. He even shaved his head. "I just took it all off," says Hallberg. "It was symbolic. A way of letting go of the past and what had happened to me."
The reckoning that comes with outsider status is not new to Hallberg. At pivotal times in his career—when he left his Phoenix, Arizona, home at 18 to train for a lonely year at the Paris Opéra Ballet School; while dancing with the Bolshoi and eating dinner by himself at night—Hallberg has found a sort of solace, and perhaps even a periodic necessity, in the personal growth that comes with being a stranger in a strange land.
In Melbourne, the team got to work immediately. AB's medical department is integrated into the artistic staff and they meet frequently to maintain the health of the dancers. Hallberg's care began with an evaluation determining that before anything else, he needed to regain strength—and be allowed to progress with an open-ended timeline.
"When he arrived he looked really worried and stressed," says Mayes. "I think the most crucial thing we gave him was hope." Beyond traditional manual therapy, Mayes set short-term goals, measuring all those small achievements so that Hallberg could have proof he was steadily getting better. All the while, Mayes educated him about the structural changes in his body and his brain's response to pain.
"When you have been off for so long, your pain threshold drops, so much of your brain is focused on pain," explains Mayes. "It was important he understand that what he was feeling was exaggerated. He had built up so much fear about the damage, and fear exacerbates symptoms, adding to the dysfunction."
Hallberg began working with conditioning specialist Paula Baird-Colt five days a week, twice a day. He remained committed to the intense mental focus it required and the daily rigors—like bounding up and down flights of stairs to the steady beat of a metronome—even when he didn't fully believe it would work.
"The team told me for months I was getting back, but I had lost that sense of positivity with the complications of past rehabs," says Hallberg. "Yet some part of me knew I just had to keep going."
It took nearly four months before he returned to the studio and began the painstaking work of reconstructing his technique, focusing on details of alignment, breath, controlling hyperextension and transferring weight.
"He had to learn to jump from his hips instead of his feet and find his power coming from a different place," says AB ballet mistress and rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly. They would begin with relevés facing the barre and would only move on to sautés if Hallberg could feel the connection they were after.
The work was more than just physically taxing. "Technique is tied to identity and self-esteem," says Connelly. "What that leg or foot means to him, now we are saying we need to fix that tendu."
Along the way, the realization that the show still goes on without him, that he wasn't physically invincible, affected Hallberg profoundly. "I don't feel like my old self at all. I feel weathered, more textured. I feel like I have lived seven lives in this career already," says Hallberg. "Now I am so deeply appreciative that I can run onstage to the music of Albrecht's entrance. I feel like my whole reason for being is so crystalized now from this time away."
As Mayes promised, Hallberg eventually became the master of his own body again. After making his formal return to the stage as Franz in AB's Coppélia, Hallberg will now return to the company at least once a year as its first international resident guest artist.
Though it is still early, McKenzie has already seen Hallberg's renewed confidence in his first performances with ABT in Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream. "David's story is one of the most severe against-all-odds-pulling-it-back-together I have ever witnessed," says McKenzie. "You have to stand in deep respect and awe of the want, need, ability and discipline to make something like this happen."
For Hallberg, along with his renewed technique and rekindled love for dance has come an immense gratitude. "Before my first performance of Coppélia, I wasn't fearful—even though I hadn't been onstage two and a half years—because I could not have prepared more than I did. The AB team put every single element in front of me before I went out there, including a practice show with an invited audience, lights and costumes," says Hallberg. "I'd worked hard for shows before, but it wasn't quite like this, where I felt 'It isn't up to me; it is up to the universe.' "
Walking offstage after the curtain call the night of his return, he stopped in the wings and looked back at the empty stage. "I clasped my hands and closed my eyes and bowed," he says. "It was a gut reaction. I don't pray, but I was so grateful to the stage for allowing me to be on it again. I didn't need to see a video of the performance, and I knew I still had so much growing to do to get my stage legs back, but in that moment, it didn't matter. All I could do was show my deepest gratitude."
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."