This week's announcement that David Hallberg is taking over The Australian Ballet has been a long time coming. Hallberg's been fielding offers to direct various ballet companies since at least 2014, when injury kept him off the stage for two years. At the time, the offers weren't the right fit, and he didn't want injury to dictate the terms of his retirement. So instead of taking any directing jobs, he booked a one-way ticket to spend 14 months rehabbing at The Australian Ballet.
Now, he's planning to give back to the company that gave him back his dance career. Starting next January, he'll bring the experience he's accumulated over his globe-trotting career to The Australian Ballet as director. We caught up with him to hear more about his plans.
Why did now feel like the right time to become a director? Do you feel ready to stop dancing?
"I don't know if anyone is ever really ready to stop dancing. But I feel really calm about it. I have such a great feeling. There's no sense of fear or doubt about what I'll be missing.
"Because I've always said that if I do this, I'm going to commit to it—it's not going to be about me, or what I need through a dancing career. It's really going to be about a group of dancers that I nurture and develop and feed with interesting repertoire.
"There have been some offers before that just didn't feel like the right time or the right place. With my history with The Australian Ballet and what they've done for me, and just where I am in my career, I feel like now was the time to go in for it."
Is there anything in particular you plan to focus on?
"The dancing is already at a very high standard, the repertoire is solid and the audience base is dedicated. But I want to add certain things to the repertoire that haven't yet been seen in Australia. I've seen such a variety of work in New York—and not just at Lincoln Center—and in Russia and Europe. I have a really broad palette. It's just a matter of tailoring it to the interests of the dancers and the tastes of audiences in Australia.
"I also want to bring the company around the world. I have these amazing contacts I've made throughout my career that I want The Australian Ballet to benefit from.
"And I want to dive into the company's responsibility to the greater Australian community. A lot of that has to do with education and really getting into isolated communities in Australia, communities that don't necessarily make it to the Opera House in Sydney or the State Theatre in Melbourne. I think every cultural organization in this era needs to question what their responsibility is to the greater community, and not just put on a beautiful ballets in a beautiful opera house."
Hallberg rehearsing Sleeping Beauty with Amber Scott at The Australian Ballet in 2017
Kate Longley, Courtesy The Australian Ballet
Having danced at so many top companies, is there anything you want to emulate at The Australian Ballet?
"What I really want to emphasize is the quality of The Australian Ballet, the quality of the dancer. I'm not going to try to make The Australian Ballet into another company that I spent time with. Thankfully, there's only one Bolshoi Ballet, there's only one Royal Ballet, and there's only one Australian Ballet.
"I can't deny the tips I've picked up at the Bolshoi with coaches there or the Mariinsky or ABT. Once we really hone in on the quality and purpose of not only technique, but artistry and performance, then we can start to develop individual interpretation. Specifically, the expanse of space and movement.
"To me it's really defining what the Australian style really is. The company has its own individual flair. It's predominantly made up of Australian dancers. Although it's such an advantage that many companies have international rankings, there's something beautifully Australian about this company."
How do you plan to prepare over the next year?
"I'll be in Australia a number of times shadowing David [McAllister] and absorbing my responsibilities within the institution. On the other hand, I'm still in my professional career this year, which will allow me to be around the world absorbing other styles of directing. That will give me a well-rounded idea of how companies are run and how they manage dancers and manage repertoire and audiences."
What part of the job are you most looking forward to?
"Nurturing this group of 80 dancers. To allow them to bloom into the artists and dancers they have ambitions to become. And to challenge them and to give them the opportunity to risk. I don't want a dancer dancing to please the director or to please their coach. I want a dancer feeling like they can go onstage and experiment and risk and know that we have their back, we support them. It's not right or wrong; we're just guiding them to be able to make certain choices."
What do you want to emphasize for the dancers?
"Because The Australian Ballet has such a strong base in terms of supporting physical health, I think it's time to push things a little bit. It's time to challenge the physicality of the dancer. It's time to challenge the expectations of the dancer in terms of technique, in terms of physicality and in terms of them feeling like they can test their own limits."