The Classicist Who Dared

April 24, 2012

One foot in ABT, the other in the Bolshoi, David Hallberg is at the pinnacle of international ballet.

All photos by Matthew Karas unless otherwise credited.

It’s simply never been done before. Period.

An American had never been asked to join the Bolshoi Ballet at the principal level until last September, when the insular Russian company—home of legends like Plisetskaya and Ulanova—announced that it had hired American Ballet Theatre star David Hallberg. It was a shocker to the ballet world, making headlines in the global media (even prompting a slot on The Colbert Report, where Stephen Colbert satirically interrogated Hallberg about being “a double agent”). Talent had filtered out of Russia via defections during the Soviet Communist regime, and then flowed out after perestroika. But it was essentially a one-way stream—until Sergei Filin, two weeks into his artistic directorship of the Bolshoi Ballet, invited Hallberg to lunch and quietly asked him to become a premier danseur in Moscow.

Hallberg, who had once guested with the Bolshoi, partnering Natalia Osipova in Giselle, was as surprised as anyone. “In a sense, this Bolshoi offer came out of nowhere,” says Hallberg. “I wasn’t pursuing it. I didn’t want to go to the Bolshoi—it was just never a possibility. The Bolshoi was this traditional, historical entity.”

But Filin was determined to recruit Hallberg. He feels that Hallberg’s refinement distinguishes him from other dancers. “I think that he harmoniously combines the exquisite elegance of the French school with the freedom and modernity of American ballet dancers. He also mixes dramatic talent with great technique, free of showy jumps and other ‘circus’ attributes,” says Filin through a translator. “Obviously, his physique, which is perfect for classical ballet, didn’t go unnoticed either.”

Initially, Hallberg remained skeptical—with lots of questions. “I stayed very removed from the emotional side because I wanted to know what he had in mind,” says Hallberg. It would be a bold step for the Bolshoi and for Hallberg, who took two months to decide: “I was conflicted. I knew it could be a huge sacrifice for my lifestyle and career.”

After consulting with Kevin McKenzie (“He has always been supportive of my curiosity and my desire for more,” says Hallberg) and Alexei Ratmansky, who understood the historical significance of the decision, and back-and-forth negotiations, Hallberg signed a contract for a yearlong commitment. Rumors flew (the Paris Opéra? the Mariinsky?), but Hallberg restlessly sat on the story until it was officially released on September 20, 2011.

Hallberg, who still remains an ABT principal, had found the answer to his question, What’s next? “I saw this experience as something that was so different from ABT,” he says. “I was opening up this new world that I really knew nothing about that I was quite judgmental about before. I finally realized I needed to make my own experience.”

Different, indeed. Hallberg has had to make fundamental adjustments as a Bolshoi dancer. “The technique really is big—it’s exactly what ‘Bolshoi’ stands for,” says Hallberg. “There is a huge stage to fill and you have to alter your movement to fill that stage.” The Bolshoi also emphasizes an exaggerated style of jumping. The hips are opened to create an illusion of a longer line and the position in the air is held a millisecond longer to sustain a jump.

The port de bras? Also altered, far less square and matter-of-fact. “I’m used to just positions,” he says, demonstrating a first position with the arms perfectly rounded as if holding a beach ball. “For them it’s more about opening up a line,” he explains, lengthening his arms forward into an oval shape. “It’s more open and, in essence, bigger. I’m so open to all of that because I want to get the most out of learning the Bolshoi technique.”

Hallberg has refused to allow the steep rake of the Bolshoi stage to throw him, although, because of his hyperextended legs, he needs to keep his weight over his toes to adjust. “I’ve never experienced such calf pain in my life,” he says. “I was using my lower calves to support my weight. You don’t do that on a flat floor, but I finally got used to it.”

During the global simulcast of the Bolshoi’s Sleeping Beauty on November 20 with Svetlana Zakharova (the telecast was essential to his contract with the Bolshoi), he suffered a sprained ankle at the beginning of the performance.

“I knew I had messed it up, but I didn’t let myself concentrate on how bad it was until the curtain went down,” he says stoically. “I had no choice. I had to keep going. I couldn’t fail.” Update: The injury has healed nicely.

Hallberg’s coach—the Bolshoi traditionally assigns them individually to principals—is Alexander Vetrov, a Bolshoi alumnus who spent part of his performing career in the U.S. and deeply plumbs the Bolshoi method. “He is in every rehearsal I do,” says Hallberg. “He has really offered moral support. That’s what I’ve needed for a long time—a really great coach, someone to explain all that to me.” Vetrov also teaches the company class that Hallberg regularly attends. (There are eight company classes a day to accommodate the 220 dancers of the Bolshoi, compared to around 90 dancers at ABT.)

Nonetheless, Hallberg feels that his early “very strict, very solid” Russian-based training with Kee-Juan Han (now director of The Washington School of Ballet) in Phoenix provided a foundation for his Bolshoi path. “I think all of that work ethic was instilled in me. Now, with the realization that I’m going to the Bolshoi, I know it’s going to take a lot of work,” he says. “You don’t go over there and say, ‘I do it this way, I do it that way.’ And that’s what fires me up and really interests me: finding a new way of doing something or figuring something out.”

The royal treatment of the Bolshoi principal dancers, however, has disconcerted Hallberg more than anything. His makeup is done for him. Any costume alterations are executed tout de suite. The company instantly provided him with a flat. Rehearsals generally last no longer than three hours daily, focusing on one ballet at a time, versus ABT’s packed rehearsal schedule. Even when he has requested more rehearsal time in a day, he has faced reluctance from management.

“In America, as a principal dancer you are forced to take it upon yourself—it’s the American way,” he says. “You are ambitious and humble. In Russia, they kind of baby you, and I have a hard time with that.” Nonetheless, he notes that the concentration on fine-tuning one role at a time is refreshing. “When you are preparing four or five different ballets, you can’t give it 100 percent all the time.”

Filin continually picks Hallberg’s brain about choosing new repertoire: “He says, ‘Who do you want to work with? Tell me!’ ” says Hallberg, who is accustomed to American directors dictating repertoire. “I’m just not used to this, but I’m here to take advantage of it. I want to bring in certain choreographers and possibly co-productions with ABT.”

The response to Hallberg’s unexpected career move from his American colleagues has been mixed. “Subliminally—I’m not stupid—I know who is excited about it and who’s not,” he says. “But everyone has remained pretty supportive. ABT’s my home. I have true friends there. If anything, it has kind of challenged their path or what they want out of their experience.”

In Moscow, the Bolshoi dancers seem polite to him, but opaque. “I find Russians are sort of hard to get through to,” he admits. “I’ve noticed the dancers are very inquisitive and very curious. I do feel them watching. I feel like they are interested to see how I work, how I dance. I definitely had to prove myself.”

Filin says Hallberg has already found his place in the company. “The Russian public and press have received David with great interest and, I would say, love,” he says. “I think that his Russian fan club is already underway.”

Of course, Osipova, whom Hallberg befriended and hoped to partner (although they don’t speak a common language), made her own headlines when she and Ivan Vasiliev were plucked from the Bolshoi by banana tycoon Vladimir Kekhman and his Mikhailovsky Ballet. Partnering Osipova had been a consideration in Hallberg’s signing with the Bolshoi. (Svetlana Zakharova remains his primary partner.

Left: Hallberg and Natalia Osipova in ABT’s
Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT. Right: With Zakharova in the Bolshoi’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Bolshoi.

“She and Ivan were this energetic force of the Bolshoi, redefining standards,” says Hallberg. “It was disappointing for me because we wouldn’t be a part of it together.” Still, he adds, “I hope they have the success that they want.” With Osipova, he will still have a partnership at ABT and elsewhere.

Has Kekhman contacted Hallberg? “He definitely has announced to the press he’ll snatch me up,” says Hallberg with one of his unexpectedly wicked smiles. “He hasn’t made a proposal yet. By the time we go to press maybe this will change.”

When Hallberg was a teenager, he had studied at the Paris Opéra Ballet School and had a famously difficult experience. Was he concerned about déjà vu? “I’m again putting myself out of my comfort zone,” he says. “I know no one. I don’t speak the language. It’s a completely different technique than I am used to.” But he realized what the Paris Opéra experience had taught him and, as an adult, is prepared for this challenge.

For ABT’s spring season, Hallberg is cast in the classics, in addition to Onegin, The Dream, Apollo, The Bright Stream, and Ratmansky’s new Firebird. In May, he will appear in the Bolshoi company premiere of Balanchine’s Jewels, dancing “Diamonds.” “It’s so fascinating having an American dancing Balanchine in Russia,” he says. (And in August, he continues his curiosity quest by appearing with experimental choreographer Jonah Bokaer at Jacob’s Pillow.)

Of bouncing between New York and Moscow, Hallberg says, “I feel like I am living kind of a double life.” He’s tied to New York (“It’s such a beating heart”), but he’s also a foreigner in Russia whose life is restricted. “I work my ass off, then I go home and rest. I am definitely seeing things as an outsider.”

How does he feel about representing Americans? “I’m definitely aware of it,” he says. “I’m in it for my own reasons. And I’m also in it because I hope in a small way I can make a contribution.” Or maybe even in a big—as in Bolshoi—way.

Joseph Carman is a senior contributing editor of
Dance Magazine.

Where to See Him (partial listing)

At the Bolshoi, Moscow
: “Diamonds” in Jewels, May 7 and 11

At the Met with ABT
: Giselle, May 19 • Bayadère, May 26 • The Bright Stream, May 29 and June 1 • Onegin, June 5 and June 9 matinee • Apollo, June 11 • Romeo and Juliet, June 18 • The Dream, June 23 • Swan Lake, June 26 and 29 • Corsaire, July 3

At Jacob’s Pillow
: The Pillow Gala, June 16 • With Jonah Bokaer, Aug. 1–5

In Buenos Aires
: Sleeping Beauty with Gillian Murphy at the Teatro Colon, Aug. 10 and 12