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A Giant Leap to the Russian Stage for American Ballet Dancer Hallberg

July 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ballet star David Hallberg was the first American principal dancer to join the historically insular Bolshoi Theater in 2011. Jeffrey Brown talks to the dancer about his return to the Russian stage for the first time since an acid attack left Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin badly burned and nearly blind last January.
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was with this leap in 2011 that David Hallberg made history in Moscow. Russians like Nureyev and Baryshnikov have famously come West to dance in the U.S., but as the prince in “Sleeping Beauty,”

Hallberg became the first American principal dancer of the Bolshoi, the world’s largest ballet, with more than 200 dancers, an institution that’s remained at the center of Russian culture since its founding in 1776.

Hallberg’s performance was broadcast on live television, and in the end won over both critics and a Russian fan base often leery of outsiders.

He now splits his time between Moscow and the American Ballet Theatre in New York, where we talked recently about his experience of ballet and the Bolshoi.

DAVID HALLBERG, professional dancer: In Russia, it’s in their blood, it’s in their culture. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: Unlike you experienced.

DAVID HALLBERG: Unlike anywhere else in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

DAVID HALLBERG: It’s this sort of pride and sense of purpose that to me is so inspiring to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: The word Bolshoi means big, and the massive theater has survived everything from revolution to world war to the rise and fall of communism.

Sarah Kaufman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic for The Washington Post.

SARAH KAUFMAN, The Washington Post: Ballet to Russians is really like baseball or Hollywood to Americans. It’s kind of the perfect vessel for the Russian soul. And you can compare the Bolshoi stage to Yankee Stadium.

JEFFREY BROWN: If the Bolshoi is an unlikely place for a South Dakota-born, Arizona-raised kid to end up, Hallberg, now 31, credits Fred Astaire with setting him on the path, beginning at age 8, when he watched “Top Hat” on TV.

DAVID HALLBERG: I was glued to the way he moved, sort of his suaveness, you know, his seamless way of movement. And he was a huge inspiration to me when I was young.

JEFFREY BROWN: That initial interest was followed by years of work with Kee-Juan Han, former director of the Arizona Ballet School, now with the Washington Ballet.

KEE-JUAN HAN, The Washington Ballet: It wasn’t just his physicality that was so impressive. Just the intensity of the way he worked was very impressive, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: Teacher and pupil spent six days a week and countless hours focusing on strength, conditioning, flexibility, and mental toughness.

KEE-JUAN HAN: I am not easy to work with, because I always believe that the dance world is not an easy place.

DAVID HALLBERG: He didn’t kill me with kindness.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did he almost kill you with the amount of work, yes?

DAVID HALLBERG: Yes. Yes. My parents would sit in on my private lessons from time to time, and almost called child protective services.

But I was so naive at the time, I didn’t know how hard I was working. And that served as a sort of perfect ground to mold me into a ballet dancer.

JEFFREY BROWN: To reach that goal, Hallberg also had to overcome something else: intense bullying.

DAVID HALLBERG: I was the only boy in my environment that danced, and made a target of bullying. And it was a very hurtful experience.

But I never questioned it. I never doubted my love for it. I never decided whether I should quit or not to try and fit in because everyone was making fun of me. It was my respite. It was this sort of escape for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dance critic Sarah Kaufman says all this preparation, and Hallberg’s ability to play a variety of roles, have made him a special talent.

SARAH KAUFMAN: He’s a thinking dancer. When you watch him in rehearsal, he’s not so much focusing on the steps and he’s not so preoccupied with his technique. He’s thinking about what he’s going to bring to the role in terms of the character.

He can play the prince. He can play your lover. He can play your assailant. He can combine that all in one role. So there is no dancer I can think of, male or female, in the ballet world who is like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: But a dark cloud has hung over Russian ballet since last January, when the Bolshoi’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, the man who offered Hallberg a position at the historic company, was badly burned after an attacker threw sulfuric acid in his face, leaving Filin badly scarred and nearly blind.

Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was arrested for allegedly paying a convicted criminal to carry out the plot. Russian police say Dmitrichenko felt that he and his girlfriend, a fellow ballerina at the Bolshoi, were being overlooked by Filin and not given prominent roles.

Reports have also suggested that Filin may have been a target because he was trying to make the Bolshoi more open, including recruiting dancers from outside Russia. David Hallberg was in the U.S. at the time of the incident, recovering from dance injuries.

DAVID HALLBERG: It’s an absolutely unacceptable act and attack. Sergei is a visionary, in the sense that he is pushing Bolshoi theater into the future and is pushing a new generation of dancers, and I can’t support that sort of vision enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have any fears yourself about going back?

DAVID HALLBERG: Certainly. I would call myself naive if I didn’t, I think. But I feel like I need to fulfill the sort of commitment that I made to the company.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you say certainly you do have some fear?

DAVID HALLBERG: Of course.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because if the attacks had anything to do with the sort of idea of reaching beyond the Russian-ness, you are the personification of that. 

DAVID HALLBERG: I am, indeed. But I’m not going to let an attack like this derail my career. I mean, this is my career, and it doesn’t last forever.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hallberg, a prince of the ballet world now, also says he’s eager to move beyond the prince roles in the future, and help create new ballets both here and in Russia.