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Amid Turmoil, American ‘Prince’ David Hallberg Returns to Russia

In his 2011 role as the prince in Sleeping Beauty, David Hallberg became the first American principal dancer at the Bolshoi, the world’s largest ballet company and Russian cultural epicenter since its founding in 1776.

NEW YORK — David Hallberg is running late. He thanks a makeup artist and rushes toward his dressing room.

The 31 year-old ballet star — a principal dancer at both the historic Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and the American Ballet Theater in New York — slips on the costume he’ll wear as the lead role in “A Month in the Country,” before a fake mustache is quickly glued to his face.

“OK, I really have to go,” Hallberg tells the man making last-second trims to his new facial hair.

In an instant the matinee crowd at the Metropolitan Opera House welcomes Hallberg to the stage. And for the next 40 minutes, he seems at ease. It’s one of his last performances in the United States before heading back to the Bolshoi, the world’s largest ballet company that has remained at the center of Russian culture since its founding in 1776.

It was called a seminal moment both for the Bolshoi and American ballet when Hallberg became the first American principal dancer at the historically insular Russian company in 2011. The news even prompted comedian Stephen Colbert to dub Hallberg a “double agent” who was “Benedict Arnold in slightly tighter pants.”

Hallberg’s journey east has been compared to the defections of many famous Russian dancers to the west, like Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov during particularly icy stretches of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s.

“[Russians] have a very different style of dancing and that’s part of the reason I wanted to go… to learn their style,” Hallberg said.

The good-natured South Dakota native, raised mostly in Arizona, is an unlikely fit for international star and cultural ambassador. Hallberg is patient and polite, enjoys comfort food like meatloaf and drinks good whiskey. His first role as the prince in Sleeping Beauty for the Bolshoi was broadcast on live television throughout Russia and eventually won over critics and a fan base often leery of outsiders.

Sarah Kaufman, Pulitzer-prize winning dance critic of the Washington Post, says nobody in the ballet world, male or female, has the ability to play the number of roles Hallberg can.

“He embodies light and dark, and that’s what’s so fascinating about him,” Kaufman said. “He can play the prince and your lover but also your assailant, and he can combine that all in one role.”

Hallberg will be returning to the Bolshoi stage this summer at a time of immense turmoil. Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi’s creative director and the man who offered Hallberg a position in the company, was badly burned and left nearly blind after a jar of sulfuric acid was thrown in his face in January.

Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, 29, who had a knack for playing ballet villains, is accused of paying a hitman to attack Filin after his girlfriend, ballerina Anzhelina Voronstova, was overlooked for a role.

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 of Russia.

The scandal is one of the biggest in the history of Russian ballet and the intrigue and suspense continue to play out.

Nikolai Tsikaridze, 39, who had been with the Bolshoi since 1992 as a dancer and teacher, was recently informed he must leave the company after allegations surfaced that he might have been involved in the attack as well.

Hallberg was in the U.S. at the time of the attack recovering from dance injuries. He admitted that he “certainly” had some fears about returning to Moscow but that he made a commitment to both Sergei Filin and the Bolshoi that he plans on honoring.

“I will make sure that I’m safe and the Bolshoi Theater will make sure that I’m safe,” Hallberg said. “I’m not going to let an attack like this derail my career.”