David Hallberg | Interview

One of the most talked-about artists in classical ballet discusses his new gig in Russia and current obsessions.

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Photograph: Rosalie O�Connor

David Hallberg

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Photograph: Gene Schiavone

Natalia Osipova, left, and David Hallberg in Giselle

Thanks to a surprise opening in his rehearsal schedule, David Hallberg had a few minutes to chat with us recently by phone from New York. The 29-year-old ballet dancer and South Dakota native receives no faint praise for his work in 19th-century classics, earning comparisons to Vyacheslav Gordeev, Sir Anthony Dowell and other male dancers known for their purity of line. On Twitter, Hallberg shows a voracious appetite for contemporary culture as well, not just in his taste in choreographers but also in the art, fashion, film, music and photography he admires.

Last fall, Hallberg created a stir with his “reverse defection” to Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. The media frenzy that followed included a December interview on The Colbert Report and pas de trois with Colbert and Hee Seo of American Ballet Theatre. Just weeks before, Hallberg had starred in a live broadcast to cinemas of The Sleeping Beauty from Moscow, a gala performance attended by, among others, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Hallberg revealed later that he sprained his ankle during the show.

You can catch Hallberg onstage in Chicago on March 24, when he performs Giselle with ABT at the Auditorium Theatre, opposite ballerina Natalia Osipova in the title role. On March 21, Hallberg teaches a master class for dancers ages 14 and older at the Joffrey Tower.

You’ll be dancing Albrecht here in Chicago with ABT. Have you also danced Giselle with the Bolshoi?
Yeah, I did Giselle in October at the Bolshoi and that was my first performance, my premiere with them.

Is it difficult to keep two versions of the ballet in mind at the same time?
Not in interpretation, but the logistics of each production are different, and there are details that are a little bit different. But my partner, Natasha Osipova, she knows the Bolshoi version, obviously, so we have similar versions and we know each other’s style of [dancing Giselle].

How are things going so far in Moscow?
Really well. The year has flown by, to be honest [and] it’s been an intense one, with going [to Moscow] and all the press it got and the opening of the [renovated Bolshoi] theater. An exciting year, but really productive as well. We definitely see a future in the relationship we formed.

You’re getting out of it what you had hoped to?
So far, yes. Definitely. I have a bit of a longer-term plan for it. This isn’t just a one-year stint type of thing.

“Longer-term plan” meaning…
It’s to be determined, but I’m certainly signing for another year [with the Bolshoi] and we’re already looking into 2013–14.

Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev joined the Mikhailovsky Ballet shortly after you began working with the Bolshoi. Did that catch you off guard?
Yeah, you know, I think they need to fulfill themselves artistically, and if that means they need to do it elsewhere, I completely respect that and understand that. I don’t have the chance now to dance with [Osipova] at the Bolshoi but I do elsewhere, like in Chicago, which is nice.

Could you talk a little bit about finishing the Sleeping Beauty performance and how that felt?
My foot certainly hurt by the end of the show, but I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that opportunity. It was a really important show. All of my relatives were watching in theaters across the country [in the United States]. I felt the importance of that and spraining my ankle in the middle of the performance certainly wasn’t going to get in the way of me finishing the next hour and a half.

What’s been the most difficult adjustment so far to living in Russia?
Culturally it’s quite different. Also the style of the Bolshoi—it’s very different from [American Ballet Theatre]. So I’m adjusting to that but it’s also part of the reason I went. I’m very open to the challenge and open to the changes, but it’s not a way I’ve ever worked. It’s difficult.

Who do you work with closely there?
I have one coach and one coach only. His name is Alexander Vetrov. They brought him in for me when I joined the Bolshoi. He was a dancer with the Bolshoi and we work very intensely together.

At your request?

Well, it was very important for me to find a coach that I could work with and have a good rapport with. I didn’t know of Sasha or know how he worked but it’s turned into a very fruitful relationship.

I talked with Kevin McKenzie last week and we had a great conversation about his personal history with Giselle, his experiences learning the role of Albrecht from Michael Land, and working on it with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Erik Bruhn, Georgina Parkinson and others. I assume that McKenzie has coached you in Giselle as well. What can you tell us about your personal history with Albrecht and how you try to portray him?
Well, Albrecht was taught to me by Kevin so the history, the lineage goes on. Certainly, when you train as a classical dancer, you are very much influenced by Giselle. You see it all the time, you start to learn the steps a little. I find much more than in a lot of other roles, that [Albrecht is one] you can really evolve. Your first couple of performances are just kind of the training ground of your interpretation. I find different nuances in the role of Albrecht especially [when dancing] with different ballerinas. My interpretation is very different with Osipova than it is with [Svetlana] Zakharova or any other Giselle.

[Albrecht] is an aristocrat and so his view of Giselle and her life, her village, the provincial lifestyle, is something he’s never experienced. It’s something he quite desires and he’s really fascinated with. But he knows the risk that he’s taking. He knows his side of society can’t know that he’s going into the village and flirting with someone who could never be engaged to him. But in the process of that, he actually does fall in love. I feel that, at first, he’s playing around and it’s just kind of a joke for him. He’s not a malicious character, he’s just playing around. He doesn’t think anyone will ever find out because how could they? He’s deep in the forest. Who’s going to run into him? He gets caught, obviously, and then he realizes, not only has he fallen in love with Giselle, but that he underestimated the risk. And it goes completely haywire right in front of his face.

Are there specific recordings or performances that inform or inspire your Albrecht?
To be honest, my partner Natasha is my inspiration. She is who I reference when searching for my role. I don’t emulate what she does but her interpretation of Giselle is so fragile and sensitive and so tender. It constantly inspires me. And I feel like it’s the other way around. We have a great rapport together.

The two of you have danced other ballets together, correct?
Yeah.

How different is what you feel between the two of you on stage during Giselle compared to other ballets?
[Osipova] always feels like Natasha, of course. But she dives so deeply into her roles, that you can’t help but go along with her and interpret what she’s feeling, whether as Juliet or Giselle or someone else. It’s different with each ballet, and the depth of her interpretations are what really stand out for me.

Interpretations in a theatrical sense? Or also musically, or stylistically?
In terms of character, of commitment to character. She’s just so convincing in Giselle. I feel that from everyone who dances with her: the villagers, the Wilis, Myrtha, Hilarion…

What are your goals right now in terms of people you want to work with, roles you want to dance that you haven’t yet had the chance to, other types of movement vocabulary you want to study, things like that?
There are certainly some artists in New York that I would love to work with. One is Sarah Michelson.

I noticed you tweeted about her work at the Whitney Biennial.
Yeah, which was fabulous, it was amazing.

What did you like about it?
It wasn’t littered with too much—It was just very clear. It was a very clear idea that she just repeated over and over [which was] very compelling. You had to have patience for it.

How would you describe that idea?
This section that she used for the Biennial comes from a piece she did called Devotion. Which basically, in my opinion, is the devotion one has toward dance, towards movement, toward steps, stamina, towards the commitment of the artist.… The very little steps [the dancers] were doing were just repeated over and over. By the end of the piece they were just absolutely drenched in sweat and completely disheveled. It was unreal.

Would you ever commission an artist to make something for you?
Yeah, definitely. I would love to work with Sarah. I would love to work with Bill Forsythe. The list goes on and on. But it’s a fine line, because there’s a preconceived notion of the kind of artist who comes in and says, “Make something for me.” A lot of the time, creators and dance makers don’t really want guidelines. It’s not as simple as saying, “I have the money to pay for a piece of work. Let’s make a piece of work.” That’s not how people want to create.

I’ve noticed that you keep up with art outside of the dance world—you’re always tweeting from an art opening or some new restaurant that you’re checking out. Are those non-dance experiences things that you appreciate but don’t necessarily inspire you in the studio, or can food or photography or whatever else spark ideas about movement?
[Those experiences] make it less and less a small world. Ballet is very insular. You really have to dedicate every fiber of yourself to this art form. I feel that the more I see and the more I become aware of, other than in the ballet world…I feel sometimes like it’s detrimental, because it creates this desire to experience more, experience other work or other artists outside the ballet world. In essence, yes, one would think that I’m becoming more well-rounded or something. But sometimes it does serve as a distraction. A good distraction, it’s a welcome distraction for me. But it makes me more critical of ballet, more critical of how the ballet world is set up, how ballet dancers think. It’s a double-edged sword.

Most dancers I know have at least one discomfort zone. Either they hate being upside down, or having to speak or sing or whatever. What if anything do you dread being asked to do in a role? 
More and more, I think my least favorite thing to do is to just go on stage and show my technique. I find that, in this day and age, people are very interested in technique and the execution of steps, how many turns you do, how high you jump, whatever. I think what terrifies me the most is coming out and showing the audience what I have to say for myself technique-wise. And that’s something that repels me as a viewer, as well. I’m less and less interested in how many turns people do or how high people jump, and more in their ideas, their artistic interpretation.… If I need to show my technical chops [in a role] I will subtly suggest it rather than throw it in the audience’s face.

Do you read reviews of your performances?
I do. Definitely.

Why?
I don’t usually take away much, but obviously, curiosity gets the best of me. People say [a review] is one person’s opinion, which is very true. But you can learn things from critiques and criticism. I work in a very critical art form. We’re constantly being criticized and picked at. Reading something in the paper about your interpretation…I’ve learned things before. [Choreographer] Alexei Ratmansky says the same thing. He reads reviews and he thinks they can influence how the public views his work and warms up to it.

Which male dancers do you watch or follow?
Leonid Sarafanov, who’s Russian, at the Mikhailovsky is an unbelievable dancer. I think he’s one of the best in the world. But for me it’s more artists. Right now I’m going through this mild obsession with [photographer] Steven Klein. He recently shot a cover for W magazine with Kate Moss and I’ve gone back through his work and it’s just so unbelievable. That influences, not my dancing, but my view on things and how and where I want things to go.

What about his images do you respond to?
There’s such a balance. There’s such beauty, but there’s morbidity as well. I love seeing art that challenges. That’s why Pina [Bausch] was so great, because she didn’t always take the tall, beautiful dancer in the center. She took the short, fat dancer in the back. I love seeing art like that. You look back on Steven Klein’s whole library and there are so many juxtapositions. Somebody will be wearing a beautiful Oscar de la Renta something, and then she’ll have her throat slit. It’s so complex. It’s really interesting to me.

What’s your favorite thing about Russia so far? What’s something you can get there that you can’t get here in the States?
Peace and quiet. I’m very social in New York. I’m going around and seeing crap. But in Moscow, my life calms down and it’s all about work. I work and I rest and I work and I rest. Which is so great. Such a nice change of pace.


Hallberg and Osipova perform Giselle with American Ballet Theatre and the Chicago Sinfonietta on March 24 at 8pm.

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