Guest Contributer Rick Westerkamp takes us to Washington, DC for a conversation with Bolshoi Premiere Dancer David Hallberg and Kennedy Center President, Michael Kaiser
On Saturday, September 7, 2013 at The Kennedy in Washington, DC, Michael Kaiser, President of The Kennedy Center, adroitly interviewed ABT principal dancer and Bolshoi Ballet premier dancer David Hallberg. Hallberg, thirty-one years old, is the Bolshoi’s first and only American premier in the company’s 237-year history.
The audience, which consisted of dancers, choreographers, patrons of the arts, and arts enthusiasts of all ages, was taken on a wonderful point-by-point journey through Hallberg’s career. Kaiser stopped the timeline at the turning points, both personally and professionally, to delve into Hallberg’s feelings in and about those moments. The arc of the interview was truly breathtaking, thanks to Kaiser, and showcased an articulate, humble, profound, and sensitive Hallberg.
Kaiser began the interview by saying, “David, on your Twitter bio, you describe yourself with a series of words that start with the letter ‘d.’ Do you remember them?” Hallberg said, frankly, “No.” Kaiser went on to quote @DavidHallberg’s Twitter bio: “’dancer, dreamer, detailed, defective, distracted, discreet, delicate, dog, doomed.’ We have an hour. Explain.” Hallberg explained that said bio is six years old and that it was, perhaps, an effort to be poetic. From his love of dogs, having grown up with golden retrievers, to the idea that all artists are, to some extent dreamers, to his self-professed delicate nature, some of these words seemed quintessentially Hallberg. When asked about the use of the word doomed he said, “Doomed because it’s never good enough. And I still feel that way five years later, I guess. As an artist, I think, it’s never good enough. There’s something to work on. I’ve maybe been pleased with a couple performances that I can count on one hand in a twelve-year career. But, you know, that’s the shape of the art form.” These profound words on the fleeting nature of a career in the performing arts were merely the tip of the iceberg that is this interview, from an artist who was just warming up to his interviewer.
Kaiser started at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start, in the career of David Hallberg. Fred Astaire was Hallberg’s first and foremost dance inspiration. The nature of the inspiration stemmed from the fluidity, elegance, and class of Astaire’s movement. “I taped nickels on the bottom of my penny loafers, and the nickels would eventually start falling off, but I would just try and make noise with my feet,” Hallberg recalled. After that, Hallberg’s family moved to Arizona, which thrilled David because he was closer to Hollywood. He was immersed in jazz and tap classes, the competition dance scene, and aspired to work in LA and do music videos.
While in Arizona David met Mr. Kee-Juan Han, who was director of The School of Ballet Arizona from 1993-2003 and is now the director of The Washington School of Ballet, who was in attendance and received gracious applause. Mr. Han, as David admirably refers to him, was, “the first and singular teacher that gave me the technique and guided me on this path, and I still hold that as a thirty-one year old.” Mr. Han used subtlety to suggest Hallberg train in ballet, and for the last four years that Hallberg spent in Phoenix, the training was strict, but not belligerent. “You’re starting very late. You have a lot of catching up to do. If you want, we can do that, but this is not going to be easy,” Hallberg remembers Mr. Han telling him. The strict regimen of classes and private sessions drilled Hallberg and caught him up. Said Hallberg, “My parents would come and watch the privates sometimes, and I would be doubled over after my seventh set of coupé jeté [which is the big circle male dancers do], and he’d look over at my parents and say, ‘How’s Mommy and Daddy doing?’” Hallberg recalls the overwhelming trust that he and his parents put in Mr. Han’s coaching, and his parents’ ability to nurture his love and talent for the art of dance, which I find a refreshing sentiment in a world dominated by Lifetime’s contrived series Dance Moms.
At the age of seventeen, Hallberg was accepted to The Paris Opera Ballet School, thanks to an audition tape Mr. Han recorded, which was shown in the interview. Said Hallberg of his sixteen-year old self in the audition tape, “I’m all arms and legs. I have absolutely no control of my body. I didn’t know what to do.” Kaiser quickly chimed in, “But you got accepted.” Hallberg admitted that he did not anticipate that he would be accepted into the program for various reasons, though he admires the company and the school as being a gold standard. Of his time in the program, he said, “It was difficult for me because I was the only American in a school of 180. There were four foreigners. I didn’t speak French. It was my senior year of high school so for academics in the morning I was put with sixth graders. I was coming in the last division… It was difficult. I was pushed in the back of the studio, sort of forgotten about, not allowed to perform with the school, had no friends. Kids even made fun of me in front of my face. But I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
Kaiser propelled the interview forward, asking if Hallberg’s time in the corps de ballet with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) was frustrating. Hallberg’s responded quite candidly, saying, “Ooo, [you’re] going for it. I think my healthy ego at the time was frustrated.” Hallberg cited Paloma Herrera’s sensational rise to principal dancer, with ABT, at the age of nineteen as the antithesis of what he was ready for at that time. “I needed a year in the studio company. I needed a year in the corps. I needed everything that was given to me. I was just so hungry, so blindingly hungry, and Kevin McKenzie was so smart. He just nurtured me from day one, and took his time, and really was so patient with me,” said Hallberg. He spoke with nothing but fond memories of his time in the community of the corps de ballet, in the way that many people in the world of work look back on their years in college fraternities or sororities.
After four years with ABT, Hallberg was promoted to principal dancer at the age of twenty-three. Kaiser said, “You’ve danced with many partners at ABT, but you forged a special partnership with [Natalia] Osipova. Talk about Osipova as a dancer.” Of Osipova, the Russian ballerina, Hallberg said, “She is, in a sense, who I would like to be as a dancer. I’m sure a lot of you have seen her dance. She runs absolutely by the beat of her own drum. She questions everything and makes everything her own. And she taught me this, because I respond to, sort of, direction. I like someone in the studio coaching me, teaching me, the whole nine yards. She has her own vision of things.” In ballet, much like in life, opposites attract and make for amazing onstage chemistry. Hallberg spoke of his and Osipova’s differences, what with their significant size difference, as well as the types of roles people see them performing onstage. “What people think is that she would fit the bravura roles better, so like Don Quixote, Flames of Paris, and things like this. And for me, I’m the prince and I do Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake… the classics. And so, you would think that at first it doesn’t really fit, but for some reason it’s just magnetic.”
Hallberg went on to say just how unexpected his involvement as the first foreign-born premier dancer at The Bolshoi Ballet was. While on tour with ABT in Moscow, Hallberg was approached by Sergei Filin’s assistant for a meeting. Filin (Russian ballet dancer and director of The Bolshoi Ballet since 2011) told Hallberg, “I have two offers for you. One of them is that you come as a guest, dance with the company, and do a series of performances that we would figure out… The second offer is to be the first American premier at The Bolshoi Ballet full-time.” Hallberg recalls a feeling of calm upon hearing the offer, after which he was told that the Kremlin and the General Director of The Bolshoi had both approved this initiative. The one person Hallberg consulted in making this decision was Alexei Ratmansky, Russian choreographer, former ballet dancer, artist in residence at ABT, and former director of The Bolshoi Ballet. While their paths had crossed professionally at ABT, their personal relationship was not intimate by any means. Hallberg admired Ratmansky’s intelligence and calm demeanor. Ratmansky told him, “You must do this. This is so important. This is the time for The Bolshoi. This is such an exciting time. Sergei has taken over the company. You must do this.” It was the forward advice of his trusted compatriot in the arts that gave him the confidence to take on the role with The Bolshoi Ballet.
Kaiser went on to ask about the difficulties of going between his principal roles with ABT and his premier roles with The Bolshoi Ballet. “I didn’t know how difficult it would be until it was right there, right in my face,” said Hallberg. “I was just ping-ponging back and forth. If I’m going to be brutally honest, it wasn’t the right thing to do. My performances suffered. I was under such extreme pressure. I felt like I was in a pressure cooker.” Kaiser inquired as to whether Hallberg has found a better formula for his professional life, the response to which was committing more time to one or the other. Hallberg expressed how grateful he is for the flexibility and openness each company has shown him, and continues to show him.
When Kaiser inquired about any roles that he would like to perform in the future that he hasn’t already performed, Hallberg cited his overwhelming inspiration upon attending The National Gallery of Art’s exhibit on Diaghilev and The Ballet Russes. He mentioned roles in Petrushka, Le Spectre de la Rose, and Afternoon of a Faun as roles that have already been created that strike his fancy, but his desired roles are in new works. “The perpetual search of a dancer is to find a voice within another choreographer working today. And I’ve found that voice in Alexei Ratmansky. He’s created a lot of his ballets on me with ABT and the relationship has really bloomed. It’s really come into fruition… And I would love to find that with other choreographers.”
When asked about how the attack on Filin has affected him and his comfort level in Moscow, Hallberg transcended this interview and blew me away with the following profound quote: “First and foremost, art is sacred. It serves as an escape for the masses, whether it is Beyoncé, or Andy Warhol, or whatever. Art is sacred, and an attack like what happened to Sergei is, in the real world, totally unacceptable, but in the art world… I guess it’s unacceptable in any form, but this is the art world, and that is sacred. It serves as escapism for people. And to do something like that to someone who has such an unbelievable vision for a company as important as Bolshoi is… I have no words for it.” Hallberg went on to comment on the utter ingenuity of Sergei Filin’s vision for the Bolshoi, what with the hiring of himself, other foremost choreographers of today, etc.
During the time of the attack, Hallberg was not in Moscow but back in the United States, due to injury. Kaiser inquired about what he did while injured for ten months. Hallberg said, “I calmed down. I came to the realization that I’m not a robot. I am human and I can break. I spent two months on crutches. I went to Maine and ate oysters. I hobbled through the Grand Canyon. People walked by me and said, ‘That sucks,’” to which the audience, Hallberg, and Kaiser shared a laugh. “I wanted to get back in the saddle and I wasn’t ready,” said Hallberg. “What stressed me out the most was not being able to fulfill those obligations.” Hallberg commented on the fact that he started to doubt his physicality and the power and strength of his body, upon his return to dancing.
Ending on a fulfilling note, giving perfect shape to the arc of his masterful interview, Kaiser asked, “Do you think about your life after dancing?” Hallberg responded with an easy eloquence, saying: “Every day of my life… I’ve thought about it for years, maybe before I got into the company at ABT… I have had to be patient with that. I am not a patient person.” Hallberg said, “Challenge and risk is life.” He went on to say that he would like to continue to delve into the unknown, perhaps through a field with which he is unfamiliar. He mentioned a couple potential artistic avenues, such as running a company, or directing something, or serving as a curator somewhere. “I would like to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it being a little cloudy. Not knowing what that light is and knowing what is through that tunnel is met with challenges that I can take on, and risks that I can take, and opportunities that I can grab at that can continue to serve me as an artist and a human. That is very important to me.”
Michael Kaiser structured a whole interview, looking at the life of the dancer through the lens of one of the brightest stars in the ballet scene today, David Hallberg. Kaiser’s final question addressed how Hallberg plans to address the “final years of his dancing career.” Hallberg landed on a modern sentiment: balancing the classics with exploring opportunities out of his comfort zone, which is something any artist can and should strive for to some extent. Whether it is working with artists outside of his genre, collaborating with avant-garde performance artists, or focusing on his mentorship program, he plans to stay aware, observing opportunity, and striking while the iron is hot.
Hallberg will be back at The Kennedy Center this spring, with The Bolshoi Ballet, which is now a must-see after hearing the majestic physical performer converse so eloquently on his career and his craft. You can follow Hallberg and The Kennedy Center on Twitter, at @DavidHallberg and @kencen respectively. The link to the full interview is: http://www.kennedy-center.org/explorer/videos/?id=A81876
Rick Westerkamp is an actor/dancer/choreographer/critic/teaching artist, living and working in Washington, DC.