Hallberg Talks About Joining The Bolshoi Ballet

Melissa Block speaks with David Hallberg, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, about joining the Bolshoi Ballet. He's the first American to be recruited by the legendary Russian company as a permanent principal dancer. He's currently rehearsing for the Kings of the Dance Tour.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Russia's legendary Bolshoi Ballet is making history. For the first time, a foreigner - an American, no less - will join the Bolshoi as a principal dancer. He is 29-year-old David Hallberg, who's currently with American Ballet Theatre in New York.

Hallberg has wowed critics and audiences with his strength, precision, elegance and nobility on the stage. Now, he's taking his talents to Moscow. He told me that when he got the offer, he was stunned.

DAVID HALLBERG: The Bolshoi is such a historical and storied company. You know, I sat there and thought, first of all, why me? They have the cream of the crop and I think my South Dakota roots came in and thought, well, here I am born in South Dakota and this huge, historical company in Moscow is asking me to be one of their premier dancers. It was shocking, you know, and I listened to all the information. I was a bit overwhelmed, but I really tried to get all of the details and ask as many pertinent questions as possible.

BLOCK: Well, one of those questions may have been, why me? Did they explain to you when you talked to the Bolshoi why you? What did they see in you?

HALLBERG: They did. They had seen me. The director, Sergei Filin, had seen me off and on for a couple of years and he had tried to get me to come dance in a company he was running in Moscow at the time, unsuccessfully because of my schedule. And he just explained that he wanted to bring, you know, a new face, really, to the Bolshoi. He wanted to tell the world that the Bolshoi, being such a Russian company, was opening up its doors, really, to the world. And it's a little bit of a role reversal because he used the example, as have other people, that dancers from the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg have defected 50 years ago.

BLOCK: You're thinking of Nureyev?

HALLBERG: Yeah. With Nureyev and with Baryshnikov, just really, really well known Russian dancers defected to the west. And he wanted to say, you know, Russia is recognizing that there is talent that lies elsewhere.

BLOCK: It's curious when you think of the Russian dancers who've come here and now you're being the first to go there on a permanent basis. Does that seem like sort of the last frontier, really, the last wall to come down between east and west?

HALLBERG: I think so. It's a very, very bold statement in a sense that Russian dance really defined ballet for so long, for so many years. And not to say that it doesn't define the ballet world anymore because that's not the truth. I mean, there are amazing dancers being produced from the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky and elsewhere, but it really is a breaking down of the walls in a sense that a dancer is coming to Russia to join the company and it was by invitation from the Bolshoi Ballet.

BLOCK: How would you describe the Bolshoi's style? What makes it distinctive and maybe different from what you - the way you might be dancing now?

HALLBERG: Yeah. Well, it's very, very different from the way I was trained. I have a very French type of style of dancing. The French style is very simplistic in a sense that the lines of the body are very clean. They're beautiful because of their refinement. It's extremely fast. The work and the speed of the dancer is very, very fast. Consequently, the jumping isn't as high.

And the Bolshoi style is huge. I mean, the Bolshoi means big in Russian, so the stage is enormous. They have a lot of space to fill. The jump is very, very big and one of the biggest kind of concerns and questions from other people is the fact that - is how I will adapt to the Bolshoi jump because it is so iconic and it's so impressive and I'm really going to try and get the best of both worlds. I'm not going to try and be a Russian dancer because I'm not, but I'm going to take as much as I can and try and adapt as much as possible to the style.

BLOCK: This is going to be such a big deal over there, I'd think, when you debut as a premier with the Bolshoi. Any nervousness about those first steps onto the stage in front of the Russian audience?

HALLBERG: Completely.

BLOCK: Yeah?

HALLBERG: I am shaking in my boots, but you know, I do feel an amount of pressure, not only with that first performance, but also with doing this justice. I mean, I think it's really important for an American to go to a company as storied as this, as historical as this. And it's really important for me to do this justice and to go there and represent kind of the globalization of the art form.

But it's true. When I first step on that stage, I will very much be paying attention to the audience response to me being at the Bolshoi because it's interesting, as a performer, you don't have to have applause or screams of bravo to feel the energy of the audience. You can always feel the energy without them doing anything. They just have to sit there.

BLOCK: Really?

HALLBERG: Yeah. You can be doing your show, doing your performance and you can always feel the energy of the house, we say. And I've been sitting in the theatre watching a performance and the audience is just at the edge of their feet. The performer - they're just kissing their feet. And there have been shows where I've been a performer and the audience is just totally dead. They're just not involved. They're not into it. So I will be very interested to see, you know, what those first couple of shows hold.

BLOCK: Well, it sounds like a great adventure. David Hallberg, congratulations. Thanks for talking to us.

HALLBERG: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

BLOCK: Dancer David Hallberg. He'll now divide his time between New York and Moscow. His first ballet with the Bolshoi this fall will be "Gisele."

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