DAVID HALLBERG "IN CONVERSATION" WITH SUSAN JOHNSON
13th May 2019
After being welcomed by Susan, David started by reflecting on his early days and the sense of not fitting into an ordinary school. His hero, though, was Fred Astaire not Nureyev, so aged 11 David began tap dancing and jazz at the Arizona School for the Arts. Ballet only ‘struck’ him at 13 where he then took additional lessons; how then to make up the lost time in training?
David first attended the American Ballet Theatre summer school at 16 and this provided him with the opportunity to see American Ballet Theatre (ABT) perform, to give him an idea of his place in the ballet world after coming from such a small school and the stimulus to train even harder. He chose the Paris Opera Ballet School for his final year of training after watching a video and because his teacher suggested that American School of Ballet was not the place for him unless he wanted to join New York City Ballet. Although now at a ballet school David continued to feel an outsider, but despite this David does not regret his year’s study at the Paris school. He had not left the US before and so found living abroad aged 17 and having to learn French a challenge, but he observed that without a support system he was able to find himself.
David confirmed that throughout the time he was in Paris he knew he would return to the US as he already had a contract with ABT. David said that he had chosen this company as in the late 1990’s early 2000’s certain ABT male dancers were making headlines - David looked up to them, they were his idols and, he commented, some were also dancing with Royal Ballet at the time.
Continuing to discuss the attractions of ABT, where David became a principal in 2005, David said in the early years he wasn’t really in a position to make a decision regarding a company based on the choreographers working there. Whilst he had seen every performance by Paris Opera Ballet, he did not know Kylian’s work or others so the choice of ABT was mainly from the dancer side.
There was a discussion on ABT’s focus on classical ballet, the present season being mainly full-length classical ballet by Petipa or Ratmansky. There is nothing by Antony Tudor who was a founder choreographer who was a contemporary of Sir Frederick Ashton. David felt that some works date and that Tudor’s work is ‘highly intelligent, very well-crafted work’ but is no longer in fashion compared with Ashton’s works which remain challenging for the dancer and enjoyed by the audience. In addition it is also the choice of the artistic director. Nevertheless, Natalia Osipova chose to dance Tudor’s 1975 ballet The Leaves are Fading, partnered by David at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 2018. He observed it was an iconic pas de deux and a privilege to dance.
The discussion moved on to working with choreographers, in particular Alexei Ratmansky who had created six or seven roles for David. It was noted that Ratmasky’s works were not often seen in the UK, although his Shostakovich Trilogy would be performed by San Francisco Ballet at Sadler’s Wells later in May. David felt that having a role created on him by Ratmansky was very demanding as Ratmansky has a certain vision for his work and demands a lot of himself as well as the dancer. David admitted that after ten years some aspects have become familiar. Ratmansky undertakes a huge amount of research which he passes on to the dancers when creating a reconstruction of the classics.
When asked if there were ‘any original voices’ in ballet now, as in his book he suggested that it had become disconnected from the real world, David replied that he was trained to do as he was told like a soldier! There is always someone at the front of the room providing a critique. David said that he responds very well to criticism and prefers this to praise. Speaking personally, he felt that the ballet world breeds a culture where the individual voice is side-lined to the art so that when original voices come about everyone is shocked and offended or inspired. He has found it hard to find an original voice in ballets such as Swan Lake first performed over 100 years ago. This is where the individuality of the artist comes in.
Susan suggested that one of the issues today is how to render ballet, especially classical ballet based on fairy tales, relevant to contemporary audiences. David felt that for contemporary ballet Wayne McGregor ‘does a great job’ working with others in the art world that he is inspired by to bring them to a wider audience. In David’s view Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, for example, should be viewed by an artist through a current and not an historical lens. It is important that they are not seen as dusty. David went on to advised that he had worked with McGregor in the studio but he never got to performance. David would also like to work with American dancer/choreographer William Forsythe, ‘he is a genius’ and he is back in the ballet world. There are more avant garde creators he would like to work with who are found at Sadler’s Wells rather than Covent Garden. Ultimately it is an artist’s choice – whether to keep the Swan relevant or veering off into more unchartered territory.
Turning to ballet companies, David contrasted the ABT’s vs. Royal Ballet’s structure: He felt there were things to be said for both models - ABT provides an annual contract but with more time off than Royal Ballet providing the freedom to be a guest artist. He felt the ABT schedule was therefore not as draining as the Royal Ballet – which is one of the hardest working companies in the world. The ABT structure allowed him to become a member of the Bolshoi as well as remaining on the roster of ABT.
When he was invited to become a member of the Bolshoi Ballet in 2011 he was scared, challenged and inspired. David said he was not the first foreigner to join the company but he was put in as a Principal and given the responsibility to open the theatre after its reconstruction. It had never been on his radar as a company to join as he had never thought it would be possible. He saw it as ‘fate telling me this is my destiny … where to stretch myself’. There was risk as he was charting the uncharted. David admitted he was not Bolshoi style, the Mariinsky is more Paris Opera Ballet. He went because his learning curve would be much steeper with a style which would challenge his natural style. Although he was keen to learn the Bolshoi style, Natalia Makarova advised him not to go to Bolshoi and try to be like them but go and ‘show them how you dance’ which he thought was an amazing piece of advice. Usually when performing with a company he takes the approach of trying to reflect their style. He felt it gave him a nice balance between a positive learning curve and not being moulded into something he was not.
David advised that before he joined the Bolshoi he had been to Moscow several times for Gala’s and it was not a city he had warmed to, therefore he knew he would not like it very much. However, what happened was he fell in love with Moscow. He now knows how to deal with Russians and that the Russian soul runs very, very deep. Bolshoi welcomed him with open arms and he remains ‘blown away’ by the extent of Bolshoi’s display of support and love towards him. He felt it could be a very harsh society but once you have cracked that, you are with them for life. He speaks OK Russian, but everyone wants to practice their English even the Babushkas so he happily obliges.
David told the audience that he has had no new works created on him whilst at Bolshoi but he has performed roles he had not previously danced, increasing his repertoire which he felt was fruitful. Performing established works was often like dancing new ballets as he could not reference versions he had performed before as there was a different approach and a different standard. Stylistically the standard is very high and everyone worked really hard for every show. This allowed him to develop as a dancer and to bring greater depth to the roles when performed with other companies. He felt that the Bolshoi gave him ‘a new set of wings’.
Susan noted that in his autobiography he talked a lot about his struggles with partnering and wondered if this was in part as a result of his late entrance into ballet training and whether there was an ideal age to start learning this craft. David described himself as ‘a late bloomer’, and whilst he was late in starting to learn to partner, he was 23 before he acquired the physical strength to confidently provide a partner with all that she required. He did not believe there was a right age and that it was governed by physic.
David also talked about his partnership with Natalia Osipova describing it as very special. He noted they share the same birthday: ‘for us it’s like fate – we are soul mates’, although he was a little older. He felt that the older they became, the more trust and love they have for each other. He felt that Natalia pushed him beyond his limits as an artist because of how dramatic a dancer she is. He likes to think he goes ‘on a ride with her’ which goes beyond technique. He felt their contrasting styles provide a nice balance suggesting that Natalia is fire to his water.
In preparing for a role, David advised that he undertook research into a particular character and story for example A Month in the Country which he was performing with the Royal Ballet in June. He had referenced the book but did not read it from cover to cover. He then translated the research into how to portray the role. For him this means spending as much time in the studio as he can, as the more he works on it the more shading he is able to give to the role. In Romeo and Juliet, for David, the way MacMillan has shaped Romeo is more important than how Shakespeare wrote Romeo, but this was only part of it and the coaching was vital. He had performed A Month in the Country some time ago with ABT and it was coming back to him now rehearsals have started. The performance was almost a month away and the coaches would come in shortly. He will be coached by Sir Anthony Dowell who had coached him for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Giselle. It made a real difference when the coach was the person on whom the work was created.
This led on to a discussion about a film on YouTube of David performing Dance of the Blessed Spirits, an Ashton solo created for Dowell. Susan noted that some present may have seen Dowell coach Vadim Muntagirov in this role at the Ashton Foundation. David explained that he was looking for something to perform for The Kings of the Dance and his agent, also happened to be Dowell’s agent, put them in touch. David noted that the Ashton repertoire is very intelligent and ‘very very difficult’, and whilst he was pleased with what he had accomplished from the repertoire and he had no burning desire to learn more.
David confirmed that he had performed MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet before with ABT but there are differences as when MacMillan set the ballet on ABT he changed certain things, they are very subtle – David suggested it was like putting new tyres on a bicycle but which were much smaller. It just feels different. He went on to say that he had earlier been rehearsing the fight scene with Tybalt which was more vicious than he was used to. He said that 90 % was the same but the additional 10% is absorbed by the body in rehearsal.
David considered an empathetic partnership was significant in keeping a role fresh, as well as allowing him as an artist to make a role such as Romeo his own. He went on to explain how a coach can add more for a dancer in particular roles and said that Sir Anthony Dowell ‘was a fabulous coach for Romeo’ in Macmillan’s version of Romeo and Juliet. However, it was also good to have a specific coach to help you progress generally. David’s main coach is currently Sasha Vetrov who has played a key part in his development as a dancer since he joined the Bolshoi.
David was happy to help others by creating the David Hallberg Scholarship for Arizona Ballet which apart from the financial contributions allows him to facilitate mentoring. In addition, he has also created the Incubator at ABT. He is motivated by memories of himself as a 13-year-old who would have benefitted from guidance from someone he looked up to, when training as a young kid there are so many questions and insecurities which can be addressed.
His book A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back, came out of a suggestion from a critic who suggested that as David was travelling a lot, he should keep a journal to record his experiences. As a result, he accumulated a couple of years’ worth of material, then he got injured and the book took a completely different form. David hopes it serves to convey a message that dancers are not invincible, like him they could have a serious injury yet recover. Susan noted that he wrote very movingly and candidly about his time injured, particularly the role played by The Australian Ballet’s (TAB) advanced and holistic approach to dancers’ injuries, where surgery was a last resort with strengthening exercises take precedence. He set this against the USA where surgery is almost routine. Susan noted in the book David wrote about learning so much about his body at this time that he did not know and wondered if as he did not attend a ballet school he had missed out. However, David felt that was not the case, youngsters only want to dance, to turn, learning about the body as an instrument that enabled them to do this came later when it stopped functioning. He confirmed he was a guest artist with TAB and it was with them that he made his big return to the stage post rehabilitation in 2017.
In response to a question about the future, David responded by noting he was approaching ‘a certain age’ on Saturday, but there was definitely ‘life after the stage’ in the ballet world. He wants to ‘give something back’ to this art form. He has had so many great experiences around the world that there will come a time when he will be able to channel that into an arts organisation and ‘will eagerly help the dance world’. He would like to be an artistic director, but it needs to be the right company - he has been offered two directorships that do not ‘fit’, it has to be mutual rather than a shot in the dark - so he will wait for the right opportunity.
In response to audience questions David said:
- that his favourite company was the Royal Ballet! He went on to explain that ABT was his DNA, the Bolshoi gave him a different set of rules, TAB had returned him to the stage and Royal Ballet gave him Nataila Osipova. He went on to say that Royal Ballet is amazingly well run, hardworking, motivated and the dancers have welcomed him. He has a great respect for the dancers and for how hard they work. He adored watching them in the fabulous Royal Opera House and it shows the relevance of ballet in our culture.
- that he had performed Marco Spada by Pierre Lacotte. David explained Lacotte is a French chorographer who loves the speed of the dancers at Bolshoi and whilst David found it challenging, he also found it rewarding as he would not have been given the opportunity to dance a ballet of that style at ABT. David noted that he trained in the French style but had never performed in the French style. Pierre gave him the ability and opportunity to do that. he felt dancers are redefining technique, he looks at his own technique and then looks at Nureyev, there is no comparison. Nureyev had a different body with a strong build which allowed him to be so explosive in the 1960’s and 70’s, but he feels that dancers today have a better knowledge of how to maintain the technique.
- that American ballet dancers seem to be inspired by either Astaire or Gene Kelly, usually Astaire although he acknowledged that to the British Kelly would seem more typically American. David thinks Gene is fabulous, but it was Astaire who inspired him inspiration and when he watches Astaire he knows why as Astaire performs with a simplicity that seems so natural.
he did not know if Kings of the Dance would perform again. At the time it was created it was a good idea. It travelled to eight different Russian cities and to be able to take that concept to smaller cities in Russia was amazing.
- that there would be further opportunities to see him dancing with Natalia Osipova as they would be returning to Sadler’s Wells in the Fall and there were other performances soon to be announced. he does not so much have a favourite role, but with Natasha they have separately said that they have never had an experience like they did when they first danced Romeo and Juliet together. It totally changed how they feel a role, but the test is never to replicate what has happened but to stay in the moment. This is the beauty of the art of ballet but also the test.
- that as a result of performing Onegin in Russia, and hearing the feedback he got from those performances it validated how he had previously thought of Onegin as a character. He is dark haired and the audience expect a different character than the tall blond David was in Russia. This gave him the confidence to grow into the role. This partly comes from performing it a lot particularly at the Bolshoi, knowing how important it is to them.
Susan concluded by thanking David for the enjoyable evening he had provided to members, wished him well in all his endeavours and asked the audience to show their appreciation in the usual way.
Written by Susan Johnson and Jana Buresova
Approved by David Hallberg
© The LBC