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Hungry for more

Posted on October 4, 2017

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David Hallberg, the princely star of American Ballet Theatre, publishes his autobiography next month. In July 2011 he spoke to Zoë Anderson about his career up to that date

I met David Hallberg round the corner from Sadler’s Wells, where he was dancing with American Ballet Theatre (ABT) earlier this year. During his visit, he’d already found a local, non-chain café, keen to see distinctive things and places while visiting London. He has the same approach to his own international career, looking for the individual qualities of the different companies he has danced with.

ZA: It’s unusual for the Maryinsky Ballet to have guest stars, especially in a big overseas tour.
DH: I’m honoured, they don’t do this very often. At this point in time, in my opinion, it’s one of the greatest companies in the world. The dancers are unbelievably fabulous, they have a great repertoire. I’m very much looking forward to it.

When I danced with them last year, I had a great time. The director, Yuri Fateyev, and I got on very well. He’s an unbelievable coach. Technically, he pushes me beyond what I thought was possible. I had five days of rehearsal with him for The Sleeping Beauty. What I learned in those five days was absolutely invaluable. I’m hungry for more.

When I did Beauty with the Maryinsky, it felt like no other Beauty I’ve ever danced. It’s four hours long, there’s an intermission after every act. It fills the house. It really is the epitome of classical Russian ballet. I remember looking around me, and the orchestra – the orchestra is phenomenal – everything is so historically relevant. That meant a lot, being there.

ZA: How aware are you of where you are, as a dancer? Is it very different to dance, say, Theme and Variations in London, in St Petersburg, in New York?
DH: It depends. Theme and Variations feels the same, because I’ve done it with ABT so many times. It really is an ABT ballet, it was created for the company, so that feels similar, regardless of where I am. If I were to dance The Dream with The Royal Ballet, you know – not so much the coaching, because people come over to ABT to coach, but doing it at The Royal Ballet, there would be a history involved, a tradition. I guess it’s more about the experience of where I am – the history of the company.

ZA: In practical terms, how do you pace yourself for a four-hour Beauty?
DH: It’s very different. It goes from seven to 11, I was doing the pas de deux at 10.45pm. It’s not about pacing yourself, so much. When you’re dancing MacMillan’s Romeo, that is about pacing yourself, because it’s so technically demanding that you can’t just blow it out in the ballroom scene, then have nothing left for the balcony scene. That’s hard like no other. You finish the balcony scene and you’re dead, you’ve just been on for over 60 minutes. The interval isn’t enough for you to catch your breath and stop sweating. Then there are ballets where you have an act off. We did Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, he’s in the first and third act. You have to re-warm up, get into performance mode again. Usually I try to watch from the wings, to stay in the atmosphere of it all, because if you go back to the dressing room, you start reading or organising, you don’t stay in the mode of the performance. With Beauty, you’re in such a zone. You’ve rested the whole day, to give it everything you have.

ZA: You began your career at ABT…
DH: ABT is my home. I’m American, I feel a sense of responsibility to represent American ballet, in general. There are preconceived notions. I know Ethan Stiefel feels the same way. I very much want to stay with the company and fulfil my duties. I’m grateful that they’ve given me the freedom and the time to go out and experience other companies, to guest elsewhere.

Hallberg as the Prince in Swan LakePhotograph: Rosalie O’Connor.

ZA: Starting out as a dancer, how did you choose ABT?
DH: I grew up in the US, I grew up reading Dance magazine. I knew of European dancers, of course, but I knew the dancers at ABT much more: Ethan [Stiefel], Vladimir [Malakhov], Ángel [Corella], Julio [Bocca]. That was who I saw, they were the biggest and the best in the country.

My eyes weren’t opened to the world until I went to the Paris Opéra school for a year. That proved absolutely invaluable, because I received an education I would never have received in America. Every weekend I would go and see the company at the opera house. I saw works where I didn’t know who I was seeing yet – I didn’t know who Mats Ek was, I didn’t know who Ohad Naharin was, I didn’t know who Kylián was, really. I look back now, I think, “I was watching a Mats Ek world premiere that night”, and didn’t know it! I was just watching it, slowly diminishing my ignorance. I was very aware of The Royal Ballet and the Paris Opéra. It has always been a dream of mine to dance with the Royal, I would love to at some point in my career. I have the utmost respect for the company and the repertoire.

I just knew I wanted to dance with ABT. I went at it with almost total abandon. It wasn’t this well-educated decision, it was just, “that’s it”. I didn’t play around with the idea of joining the Paris Opéra, or spending some time in Europe at that point. I was going back.

ZA: At ABT, you’ve been working a lot with Alexei Ratmansky. At Sadler’s Wells, you were dancing in Seven Sonatas.
DH: It doesn’t really look like it, but it’s a very, very difficult ballet. The movement is very intricate, but also very subtle. I have the opening scene, then I do the pas de deux straight into the finale, which doesn’t give you any time to rest. You’re shot out of a cannon.

Working with Alexei, having him as resident choreographer, has been so beneficial for the whole company. He doesn’t necessarily push me technically, in regards to doing so-called tricks, but he teaches me to dance more, to use my weight more. He’s unbelievably productive in the rehearsal studio. He raises the bar. He’s so specific about his movement. He gives so much, and expects you also to give so much.

In Seven Sonatas, the opening scene is maybe five minutes of group dancing. We’re opening the ballet, we’re opening the evening, so you would expect to come out and put your best foot forward. Instead, it’s all about the intricacy and the calmness of the step, rather than proving yourself. He says that it can build. Throughout the ballet, it can bloom even more, rather than just punching through it. He’s always saying “Less, do less”. It’s hard to understand that, at times. Your adrenalin’s going, you’re with the group, you’re opening in London. All the factors lead you to prove yourself. He asks the exact opposite.

I have a solo in the middle of the pas de deux with Julie Kent. In that solo, he’s constantly asking for a shift in weight, and a shift in épaulement, and going off the leg, other than staying upright and pretty. He wants the contrast of the weight into the ground. He really pushes you beyond the prettiness of ballet. You could easily make Seven Sonatas look pretty, but he wants it to have a weight and a depth, a change of movement.

He expects more than what your gifts are. Although I think a lot of the movement is complementary to the way I dance, he also really pushes me for more. So often do we rest on our laurels, it’s easy to do that. So that’s what makes him such a genius. If you look at Natalia Osipova, he kind of brought her up at the Bolshoi Ballet, when he was a director there. He completely promoted her gifts, but also pushed them.

As Des Grieux in Lady of the Camellias. Photograph: Rosalie O’Connor.

ZA: As a choreographer, how is he in the studio?
DH: He comes in with a relative idea of what’s going to happen; what I appreciate is that he’s open to suggestion, to letting it evolve naturally for the dancer. He really opens it up to individual interpretation. As my process, ignorance is not bliss for me, so I want feedback, I want to know if things aren’t looking as they should. To a fault, I sometimes over-analyse him or what he wants. In [Ratmansky’s ballet] The Bright Stream, there’s a moment where I look at someone and tell them to stop. I saw him watching, and asked: “Is it subtle, or is it big?” He said “Trust your instincts. It’s fine.” When you look at Osipova, if there ever was an individual…! He has an idea, and he lets it breathe.

Yuri Fateyev is different, obviously, from Alexei, but he also pushes me beyond where I think I can go. When you have a calling, it’s easy to let the force drive you. It’s another thing to take the calling into your own hands, or into someone else’s hands. A perfect example would be Sylvie Guillem. She took her talent and she used it to every sort of advantage. She commissioned works, she explored work, she had an unbelievable ballet career, but then she pushed limits and ruffled people’s feathers. She really took her responsibility in that sense, she didn’t take it for granted. That’s what I feel Yuri does to me.

ZA: You’ve recently danced Ashton’s Orpheus solo. How did that come about?
DH: I did a programme that toured throughout Russia and the US, called Kings of the Dance. We were looking for a solo, and my manager, Peter Diggins, was Anthony Dowell’s manager for many years. He remembered that Ashton created this solo for Anthony for an opera gala – a one-shot evening. It was never revived, never redone. It’s very beautiful, very Anthony. It has all of his signature-isms. I went in and learned it with Anthony, which was a great experience. We presented the solo at a gala, and the audience just loved it. It’s so atmospheric. It’s four minutes, so short; the music is so beautiful. It’s tender.

ZA: Have you any plans to dance it in the UK? Much as we love YouTube, it’s really not the same.
DH: No, I agree! There’s no plan in the future – unless there’s some sort of big Ashton festival…

ZA: That would also be nice.
DH: Yes. I would love to do it. I really have to present it well, because this is Ashton’s stamping ground. It would mean something different here.

David Hallberg’s A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back is published on November 7

First photograph: David Hallberg as Albrecht in American Ballet Theatre’s GisellePhotograph: Rosalie O’Connor.

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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