“David,” I said, “wrap your burrito.”
David Hallberg chuckled modestly, a gentle smile spread across his elegant features. I recently took a class from Kee-Juan Han, former director of the Arizona Ballet School with whom Hallberg had trained exclusively for some time. One of Han’s expressions is ‘wrap your burrito’, to describe the feeling of wrapping the inner thigh muscles outwards around the legs to achieve the turned out position.
We sat at the Upper Stage, a rehearsal theater inside the Bolshoi theater. It could be a venue in its own right, with a large raked stage and orchestra pit, about 120-seat capacity and luxurious dark-wood paneling. Renowned French choreographer, Pierre Lacotte, with his two assistants and through a translator, instructed the 40 or so dancers on the stage in the choreography for Marco Spada, premiering at the Bolshoi in two weeks. Hallberg is in the lead role, though not in the cast of this rehearsal. He watched the stage attentively as we chatted, pausing our conversation whenever they addressed his role. His long legs, powerful enough to launch his almost two meter frame into lofty jumps, draped languidly over the wooden railing, capped by shiny red sneakers. A group of young ballet students, still in ballet slippers with buns in their hair, came to watch the rehearsal. Sitting in the row above us, they whispered to each other while glancing at Hallberg; finally, one of them came down to ask for his photo. Hallberg posed with his head tilted slightly downward, a still gaze looking up at the lens with a closed-mouth smile; a manner of someone who knew precisely his best angles. That was enough for the others to descend with their mobile phone cameras. “And the floodgates are opened,” Hallberg joked as he graciously posed with each of his eager fans.
In 2011, Hallberg, became the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer. He was invited by its Artistic Director, Sergei Filin, a move which hinted that the company, though fiercely proud of its Russian pedigree, could be opening up to global talent. Hallberg was already an acclaimed principal dancer of the American Ballet Theater (ABT), winning numerous awards and making guest appearances with the world’s top companies. His statuesque figure and princely looks have transcended the ballet world and recently landed him a fashion shoot with photographer Annie Leibovitz for American Vogue. For making inroads into mainstream culture, he has been compared to Nureyev and Baryshnikov, though his cross-Atlantic migration is opposite of their dramatic defections to the West.
Hallberg’s calm, well-mannered demeanour stands out against the tabloid antics of some of Bolshoi’s other dancers. He didn’t come to stir controversy. “I came to light a fire under my ass;” he said, “I came to challenge myself, to learn the Russian style and dance Bolshoi’s repertoire. It’s an experience I can’t turn down.” He gives much credit to his coach Sasha Vetrov for helping him adapt to the Russian style. Bolshoi spokesperson, Katerina Novikova added, “Hallberg is curious, he wants to learn. He brings great talent, and the other dancers accept him because of his talent, otherwise there would be conflict.” Hallberg said that while he has received a warm welcome, “I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there are people who don’t like that I’m here.” He won’t dwell on this; the greater challenge for him is meeting the high expectations set by the precedence of Bolshoi’s repertoire. Novikova advised that it would be better if Hallberg spoke Russian, to be able to understand more deeply the narratives of the ballets. He works with a translator and he recalled funny moments of mixed up English translations during rehearsals.
“Moscow is not home,” Hallberg admitted. He divides his time between Moscow and New York, where he remains a principal dancer with ABT. “Dance chose me, and I will never leave the dance world.” He knows he will not dance forever, but has yet to set future plans. “Maybe I’ll direct a company,” then he added confidently, “wherever the wind takes me.”
The rehearsal directors signaled to him; he excused himself and dutifully went back to the stage.