Backstage at the Opera House, there’s none of the magic associated with one of the grandest performance venues in the world – just a warren of fluorescently lit rooms lined with tall, metal lockers.
Unless, of course, you’re being led through by David Hallberg. The 34-year-old ballet superstar, hailed as the greatest male dancer of his generation, imbues humdrum movements like shoving through doorways and striding down corridors with a startling physical grace. It’s hard to imagine that Hallberg, who makes his comeback this week playing Franz in the Australian Ballet’s version of Coppélia, a classic production about an oddball toymaker and a pair of lovers, has spent the last two-and-a-half years recovering from an ankle injury that nearly ended his career.
“It started when I was about nine,” recalls Hallberg in the rehearsal room – empty, except for a barre and a grand piano. He was born in South Dakota, grew up in Arizona and moved to France to study ballet at the Paris Opera Ballet School when he was 16. “I wanted to be a tap dancer at first, Fred Astaire was my inspiration. I grew up in American suburbia and sometimes I felt like I was the only boy there that latched onto it. I started in jazz, tap, hip-hop and ballet came at around 13. By the time I moved away to Paris, it was like: ‘this is really happening!’ That little sliver of light I felt as a child had just gotten brighter and brighter. I was blinded by it.”
Hallberg joined American Ballet Theatre in 2000 and became the Bolshoi Ballet’s first-ever American principal dancer in 2011, splitting his time between New York City and Moscow and dancing every full-length classical ballet in existence – from Giselle and Sleeping Beauty to The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Succeeding in ballet is hard enough but the leonine Hallberg possessed that rare mix of genetic bounty and talent. Today, he could pass as an aristocrat in shorts and a T-shirt; his grand jeté is both a triumph of physics and as economical as an E. E. Cummings poem. But finding his home among the strictures of the ballet world is one thing (“I love to be told to work harder, do more, it’s never good enough”). Keeping artistic crisis at bay – particularly when you’re as curious as Hallberg – is another thing altogether.
“The hardest challenge for me is finding authenticity in a work that has existed for hundreds of years,” he explains. “I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity for other forms of art, literature and visual art. But I always felt trapped – I always found extreme individuality in an artist like Lisa Yuskavage or Cindy Sherman who can basically do whatever they want. In ballet, you portray these roles that are formulaic.”
He explains he went through a rebellious stage in his twenties, when he thought, “ballet is over, I want to be an avant-garde performance artist like Tino Sehgal. Take the most shiny example, like Swan Lake. People have this idea of what it is, what it should be, what you can and can’t do. But then I went to the Bolshoi and danced other places and they had such a belief in the beauty of the classical art form and a commitment to its validity. It completely turned my perspective around.”
For Hallberg, losing everything he staked his life on has changed him more than any plaudit and sparked the deepest shift in his perspective yet. For the past two-and-a-half-years, he’s been working on a gruelling rehabilitation program in Melbourne under Sue Mayes, the Australian Ballet’s principal physiotherapist. Coming face-to-face with his own limits has also prompted another creative awakening. Hallberg tells me that he’s spent the past five years writing a memoir. It was going to be about a ballet-crazed boy from Arizona who danced for the Bolshoi and reached the heights of the dance world. As it turns out, the story about what happens to an artist when their art is taken away from them is the more interesting story. It’s also the one that he thinks will define him.
“I used to put so many demands on my body, my days off used to be the flights I took but I really paid a price,” he says, smiling. “I came to Australia to seek renewal and the Australian Ballet’s physical therapy team, who are the best in the world, allowed me to rebuild myself. I thought I’d be back on stage in six months but here I am two-and-a-half years later and like any hardship in life – heartbreak, disappointment, failure – you become more aware of everything inside you. Before the injury, I was flying high! There have been great moments, dancing with the Bolshoi, dancing with Stephen Colbert, that have been great for my ego. But ego is a killer. Getting back on stage, I feel older, wiser, not as desperate for attention. When you’re an artist and your instrument fails you, you are stripped so raw. I’m re-approaching my artistic existence again. I’m seeing everything with new eyes.”
David Hallberg will perform in Coppelia on December 13, 16 and 19.