Research and Development

Claudia La Rocco talks with David Hallberg

David Hallberg in the wings during the first act of The Sleeping Beauty at a dress rehearsal at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Photo: Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times.

Critic and poet Claudia La Rocco recently chatted with the celebrated American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet dancer David Hallberg in Chelsea. They talked about his dual lives in New York and Moscow, what it means to be an intellectually curious ballet dancer in 2013, and his long self-education in contemporary art, including a for-now shelved collaboration with the French choreographer Jérôme Bel.

Claudia La Rocco: When did you start seeing contemporary dance, and what got you interested?

David Hallberg: It started when I was at Paris Opera School in 2000. I saw the company perform whenever they were doing programs, which was almost every weekend. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know Mats Ek, I didn’t know Jiří Kylián. I only knew of William Forsythe because of his In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and the dancer Sylvie Guillem.

CLR: You were a baby then, right?

DH: I was seventeen, but I had this insatiable curiosity for what they were presenting. It’s not like I researched anything, even after I saw it. I didn’t know who they were or what they had created or where they were from. I just watched and watched and watched. And then I came to New York and I was very much engrossed in the ballet world.

CLR: You did the Intensive at ABT and then joined the Studio Company immediately after?

DH: Studio Company, and then the Main Company. At the same time, I began to go to the Joyce Theater and Dance Theater Workshop [now New York Live Arts], and then my tastes started to form. It was never a sense of, “I should see this; this will make me a more well-rounded artist.” As the years went on, I saw more contemporary stuff than ballet. It was a gradual process.

Sylvie Guillem in an excerpt from William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, 1987.

CLR: My background is in poetry and visual art; I got thrown into writing about dance. I remember seeing one of Ann Liv Young’s early pieces. They were inserting these poor turtles into their vaginal cavities—

DH: As one does.

CLR: As one does. It’s the counterpart to the gerbil, right?

DH: [laughs] Totally.

CL: And I thought, “I don’t know what to think of this. This is interesting.” I was really bored with ballet until I started seeing works like Agon and realized ballet can be just as conceptual and philosophical as anything else. I realized it was similar to my taste in literature.

DH: What’s your taste in literature?

CLR: Poetry is a big part of it. The non-narrative structure of poetry is similar to how dance resists linearity. It’s more about structure, about rhythm and pacing. When I began to watch dance and was told things like “Paul Taylor is the greatest living choreographer,” I figured I must not like dance. Once I started to see other things I realized, “Oh, I was just in the wrong theater.”

DH: That’s kind of how my taste evolved as well. There are choreographers that are not my taste. I look at work sometimes and think, how is this valid in my world?

Often, when others are creating works in a ballet idiom, it seems like they go on autopilot: “Give me some Forsythe, give me some Balanchine.” Where is your own voice—question it! That’s why I’m curious about people who have the freedom, apart from any idiom that they’ve been tied to since they were kids, to create what their inner self is trying to say. That’s why I’ve gravitated to all of these modern things—some are really great, some are total crap, some you leave at intermission, some you leave crying. It’s exhilarating.

CLR: Are there people you’ve seen in recent years who you’ve thought, “Ok, if so and so has a show I’m moving hell and high water to get there?”

DH: Sarah Michelson, definitely. My first Sarah experience was Devotion [at The Kitchen, 2011]. It was just altering. It almost brought me back to dance in a sense, because for four or five years I had been very anti-“dance”—very Jérôme Bel, French-y, strip it down, no fourth wall, all this stuff.

CLR: I wish people could see how serious your face is.

DH: I was like, “Oh yeah, totally, ballet sucks. It’s so fake.” Then I went to see Sarah’s Devotion and I thought, “Wait a second, she’s gone back to dance. It’s all been created before. She’s not creating any new steps, but it’s the way she’s presenting it. It’s the way she’s putting all of it together and the repetition.” It changed my whole perception.

And Ann Liv Young. My first Ann Liv Young experience was The Bagwell in Me [at The Kitchen, 2008]. Since then I’ve gone to everything she’s put on, except for her Sherry truck. I’m always curious to see where she’ll take things.

Above them all is Jérôme. He and I have a funny history. I read an article about how he’s the bad boy of French choreography, and I knew he had done Véronique Doisneau at the Paris Opera, but I’d already left the school so I didn’t see it. I was fooling around on his website and saw that he’d made a video of it, so I emailed the website. I didn’t know it would go directly to him. I said, “Hi, I’m a dancer at ABT and I’d really love to see the video. Can I pay for a DVD?” He wrote back a couple hours later: “Who are you? How do you know my work? How are you a ballet dancer and you’re interested in my work?” I was shocked. It was like I was a kid at Disneyland for the first time. I had seen The Show Must Go On and told him that I thought it was unbelievable. We started a tentative back-and-forth exchange, until at the end of one email I was like, “Alright, just say it: ‘If you ever want to do something together or if you ever want me in one of your pieces, I will do it in a second.’” And he responded, “Interesting. Let me think about it. I usually don’t do this because other dancers have asked me to do something and I said no.” Which doesn’t surprise me that he has offers and rejects those offers, you know—“Make me a solo.”

Jérôme Bel, Veronique Doisneau, 2005. Part 1 of 5.

Eventually push came to shove. He was going to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for his show Pichet Klunchun and Myself. So I flew to Minneapolis on my own accord, paid for everything, and we met cold at the Walker. We spent two days together and we decided to develop a kind of biographical piece.

After a year and a half we shelved it; he said there wasn’t enough conflict in the work. But he’s one that really woke me up. I watched Véronique Doisneau and I felt like I was suffocating. It was amazing. And, rewind, when I saw The Show Must Go On, it was life-changing. The way it’s presented. The simplicity of it. It’s not decorative. It’s not sets and costumes, which is what I was so used to.

CLR: It’s fascinating how the ballet/contemporary dance split persists. Even the terms “ballet” and “contemporary dance,” as if it’s not possible that ballet is also contemporary. When you look at present-day ballet choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky or Christopher Wheeldon, are their investigations and concerns at all in conversation with the work you’re seeing outside of ballet? Or do they feel separate?

DH: They feel separate. Alexei is the modern-day version of a ballet choreographer. He’s not trying to be something else or to dilute the history of ballet. He’s adding to that history—which I have such enormous respect for, despite that phase I went through. I‘ve read articles where he has said he has no choice but to be reverential to history. He was taught this technique when he was young, why wouldn’t he use it? It’s been honed for hundreds of years, modified and perfected. But he’s not creating dusty museum works, he’s creating works of this time.

CLR: He’s not succumbing to the childish idea of “throw out everything to make something new.”

DH: Exactly. And to make something Robert Wilsonesque, where you’re just so stylized—although I love Robert Wilson—but he’s the master at that. And there’s a godfather of that in ballet, and that’s Billy Forsythe. I don’t see Alexei thinking, “Oh, I’ve learned something from John Jasperse with Fort Blossom and I’m going to try to put that on the Met stage.” This is what I’ve learned in the past couple of years: There’s a place for things. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion, 2010. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York, January 2011. Jim Fletcher (Adam) and Eleanor Hullihan (Eve).

CLR: Your description of how he’s using this past and adding to or reinventing it through his own sensibility, one could say that’s not so different from what Sarah Michelson was doing in Devotion, sampling Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (1986).

DH: I think that’s what woke me up as well: “Wait a second she’s doing a clear homage to Twyla Tharp and it couldn’t work any better.” I guess what bothers me most in the ballet world is the lack of knowledge around the amazing contemporary work being made today. We aren’t exposed to it, and most people don’t explore on their own. Yet I highly respect the devotion that we have for ballet, because it really does take all of your time; there are so many demands and pressures and technique is so high.

CLR: Also, it goes both ways. So many contemporary choreographers dismiss ballet and you’ll ask, “Well, when’s the last time you went?” Never! I wonder if that’s changing a little bit in the past few years because of people like you, or Reid Bartelme, who move between worlds. I hope so.

DH: I think it takes a really mature artist to realize that your work can be just as influenced by opera as it can by Ann Liv Young. I went through a phase where I was so dismissive of, I don’t know, contemporary ballet choreographers, even; I still am dismissive of some of them. But you can learn something. They’re creating works, they create storylines. Some of them create their own technique. There’s something everywhere.

CLR: One of the fascinating things about seeing you last year in Jack Ferver’s Mon Ma Mes at FIAF’s Skyroom was that you didn’t project in that gigantic way that dancers who are often on big stages do. Somehow you had switched your performance mode. I wondered if that’s something you were conscious of. And also what it’s like to perform for thousands of people and then to move to these little theaters.

DH: I know these huge theaters well. That’s my day job. It’s not that I’m more comfortable—it’s a very nerve-wracking experience—but you know the lights, you know the costume, you know the makeup, the whole nine yards. You know what to do.

With Jack, it was a world where people don’t know me very well. It’s a world I care deeply about as an outsider. When I go to see a ballet, I have to look a certain way and act a certain way. But when I watch Jack’s work or when I watch anyone else, I can see it anonymously. I also watch the audience, and I care what they think because I have a lot of respect for them, if, for example, Miguel Gutierrez or John Jasperse or Tere O’Connor are watching. I don’t think they know who I am but I know who they are; it would be an honor to meet them. So when I went up in Jack’s show, I was really nervous. I guess I’m hyperaware of my surroundings and almost blending in chameleon-like, making myself inconspicuous. Not coming onstage with my little ballet duck-walk, because then I’m just going to fit the stereotype.

CLR: When you’re in these big ballet productions, especially ones you’re very familiar with, are you playing with how to improve technically? What’s the way in which you move through these works? What’s your art within the art of the piece?

DH: That essentially is my biggest question as an artist within the ballet world—and about the ballet world, period. It goes back to when we were kids being trained. It’s black and white. It’s right and wrong—more wrong than it is right. As a young boy training really hard, you acquire this huge callous over everything: your aspirations, your intuition, your independence, your technique, because you’re constantly criticized. You’re constantly being told what to do, how to do it, and to work harder. You’re never working hard enough. I have an unbelievable respect for that: If you look at the major institutions in the world, they have trained unbelievable dancers. But when you go into life as a professional, 99 percent of the time you do the status quo. You do what you’re told. You fit the mold. You fit the gears of the machine. Since the beginning, but more so in the past couple of years, I’ve been critical of myself, critical of my art, critical of the validity of what I’m performing, and really questioning what I’m doing.

But to bring it back to your question, when I’m working with a choreographer like Ratmansky and we’re in the studio creating together, he’s still essentially giving me every step. He’s not saying, “Take this phrase and see what happens,” or, “How do you feel about this?” There’s room for dialogue, of course. It’s not his ego speaking; it’s his choreographic voice. You can make certain decisions, but only to a certain level, because it’s not your voice. It’s his voice and it’s your interpretation of his voice—which can also involve a huge amount of decision-making and artistry.

But when you take something like Swan Lake, you’re a cardboard cutout of a prince, one who falls in love with birds. It’s a fairytale. I’m not saying people aren’t moved by it; of course they are. That is why it’s lasted. But I’ve questioned what my voice is in something like that. I’m made for this, I’m built for this, I’ve trained for this. I’m the prince; but do I just put on my white tights until my body starts to expire and then call it a day? It’s so hard to break. Even just a small gesture [he unfurls one arm]. What is this gesture? It’s what you’ve been told to do. You know, to keep it low, don’t flail it up or whatever, but where is that actually coming from?

There are so few artists in the ballet world who embody an individuality of their roles, of the classics. [Natalia] Osipova is one, [Diana] Vishneva is one. Osipova is someone who innately has to do it the way she does it, or else she can’t do it. She can’t be told what to do; this is her, bursting out. So few ballet dancers are successful in that. And I feel like I am unsuccessful in that regard, that I have never truly found my individual voice.

Left: Jack Ferver, Mon Ma Mes, 2012. Performance view, the French Institute Alliance Française in Le Skyroom, New York, October 6, 2012. David Hallberg and Jack Ferver. Photo: Julieta Cervantes. Right: Ryan McNamara, Make Ryan a Dancer, 2010. Performance view, MoMA PS1, New York, May 20, 2010. David Hallberg and Ryan McNamara.

CLR: Do you see your art as being a dancer, similar to Baryshnikov? Or are you thinking of choreographing?

DH: Someone said recently that this is my “research phase.” I don’t know exactly what will come out of that. It feeds me and I’m interested in it, but I don’t think my future includes creating movement. I do have a huge interest in curation: masterminding or connecting or collaborating. I’m interested to collaborate with artists. I’m desperate to share what expertise I have with what expertise someone else has, and by a collaboration I don’t mean someone that shares my world, I mean like Ryan Trecartin or Wooster Group or Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. Something where they’ve never done something like this before and I’ve never done something like that before, like what the hell are we going to do, let’s just play around until something comes of it. Because I think there’s just too much out there to stay in this sort of idiom, which I love and respect and have worked on for years. I’m inspired by visual artists, people like Dash Snow, Ryan McNamara, and Jenny Saville. I worked with Ryan in “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1, and I find him terribly interesting in the sense that he just thinks about creating something and he creates it. I love that, and I’d love to explore something substantial with him. On the other hand, I do believe in the dance world. I really want to see it moving forward and I feel like I could be someone to push things along, give it validity and continue to uphold the beautiful, important traditions of ballet.

CLR: This may be a good segue to your decision to dance with the Bolshoi, the openness required to move to Moscow. What is it like to wake up in Russia?

DH: It’s very, very different from my life in New York. It’s all work and no play. I don’t really have friends. Everyone in the theater is very nice to me, very welcoming and accommodating. But it’s so intense, because everyone’s watching. Here at ABT I’m the homegrown boy, but there I’m the outsider so they’re curious or they want to watch me or whatever. I do feel that pressure, whether from the administration, the dancers, the audience. This was a big deal for both parties and I want to do it justice.

That said, I love that in Moscow, my bun is on tight, like with-bobby-pins tight. New York life—and anyone who lives here can attest—it can suck you dry. I rarely have time to read, and I love to read and just be able to sit down and process a book. Here you always feel like you’re missing something. When I go to Moscow it’s the complete opposite. I have a certain amount of rehearsals a day and I have class. I absorb all of it. Then I go home and I rest and I take care of my instrument.

CLR: What has it been like seeing these dramatic events unfold, with the acid attack on Sergei Filin [the current artistic director at the Bolshoi]?

DH: I feel every natural thing that one would feel, especially since it happened to the man who brought me there. Everyone else supported him in the decision to bring me but he was the one that said, “I want this to happen.” He’s a visionary, and I’m his biggest supporter.

And I’m a huge supporter of Bolshoi. It’s not this big scary beast where you’d better watch your back. I mean, jealousy and competition are a part of every big ballet company in the world. It’s just that there’s this myth and intrigue involved with Bolshoi. Two Russian dancers in New York told me before I went there to guest for the first time, about three years ago: “Just go, just do your thing. Just ignore everyone, don’t listen to anyone. They’re going to be really rude and nasty to you.” Then I went and it was fine. It’s a different culture, yes, but no one was trying to sabotage me.

When I went over as a company member, the dancers were cautious, some were probably critical but very open to the idea. And there are some people in Bolshoi theater that I absolutely adore. Svetlana Zakharova was absolutely formative in making me feel comfortable. I was blown away because here she is, the Grand Dame of Russian ballet right now, and she could have treated me horribly. I feel bad that it’s getting this tabloid-style report. It’s a tragic story, and Bolshoi’s not like that 99 percent of the time.

CLR: Do you know when you’ll go back?

DH: In June, I was supposed to be there now, February to April, but I had an injury. I’m not quite ready yet.

CLR: You had a sprained ankle and a broken …

DH: The sprain had completely healed, but then I fractured my foot. I’ve had some setbacks as well. It shouldn’t have taken this long to heal. But it has.

Ann Liv Young, Sherry’s Christmas Show, 2011. Performance view, Louis B. James Gallery, New York, December 2011. Ann Liv Young in foreground; David Hallberg watching in background. Photo: Nikki Columbus.

CLR: Between ABT and the Bolshoi—from the outside one could say “David Hallberg’s got the world on a platter.” But you have to consider when you’re thinking about who you might do a project with, or how to move forward: What would be the ramifications, for example, if you decided to collaborate with Ann Liv Young?

DH: I’ve always professed that I want to take risks but I don’t know how risky I’ve actually been. I’ve always wanted to do things that pushed me and didn’t meet expectations on the other side, but when a flood comes your way in terms of classical ballet, it’s hard to say no. There’s some crazy stuff I would love to do, that I don’t think is the smartest thing career-wise. But I also know that I can’t be in ballets I don’t believe in, or I’m not going to seek out choreographers that I don’t believe in. I’ve done enough of that; I’ve learned the hard way.

Maintaining an image is difficult. Sylvie Guillem—everyone uses her as an example, but there’s a reason. In terms of image control and work, she’s done a damn good job. She is never a product of the institution. She’s her own product, which is hard to do when you’re as talented as she is. There are people I’d love to work with, but a lot of the time the people I’d want to work with aren’t that interested. Because I’m not picking up the phone and calling x and x ballet choreographer, I’m calling up people who don’t know who the hell I am.

CLR: What is it like to be inside these classic works? Trisha Brown once likened directing an opera to driving a Maserati. There must be such a visceral exhilaration, sometimes, to be in the middle of these behemoths.

DH: I was rehearsing Don Quixote today, and I was having the best time. There’s such great material in there. Of course it’s about the choices you make. It can be unbelievably tacky, or unbelievably boring. But let’s take The Nutcracker; I could dance that pas de deux until I retire. It makes me well up with tears, to hear that harp playing at the beginning, and to come onstage with this gorgeous costume, with this ballerina; you make this huge circle, you walk around and meet in center stage. And that music, it’s beautiful the way it builds from such a simple beginning. You don’t have to do anything but present your hand to the ballerina, bow, and hit a position.

Frederick Ashton, The Dream, 1964. Performance view, American Ballet Theatre, New York, 2010. Herman Cornejo, Gillian Murphy, and David Hallberg. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

CLR: I remember watching Jock Soto’s Beginning Partnering class at the School of American Ballet. The boys could barely hold themselves up. He’s swigging out of his giant Pepsi container and cracking stories and they’re all just waiting, terrified. It was funny, and so human: They’re learning how to take care of each other, something we often don’t do well as a society. I’m not arguing for a return to a courtlier era, but this idea of what it is to be in partnership with somebody, whether that is somebody you’re sharing your life with or somebody you have a transaction with at a store, these really basic human interactions. That is also all in ballet. And that part is beautiful.

DH: That’s what’s instilled in you from the beginning. As much as I criticize and question my individual voice, there are beautiful traditions that I’ve experienced throughout my career. At Paris Opera School, if you’re sitting on a couch getting ready for class and a teacher, any teacher, or the director comes in, you immediately stand up and bow and wait for them to leave the room. You can see it as rigid and archaic but it also just layers the beautiful tradition of this art form.

At Bolshoi, the principal dancers stand at the center barre—no one else takes that spot unless it’s free—and we always stand in the front of the classroom during our daily work. At times, I’ve tried to be this American and stand at the back, and they look at me like they won’t start the exercise for this class of eighty dancers until I move. One day I was refusing. I said, “I just want to be at the back doing my own thing. It’s ok.” And the teacher of the day, who was also my coach, said after class, “Why don’t you stand in the front? That’s your place, that’s where you need to be.” In other words, you’re setting the example, that’s what you have earned, and it’s a tradition of the art form. It’s like when you’re on a gig with a ballerina, and you meet at the airport together, inevitably you carry her bags, and her tutu. Inevitably. You don’t let her schlep her tutu around; you carry her stuff and you carry your stuff.

CLR: What do you see as your next steps?

DH: I want to examine what sort of work a ballet dancer should be doing or what can push the dancer. It doesn’t always have to be this traditional, twenty-minute, male-female pas de deux—the curtain goes up, blue lighting in the background, stuff like that. But I’m open to any ideas. It’s becoming more of a necessity for me to explore what I haven’t explored, what I don’t even know about. At this point in time that’s my answer to staying present and staying valid, and keeping the current flowing.

Jennifer Homans [author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (2011)] has taken a lot of criticism for the ending of her book [in which she talks about ballet being dead]. It isn’t dead, it’s just not what it used to be. It’s maybe not that golden age where Nureyev was on the cover of Time. But Time magazine won’t be in print much longer. It’s a different era, one that leaves us no choice but to move along with it. We have to do this, but we have to be a part of culture. My responsibility is not to be this prince or ambassador between Russia and the US. It’s to be a voice, a present-day working artist, trying to make his art as valid as possible. And pushing the art along with me, failing at times and, I hope, succeeding at others.