American Is to Join the Bolshoi Ballet
By ALASTAIR MACAULAY and DANIEL J. WAKIN
Published: September 20, 2011
Exactly 50 years after Rudolf Nureyev grabbed the world’s attention as the first major Soviet dancer to defect to the West, another symbolic journey is taking place — this time in reverse.
David Hallberg performing in the "Kings of the Dance" program at City Center.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
David Hallberg partnering the Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova in "Giselle."
“Personally, I feel a sense of responsibility as an American,” Mr. Hallberg said on Tuesday, adding that he was proud to join such a historic company. “I will be bringing something different to the company, but I will also be respecting their traditions as well.”
He said he was aware of the unique responsibility entailed in being a first. “There will be people watching,” he said. “I have to do it justice.”
Many Russians have headed westward since Nureyev’s defection at a Paris airport in 1961, most notably Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974. The end of the cold war later erased the phenomenon of defecting dancers. It also made it easier for Westerners to go to Russia, but the Bolshoi and the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad, now the Mariinsky of St. Petersburg, had no need for imports, churning out carefully cultivated stars from their own rigorous schools.
Few foreigners joined, and no stars. “They don’t need ’em,” said Jane Hermann, a longtime dance agent who once represented the Bolshoi. “That’s the main reason. Until recently the Russians have been turning out some of the best dancers in the world.”
But in March a new artistic director, Sergei Filin, took over at the Bolshoi, and he had different ideas. He had seen Mr. Hallberg perform during a “Kings of the Dance” tour in Russia, as well as during a Ballet Theater visit.
“He is a remarkable romantic and classical dancer,” Mr. Filin said in a telephone interview from Moscow on Monday.
Two weeks after becoming artistic director, Mr. Filin invited Mr. Hallberg — then in Moscow on that Ballet Theater visit — to lunch, and offered him a position as either guest artist or principal dancer.
“I was both amazed and alarmed,” Mr. Hallberg said in another recent interview. “But Sergei was very reassuring,” and promised he could continue with Ballet Theater. “He said: ‘I don’t want you to be in a golden cage — I want you to be free. But I do want you to make a commitment to the Bolshoi. I’m very serious about this.’ ”
Indeed, if any American dancer were to make the leap, it was likely to be Mr. Hallberg. He is perhaps the world’s foremost example of the “noble” genre of male dancing, a natural for ballet’s princely roles because of his bearing and style. His purity of line and phrasing surpasses that of most dancers today.
“ ‘Noble’ dancers like this are very rare at any time in history,” said Kevin McKenzie, Ballet Theater’s artistic director. “David certainly is one, but he has never wanted to be pigeonholed that way. He’s willing to make a fool of himself” in rehearsal, to experiment.
Mr. Hallberg also trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School and Ballet Theater’s intensive summer sessions. He joined the company’s corps de ballet in 2001.
Mr. Hallberg, who does not speak Russian, will start at the Bolshoi on Nov. 4 in “Giselle” and then in productions of “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Don Quixote.” He will return to Moscow in January and February.
Mr. Hallberg said he would have to cancel four engagements with Ballet Theater over this season. But he said he would still appear at company performances, including its Brooklyn Academy of Music “Nutcracker;” the Metropolitan Opera May-through-July season; and tours in Chicago and Orange County, Calif.
While the Bolshoi has never before hired an American principal dancer, Mr. Hallberg is one of a line of distinguished Western dancers who have appeared with it and the Mariinsky as a guest.
Part of the appeal of joining the Bolshoi was the chance to dance with Natalia Osipova, the Bolshoi’s phenomenal ballerina. He first partnered her in New York with Ballet Theater in 2009 and later at the Bolshoi in 2010.
He said that experience, along with dancing with the Mariinsky, was revelatory.
“I have never anywhere encountered such seriousness and depth about ballet,” he said. “Everywhere you go in Russia, you feel that dancing is valued as a high art. And inside the companies the work is so intelligently and beautifully approached. My one performance at the Bolshoi was amazingly intimidating. The company’s record is so historic. But I grew a little because of it.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Hallberg said he spent months agonizing over the decision, consulting family members and Ballet Theater colleagues, including the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, himself a former artistic director of the Bolshoi.
Apart from resuming his partnership with Ms. Osipova, he will also partner the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova.
“The Bolshoi style is bigger and more emotional, in a way that I love,” Mr. Hallberg said. “It has the freshness and intensity that is like what I’ve tried to achieve in my dance-acting roles.”
There are other benefits to being in the company. Each lead Bolshoi dancer, as at the Mariinsky, has a former company dancer as a full-time coach. Mr. Hallberg’s will be Alexander Vetrov, who has worked in America and speaks English.
When asked if the Bolshoi would now invite other Western dancers to join its ranks, Mr. Filin said, “They should be really, really good!”