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© Photo Damir Yusupov / Bolshoi Theatre

The Bolshoi’s Yankee prince

by Joy Neumeyer at 09/02/2012 20:05

Onstage, critics adore David Hallberg for his lighter-than-air leaps, crisp technique and princely demeanor. Walking into the Vogue Cafe, the Bolshoi’s American star is no less regal. Preternaturally tall and erect, Hallberg, 29, has a pale complexion, bright blue eyes and the turned-out walk that betrays a professional dancer. He’s friendly, but he measures his words slowly, aware of his responsibility as the theater’s first foreign principal.

“The pressure was like something I’ve never experienced,” he said of his November debut in an interview with The Moscow News. Last fall, the announcement that Hallberg was joining the Bolshoi – and in effect, reversing the decades-long tide of Russian dancers defecting to the United States – made international headlines. Since premiering in “Giselle,” he has earned critical accolades, dancing before President Dmitry Medvedev in “Sleeping Beauty” at the reopening of the Bolshoi’s main stage and performing the role of Prince Siegfried in “Swan Lake.”

Born in South Dakota, Hallberg got his first role at age 11, when he was cast as the Nutcracker Prince at a company in Arizona. “It was my first real view into the ballet world,” he said. “I was only in act one and I would beg my mom to pick me up later so I could watch.”

After studying at the Paris Opera Ballet School, in 2000 Hallberg joined American Ballet Theater in New York, where he became a principal since 2005.

Hallberg first came to the Bolshoi 10 years ago to dance in a gala. He was back for a performance last year when Bolshoi artistic director Sergei Filin proposed he join the company as a premier – an offer that Hallberg says he accepted to “challenge myself.”

Now he splits his time between American Ballet Theater and the Bolshoi, which can make switching between the companies’ styles difficult. “The Bolshoi stage is quite big, and the theater is quite big, so therefore your movements are big, your expressions are big. And I was trained in a very kind of refined, subtle manner,” he said.

The lighter rehearsal schedule in Moscow is also “a drastic change” from the five to seven hour days Hallberg is used to in New York. At the Bolshoi, principals only perform in one ballet at a time, which they rehearse for no more than two hours a day.

“They’re very conscious of resting,” he said.

When Hallberg first arrived, he requested additional rehearsal time to practice “Sleeping Beauty.” “They kind of freaked out, like, ‘Are you sure? You know, you can’t work too hard, maybe that’s too much for you.’”

Hallberg says he’s pleased with the theater post-renovation, though he’s a bit nostalgic for its old allure. “The dressing room and everything just smelled so bad, and it was so old, but it had this unbelievable character,” he said. “And now everything’s kind of gleaming and new and shiny.”

There was one distinct feature he wasn’t sad to see go. “There were dozens of cats in the basement, under the stage. You could hear them in your dressing room.

David Hallberg

© Photo / The Moscow News / Joy Neumeyer

David Hallberg

“It smelled like cat piss too,” he added.

But the new building wasn’t the only change he encountered in his first month. Shortly after Hallberg’s arrival, Bolshoi stars Ivan Vasiliev and Natalya Osipova – whom Hallberg had named as a prime motivation for joining the troupe – announced they were moving to St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theater. Fueling speculation that Hallberg would follow in their footsteps, Mikhailovsky general director Vladimir Kekhman boasted that he would lure him to St. Petersburg too.

Hallberg said the incident affected morale at the theater. “No one wants to lose some of their biggest stars,” he said. But he was less struck by Osipova’s departure than many assumed. “When it came down to it, there weren’t so many chances to perform together.”

He called Kekhman’s interest “flattering,” but said he has no intentions of acting on it. “This is a big moment for me, and I don’t want to screw it up, you know?”

Now that the initial wave of attention has calmed down, Hallberg finally has time to settle in.

His favorite hangouts include cafes Dodo and Solyanka. He’s studying Russian, though “not as much as I should,” and has developed a fondness for kasha and gypsy cabs.

His next appearance is in “Giselle” on Feb. 10 and 11, now with Svetlana Zakharova rather than Osipova. “[Svetlana] and I get along very well and she’s one of the greatest ballerinas of this era, so it’s surreal to dance with her... I’m really looking forward to it,” he said.

In April, Hallberg is to premiere in the Bolshoi’s production of “The Nutcracker.” “For me it’s Tchaikovsky’s greatest score,” he said. “Every time I hear it, year after year, it really makes me emotional.”

Next year, the program will be less “classical heavy,” bringing in famous modern choreographers like Wayne McGregor to stage new work. “That was really one of the main reasons for coming here,” he said. “They said, ‘We don’t just want you to be a prince, we want you to do new work as well.’”

He thinks audiences will be receptive.

“[Russians] have a very educated view on classical ballet and they certainly know what they’re watching,” he said “But you know, the theater is a beating heart, so you have to keep it alive, keep it going.

“It can’t become a boring institution.”

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