David Hallberg has deep-set blue eyes, high-swept cheekbones and hair so blond it glints white in the light. Sitting on-screen in New York, he has none of the facial features most of us are accustomed to seeing during video calls, at least on ourselves. No double chins, no bags under the eyes, no basset-hound jowls. I am bound to report that David Hallberg looks perfect.
This has helped him in classical ballet, an art form whose very existence is predicated on the idea of perfection: perfect form, perfect line, perfect motion. Hallberg, who is 38, not only looks the part – tall, broad-shouldered, with the long neck and pointed chin of a Romantic poet – but he dances, as The Australian Ballet’s artistic director David McAllister puts it, “like a god. I mean, he was invited to join the Bolshoi. People think of Russian ballet dancers as the absolute epitome of ballet – well, he was head-hunted by them! That’s how good he is.”
In the course of his career, Hallberg has been simultaneously a principal dancer (the top tier of professional ballet’s hierarchy) at establishment powerhouse American Ballet Theatre; the first American principal at Moscow’s titanically famous Bolshoi ballet; and the frequent guest-star darling of La Scala in Milan, the Royal Ballet in London and the Paris Opera Ballet, among many others. And though most ballet dancers are unrecognisable to the man on the street, Hallberg has transcended his own art form: he has starred in advertising campaigns for companies like Tiffany and Nike. “He’s the Nureyev of our time,” says McAllister. “He’s as famous as it gets.”
This kind of fame demands a particular kind of life, which is what David Hallberg has lived for almost 20 years. In a single nine-week period over Christmas of 2013, he flew 70,000 kilometres and rehearsed, danced and starred in four full-length ballets. It wasn’t a comfortable way to live: he was driven to dance by a kind of hunger which, as he puts it, “I could not control”; he was often stricken with nerves and self-doubt, but also addicted to the adrenalin rush and extraordinary, immersive pleasure of performance. Perhaps, like many artists, he really had no choice. From the time he was child, dancing was not only David Hallberg’s obsessive preoccupation, but the greatest joy in his life.
Then came a pain in his left foot. It was nothing at first, “like an itch that came when I pushed off of it into a jump.” But if his story were itself a ballet, this would be the plot twist moment: the instant when the music drops and the stage darkens, and Disaster, in a black mask, first slinks onto the stage.
Over the next two years, Hallberg tried everything, saw everyone, to fix this foot. Ultimately, he cancelled performances on three continents and had surgery in New York. It failed. Almost a full year later he had a second operation, and months in rehab, to no avail. By the end of 2015, at only 33, he was facing the end of his career, cut off at the peak of his powers. “I was broken in every sense of the word,” he says now. “Physically broken; emotionally broken.”
At this moment Hallberg did an unexpected thing. He bought a one-way plane ticket. Then, in a Samson-like gesture of loss and renunciation, he cut off his long blond hair. (The New York barber, aghast, refused to give him a number two when he first sat down, insisting he start with a number four. “More,” said Hallberg.) In a photo taken afterwards, he sits on the stoop of a brownstone: shaved like a skinhead, coffee cup in one hand, cigarette in the other. The next day, he got on a plane. And he flew to Australia.
In late February this year, five years after that desperate flight, David Hallberg caught another plane to Australia – one of the last aircraft out of London before COVID-19 lockdowns. But this trip was triumphant. He arrived not as a despairing invalid, but as the incoming artistic director of The Australian Ballet. After 20 years, the company’s much-loved head, David McAllister, has decided to move on, to be replaced by Hallberg, who begins his official role this month but is already well immersed in the company: the 2021 season, launched this week, has been conceived and commissioned by him.
The things Hallberg can offer The Australian Ballet are clear: networks among the most important dance institutions in the world; unique artistic experience; the sheer heft of his fame. What’s not so clear is what David Hallberg is getting out of the deal.
The Australian Ballet is a fine institution, one of the country’s most beloved, financially solvent and stable cultural organisations. Artistically, too, it’s often listed among the world’s top handful of ballet companies. But not even the most crazed local balletomane – and we have our share – would put The Australian Ballet’s international reputation on a par with that of the Bolshoi, the Paris Opera Ballet or the Royal Ballet.
Yet these places are Hallberg’s natural habitat. For years, he’s been a great star at the world’s most exacting, most historic, most competitive companies. He is, moreover, an American by birth: originally from South Dakota, recipient of a “classic middle-America” childhood, and part of a close and loving family. So what has brought him here, so far away from all these things? Hallberg himself has many answers to this question. He is an honest person, so all of them are no doubt true. But there is one that stands out; not necessarily more powerful, but more straightforward than the rest. Gratitude.
As a child, David Hallberg was blue-eyed, tanned, with golden hair like a fairy tale prince. He loved to dance; his best friends were girls; he was one of those undefended children who are simply themselves. From year 3 to the middle of high school, he was horribly bullied.
This bullying had deep impacts, but amid the intense suffering, Hallberg also developed a surprising resilience. He never questioned his right to be who he was; he fell happily in love with his first boyfriend at 13; he remained close to his family: his parents and older brother Brian. And he never wavered in his love for dance.
There was zero ballet in his background. His mother was a nurse who rose through the corporate ranks to become a hospital chief executive, his father a restaurateur, real-estate agent and owner of a used appliance store. But when he was 11, Hallberg, who did a casual ballet class once a week, got a small role in a local production of The Nutcracker. Watching from the wings inside his costume’s enormous foam head, he was gripped by an almost religious fervour.
“There was this reverence for the performance,” he recalls now. “It felt almost sacred. I remember seeing the devotion and the focus of the performers, warming up on stage in costume, in make-up. There was something about the quality of the silence. It’s like you can’t breathe, because if you breathe you might disrupt the snow leopard. It felt … precious.”
By his teens, Hallberg was doing ballet six days a week, several hours a day. His family had moved to Phoenix when he was 10, and his teacher at the School of Ballet Arizona was Kee Juan Han, a Singaporean who trained, as it happens, at The Australian Ballet School. Han was a brutal taskmaster; once, when Hallberg’s parents came to watch a class, Han asked them how they were coping. “We’re about to call Child Protective Services,” joked Hallberg’s mother. But Hallberg revelled in the discipline. “I got off on it,” he says now. “I never said no to anything. It’s not a modern way of educating, certainly not in the West, but I responded to it.” He grins. “It certainly wasn’t for everyone.”
These early years with Han – and later at the Paris Opera Ballet school, the oldest and perhaps most formidable classical ballet school in the world, where he spent a year on scholarship at 17 – formed him into the dancer he would become. Hallberg is famously focused, famously hardworking and famously suspicious of ego. Han barely praised Hallberg; he would watch a perfectly executed step from two metres away and tear it apart. Then, in Paris, in an awful repeat of his childhood, the French students either laughed at him or ostracised him. “I had no friends,” he says now. “I spent every night, every weekend alone.”
Looking at Hallberg now – so calm and kind, so effortlessly cool – it’s almost impossible to imagine him being singled out like this. But what is true is that he has always been exceptional, and exceptional people can find acceptance hard. As a child and teen, one suspects, he was different – more ardent, more vulnerable, more original – than most of his peers. And as an adult he was surely more focused and more successful than virtually anyone else he met.
Hallberg himself seems to have one dominant memory of the torment in Paris – though he had nightmares about it for years – and that is, simply, the loneliness. “I think the older I got the more lonely I became,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been lonely most of my life.” He smiles. “It’s one of the sacrifices I made for this career: solid friendships, although I make friends easily and I have friends all over the world; and solid relationships in love. I have fallen in love, but for one reason or another – my lack of a settled home, my commitment to this calling – it hasn’t worked out.”
This pattern continues: until a few months ago, Hallberg was planning to move to Australia with his American-based partner, but the pair have recently broken up. “The distance, the job thing, it was just too much,” he says. “It’s just one of those sad things. I can totally understand it. In the end, it’s been another moment of my passion, my calling, overriding my personal life.”
It’s a familiar sacrifice, he acknowledges. And though this pattern has brought him grief, it has also come, perhaps, with unexpected blessings. Perhaps his loneliness, and its attendant edge of self-doubt, helped make him a truly great dancer: nuanced, emotional, intensely convincing. This is particularly important because the “noble” roles he is most famous for are not, prima facie, ballet’s most realistic. “He makes you believe in his character,” says Valerie Lawson, one of Australia’s foremost ballet writers. “Many of the stories of ballet are fairy tales, and Hallberg is always playing the fairy tale prince, a sort of exaggerated hero. But he makes you believe him. He makes you care.”
Of course, questioning himself made life occasionally excruciating – nerves before a performance, self-criticism afterwards – but his sense of himself as fallible, of his art form as preternaturally difficult, of the whole escapade as “like traversing a darkened room trying to avoid a tripwire”, helped Hallberg redefine the essential alchemy of ballet: doing with apparent effortlessness that which is supremely difficult to do at all. “Don’t f… it up,” he used to tell himself before every performance. “Don’t f… up.”
In the four weeks leading up to his injury in late 2013, Hallberg danced in Moscow, Singapore, Paris, Sydney (where he performed Cinderella with The Australian Ballet), back to Moscow, and then Paris again. It was there that Hallberg first noticed the discomfort in his foot. By the time he’d returned to the US in the spring of 2014, it had developed into an insistent, exhausting pain. He kept dancing. He knew he was in trouble – holding back on jumps, altering choreography to protect his left side – and he felt “a fake, a fraud”. He was also terrified. When a cortisone injection failed, he recalls “a sense of dread”. The only option left was surgery.
Looking back on it now, Hallberg thinks this is where everything went definitively wrong. “Listen, if you need a great surgeon to cut you up – which is debatable treatment anyway – come to New York. Some of the best in the world are here. But I’m not afraid to admit that I did not have the best. It was a mess.” He was told he had a bone fragment embedded in his deltoid ligament. The surgeon reported he had not only “fixed” that, but had also shaved off some bone spurs at the top of his talus “as a precaution”.
After surgery, his foot was swollen, red and stiff. As the months passed, it didn’t improve. His deltoid ligament problems continued, and he developed achilles tendon pain. He was prescribed a serious nerve drug, Neurontin, and his friends were warned to take action if he became “reserved or emotional”. But he didn’t need pharmaceutical aid to feel like a wreck. He couldn’t even perform a plié, the simple knee bend that is the foundation of every turn and jump in ballet.
Eleven months after his first surgery, a new MRI showed that the surgeon’s precautionary bone shaving had left “a glob of scar tissue” stretching across his entire ankle joint, which stopped it bending. He now needed a second operation to remove the effects of the first.
After this second surgery, he pulled out all the stops in his rehab. Physical therapists, massage therapists, acupuncturists, gyrotonic teachers, personal weight trainers and physios, injections, high-voltage shockwave therapy. The months passed. His foot was still a disaster; the simplest ballet class was beyond him. “I had this sense of utter disbelief,” he admits. He’d always known dancing was a finite career, but he had never thought a debacle like this would finish him. “I’d heard of career-ending injuries,” he wrote later in his 2017 autobiography, A Body of Work. “But, like everyone, I never thought it would happen to me.”
David Hallberg first visited Australia in 2010, to dance in The Nutcracker, and seems to have loved it even on that first trip. The dancers and staff of The Australian Ballet welcomed him with what he calls, touchingly, “the true Aussie spirit … kind, open, generous”. As Amber Scott, one of The Australian Ballet’s best-loved principals, recalls: “you’d see photos of this incredible, Scandinavian-looking person, with legs and feet most women would kill for: he was like this extraterrestrial ballet power. And yet, when you get to know him, he’s quite a dag. And he just seemed to get on with all of us.”
“He was like this extraterrestrial ballet power. And yet, when you get to know him, he’s quite a dag. And he just seemed to get on with all of us.”
Hallberg returned several times between 2010 and 2015, and his feeling for Australia, and Australians, never changed. “It was the Aussie charm,” he grins. “Forgive me if it sounds like I’m romanticising it, but I just … the warmth and the openness of the company, the country. I just warmed to it.” A pop-psychology response to this might be that Australia and Australians provided a respite from loneliness and the isolation of extraordinary fame. And perhaps this was part of what was in his mind when, in November 2015, he turned to Melbourne for what he calls “a last-ditch effort” to save his career.
Sue Mayes has been the principal physiotherapist of The Australian Ballet since 1997, at which point the company’s artistic health department numbered two: Mayes and one massage therapist. Since then, she has built a team renowned around the world for its success in rehabilitating injured dancers. “There’s nowhere that has a dedicated team like The Australian Ballet,” says Hallberg. “There are great individuals, but there’s no other team anywhere in the world.”
Its fame is based on Australia’s existing expertise in sports medicine (a field pioneered in this country); in the company’s early – and at the time unique – use of high-resistance training; and the way the medical, fitness, ballet and even admin staff work as a co-ordinated team. “I think it’s quite an Aussie thing, to be good communicators,” says Mayes. “Overseas, perhaps, it’s much more of a hierarchy.”
“Someone said, ‘Have you heard David Hallberg has had ankle surgery?’ … Everyone was like, ‘Is this the end of David Hallberg?’ ”
Mayes first heard about Hallberg’s injury while she was on tour in Japan, working with Sylvie Guillem (a dancer even more famous, if that’s possible, than Hallberg). “Someone said, ‘Have you heard David Hallberg has had ankle surgery?’ ” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘Oh no.’ Our approach is to try absolutely everything before surgery. In more than 10 years, we’ve only operated on five ankles. Everyone was like, ‘Is this the end of David Hallberg?’ ”
Hallberg, meanwhile, had discussed the Australian approach with friend Brooke Lockett, an Australian dancer who had surgery around the same time as his own. “He was saying, ‘I think this is the end; I think I have to call it,” she remembers. “But he was also intrigued by my treatment. He couldn’t believe how The Australian Ballet was handling it: he wanted to know everything. So I talked him through it all, and then I said, ‘Have you got it in you to give it one more shot?’ and he said, ‘I think I do.’ ”
Not long after, Hallberg emailed David McAllister. “He basically said, ‘I’ve come to the end of the road,’ ” recalls McAllister. “ ‘I don’t know what else to do. But if you say yes, I’m just going to buy a one-way ticket and come.’ And I said ‘Come!’ ” He laughs. “Then I immediately rang Sue and said, ‘Bloody hell, do you reckon there’s anything we can do?’ And Sue just said, ‘Get him on that plane.’ ”
“God,” says Hallberg, shaking his head. “I look back on it, and I put so much pressure on David and Sue and all of them, saying, ‘Fix me or my career is over!’ But David was willing to open the door and let me in. And Sue loves a challenge.”
Sue Mayes agrees, laughing. “I was quite confident when he turned up. And then when I saw his ankle I was like, ‘What have we got ourselves into?!’ It was far worse than I’d imagined. He could hardly function as a normal person, let alone a dancer. He had very little movement, it was extremely swollen: it was awful looking! I was like, ‘Okaaay.’ ”
Mayes and two colleagues, body conditioning therapist Paula Baird-Colt and ballet rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly, devised a plan. At first, there was no ballet at all, just exercises to rebuild muscle and movement. When he wasn’t with Baird-Colt doing exercises nicknamed things like “Nobby’s Landing” and “J-Lo”, Hallberg settled into Melbourne.
He stayed in Australian Ballet principal Ty King-Wall’s apartment; he found a local coffee shop and pub; he cut himself off from the US completely. “My manager told me later there was a Google search called ‘Where is David Hallberg?’ ” he recalls, grinning.
Sometimes he felt “cocooned, content”. But often he was filled with complete loss and despair. On Fridays, he’d buy a six pack of Carlton Draught (which, he writes fondly, “Aussies consider a cheap, trashy beer, but I’ve seen them enjoying a Bud, which they think is a high-quality import”) and go to a local park, where he’d drink and smoke for hours. “I became that man …” he writes in A Body of Work. “The one [siting on the bench] whom everyone would fear and take pains to avoid.”
One of the hardest moments came when he began to attempt actual ballet steps again. Suddenly, he was being asked by Megan Connelly to change the way he’d been dancing his entire career: to “execute absolutely everything differently” in order to protect and support his body. It was excruciating. “I wanted to rip her to shreds,” he admitted.
“It was really tough!” says Connelly ruefully. “But can you imagine? Sometimes I joke that a dancer’s identity is completely expressed in their turnout [the way a dancer’s legs rotate from the hip]. It’s like they say, ‘This is how I feel my turnout, therefore that is who I am.’ So changing those things really feels like it goes to the heart of who they are.”
“When someone is so naturally gifted, it’s hard to go back to the basics. And David couldn’t just come back okay. He had to come back as a superstar.”
“When someone is so naturally gifted it’s very hard to go back to the basics,” says Brooke Lockett. “Especially when you’re David Hallberg! No one drags you right back to the beginning. Added to which, David couldn’t just come back okay. He had to come back as a superstar.”
“It wasn’t just the physical challenges,” recalls Connelly. “Sue and I could see the psychological barrier as well: the great sadness, the great vulnerability. The panic that it wouldn’t work.”
Both she and Mayes remember one particularly awful day, when Hallberg broke down and sobbed in the physio room, almost hysterical with exhaustion and grief. The two women consoled him with sensible, pragmatic advice; then Connelly followed him home because she was freaking out he might try to kill himself. She sat in her car outside his apartment for two hours. “It was completely useless!” she says now, laughing. “I mean, what was I going to do if he jumped out the window?! But I just had to stay for a while.”
Ironically, Hallberg now recalls this as the moment when things finally began to improve. “In reaching the bottom, I had nowhere to go but up,” he writes in A Body of Work. In December 2016, after more than a year in Australia, Hallberg performed a small, company-only afternoon show, mostly, says Mayes, to let him see what he was capable of.
“The whole company rallied round,” she recalls: “it was amazing” – like watching someone be reborn. “And when he got through it, he just collapsed on the ground in tears.”
A few months later, in May 2017, Hallberg returned to the Met in New York, and danced one of his most famous roles, as Duke Albrecht in Giselle. His parents flew Mayes, Baird-Colt and Connelly over for opening night. “Oh my God. Oh my God,” says Megan Connelly, starting to cry. “Don’t say I cried! It was unbelievable. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for what they gave us, being able to see that.” At the end of that night’s performance, after all the curtain calls, Hallberg stepped out from behind the Met’s vast gold curtain, and stood alone, head bowed, while the audience rose to their feet and roared.
For the last three years, Hallberg has returned to his extraordinary life, and his extraordinary success. But he himself has not been the same. The Australian experience has never left him. “I knew they were uncomfortable with the word ‘indebted’,” he has written. “But I was indebted to them. They gave my life back to me.” He returned to The Australian Ballet as the company’s international resident guest artist – an honour held only by him – in 2017.
And it was in the stairwell of Sydney’s Capitol Theatre that year that David McAllister first floated the idea of “running the show”.
“Hand on my heart, it was not on my radar at all,” recalls Hallberg. “Because I’m American! And I thought ‘Surely an Australian institution as important as this company would go to an Australian.’ ” This was, indeed, one of the main barriers. The other was that he has no directorial experience at all.
“Well, The Australian Ballet’s had eight artistic directors, and none of them had ever directed a company before,” says McAllister. “So he’s following a long lineage!” McAllister himself went straight from principal dancer into the artistic director’s job. Internationally, the same thing sometimes happens. At Hallberg’s old company, American Ballet Theatre, ballet icon Mikhail Baryshnikov went directly from dancing (at New York City Ballet) to the top job at American Ballet Theatre.
The issue of nationality, meanwhile, is one The Australian Ballet board considered carefully. “We are, after all, The Australian Ballet,” says chairman Craig Dunn. “But fundamentally, we’re about giving young Australians the opportunity to be the best dancers they can be. And part of that is attracting the best artists from around the world to work with them: the best choreographers, coachers, teachers. We have to be at a certain standard to attract those people.”
It’s this standard Dunn believes Hallberg will both uphold and improve. “He will command the respect of the company; and he will give our dancers – and through them, the Australian population – exposure to the rest of the world. He’s not an Australian, but he does have a real cultural affinity for Australia. And frankly, what he said to the board about what dance means to him, and what he thinks it means to the Australian community – well, he knocked it out of the park, to use an expression from where he comes from!”
Hallberg, meanwhile, seems genuinely thrilled with his appointment. “He’s like ‘Hiyyyah!’” says David McAllister, making a Miss Piggy chopping motion with his arm. “I know this opportunity is completely absorbing his whole being. He says to me, ‘God, I can’t even think about my dancing career.’ ”
This seems true: in March, just after his Australian Ballet appointment, Hallberg and his favourite partner, the wildly famous Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, made a little video when their Swan Lake with the Royal Ballet was cancelled due to COVID-19. Osipova looks genuinely devastated, almost tearful; beside her, David also looks doleful – except when he’s smiling hugely at the mention of his new job. “It is – was – my last Swan Lake ever,” he says, looking thrilled. “Because I’m going on” – big beaming grin – “to become an artistic director.”
“I’m so excited,” he says now. “I’ve just got back from a massive farewell road trip round the States, and I’ve been able to start to really focus on what’s to come – really wrap my head around it. It’s a huge responsibility.” Of his new role, “what I can tell you is that I take it so seriously. This isn’t just a fly-by-night thing. I have such love and respect for the company – it deserves someone who is committed 100 per cent. David [McAllister] has been totally committed for 20 years, and it deserves my attention in that way.”
Wasn’t it tempting to take a job in the US or Europe, closer to your life and family? “But I’ve never lived close to my family!” he exclaims. “Well, not since I was 17! And I don’t want to work in the US at this point, to be honest. It bores me. I know it’s controversial saying that, but it’s true.”
“There have been other organisations where I’ve been offered directorships,” he admits, “But the thing about The Australian Ballet is that there’s this belief system in everyone, from the dancers to the admin: this desire to better the company and themselves. And I haven’t always found that around the world. At the Bolshoi or the Mariinsky or even Paris Opera, there isn’t always that commitment to continue to elevate your standard.
“There’s no lack of talent here,” he continues. “Other ballet companies, sometimes there is that lack, and you can only do so much, but not here. And so I want them to believe in that talent: to really step up to the plate and say, ‘I am worth this, I am good enough, this is exactly where I should be.’ ”
It can sometimes be hard for Australians, I suggest, to really claim their own talent, even when others can see it. “The tall poppy syndrome!” cries Hallberg. “I know it well! In fact, I was telling William Forsythe [the world-renowned choreographer] about it. He’s such a great motivator of dancers, and he said, ‘You know, if I’m at The Australian Ballet, I want all tall poppies in my studio.’ ” Forsythe’s Artifact Suite, in fact, will be a highlight of Hallberg’s inaugural program next year. “William is one of the greatest geniuses of our era – he’s redefined the classical form – and this is his seminal work.” He pauses, smiling. “And the music is by Bach. It just blows the audience away.”
“I don’t want The Australian Ballet to lose its Australian-ness. What I want to do is just amplify it: the inclusiveness, the openness, the warmth. I just want to push it off the edge a little more.”
Another high point, he hopes, will be an entirely new piece created for the company by New York choreographer Pam Tanowitz. “I actually nurtured her 10 years ago through my choreographic workshop at American Ballet Theatre, and she’s since become the global sensation she deserves.” Here, perhaps, are those personal connections Dunn was hoping for: Tanowitz will have to travel to and probably quarantine in Australia to create her work on Australian dancers, which feels like not only professional dedication, but personal connection.
There’s even a chance that Hallberg himself might perform. “I’m on the fence about it,” he laughs. His directorial appointment effectively marks his retirement as a dancer, but it seems impossible he will stop dancing altogether. “I’m not desperate to hang on to the spotlight!” he says. “That attention needs to go to other artists now.”
The crucial thing, he insists, is to remember that whatever works are performed here, and whoever performs them, the result will be uniquely ours. “I’m not Australian, but I respect – I love – the culture,” he says. “I don’t want The Australian Ballet to lose its Australian-ness. What I want to do is just amplify it: the inclusiveness, the openness, the warmth. I just want to push it off the edge a little more.”
David Hallberg arrived in Melbourne last month. Though he’s currently in temporary accommodation, he’s now in pursuit of another quintessential Australian identity myth: real estate. “I fantasise about a terrace house – a row house!” he says. “I’ve been looking in Middle Park, Prahran, North Melbourne, Albert Park. Albert Park is beautiful.” He could clearly talk about this for hours, but pulls himself back. “I haven’t had any luck yet,” he concludes, smiling. “But I have a lot of hopes and dreams.”
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