For David Hallberg, a swan song in pictures
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For David Hallberg, a swan song in pictures
David Hallberg, an American ballet dancer, rehearses in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, March 15, 2019. Hallberg, soon to lead the Australian Ballet, was photographed in Moscow before the pandemic halted his final days as a dancer. James Hill/The New York Times.

by Roslyn Sulcas and James Hill

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- David Hallberg is not on a plane. He is not dashing between Moscow and Milan, London and Sydney, readjusting to time zones, settling into rented apartments, reconnecting with favorite partners and old friends. Hallberg, 38, who made ballet history in 2011 by becoming the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal, is not rehearsing and performing in “Eugene Onegin,” “Giselle,” “The Winter’s Tale” or “Nureyev”— some of the ballets he was supposed to dance this year, with the Bolshoi Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet and La Scala Ballet.

It was to have been a final tour, Hallberg’s swan song as a dancer, before he takes up the position of director of the Australian Ballet in January. But everything changed with the coronavirus pandemic. After a leisurely road trip in the United States, Hallberg is in Phoenix, visiting his parents and balancing the losses of the past year against the excitement of his new role in Australia.

“Like all other performers, I watched that part of my life come to a complete halt,” he said in a phone interview. He hopes to have a farewell performance with Ballet Theater, where he is a principal dancer, next spring, but is unlikely to dance elsewhere. “It’s very clear to me that my time will be absolutely devoted to the position I’ve been given,” he said.

Hallberg knows about the tricks fate can play. As he put it in his memoir, “A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back,” he had been “riding high, life was fast and furious,” when injury struck in 2014 at the peak of his career. For a long time, he didn’t know if he would dance again.

So he is perhaps more philosophical than others would be at the changes that the pandemic has forced upon him. “It’s not the end of my existence as a person, nor the end of a sense of direction,” he said. “This isn’t how I planned it, but I know that everything is fluid, everything changes, and so does my purpose in this art form.”

Last year, from February to October, James Hill, a photographer for The New York Times, spent time with Hallberg at the Bolshoi, capturing some of his daily routine. “I was curious about David’s hunger to experience dance in Russia,” Hill said. “Why had he come into the lion’s mouth? I think that to him, Russia was Everest, but it was a challenge for himself, to dance in Russia on its most famous stage.”

Looking at the photographs months later, Hallberg reflected on roles he hasn’t been able to dance again, and on memories and experiences that the images called up. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Preshow rituals
When you are performing at the Bolshoi, on either of the stages, you always have a dressing room very close to the stage; here I can look straight out at it through the open door.

This was taken just before my debut in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Winter’s Tale.” I was stretching out my tights here, because I wanted to put my costume on early and get onstage.

There is a moment in “Winter’s Tale,” when my character, Leontes, has to climb up on this statue and sort of manipulate himself around it. This was about 45 minutes before the show and I was trying it out. Dancers get so nervous with this stuff. We can manage our bodies. But get us to climb up something or manipulate props, and we are terrified.

The man in the mirror
When I first went to the Bolshoi as a guest artist, I made the mistake of doing my own hair and makeup. I was told quite quickly by the makeup artist that I had done a bad job, and I learned not to knock tradition. The Bolshoi hair and makeup people take great pride in their work. Here I am being readied for “Winter’s Tale.” My face in the mirror looks concentrated, but I’m not thinking about whether my hair is perfect! It’s about 45 minutes to an hour before the show, and my stress is quite high.

My nerves and doubts got worse and worse over these last two years, and it was sometimes unbearable. Coming back from the injury, I was never the same as a dancer, and I don’t mind saying that. Perhaps I was a smarter dancer in some ways, but no longer fearless, nor did I crave the pressure of these big moments. I look at this photo, and I say to myself: These were beautiful moments, but now I’m looking forward to other things.

In the studio with Olga Smirnova
When I look at these photos, I want to be in the studio again, rehearsing with Olga. Onegin was my first role at the Bolshoi after the long break of the injury, and she really walked me back. In New York, the idea of Onegin was big, dark and strong and I wasn’t initially considered for the role. In Russia, their idea of the character is more aligned with my temperament and style, and I felt more confident about it.

This rehearsal was in Studio 6, which has so many memories for me. It’s where I prepared all my major roles at the Bolshoi, and where daily class happened. You can see a photograph of Yuri Grigorovich, who was the director of the Bolshoi Ballet for over 30 years. He is still around, both literally and figuratively. People have stories about how demanding he is, but I had such positive experiences with him. He was very welcoming, and I’m grateful.

Those old European theaters
What’s great here is that you can see the orchestra and the audience. I love those old European and Russian theaters where the audience is in a horseshoe around you and you feel their presence. I find it equally comforting and distracting. It’s odd when you are emoting to an audience of 2,000, but can see people a few feet away quite clearly.

In Russia it’s also commonplace for dancers and staff to be crammed into every wing during the performance, and that can be very distracting.

‘You can give me more’
This was the first time I was back on the historical stage at the Bolshoi last year, rehearsing “Giselle” with my coach, Alexander Vetrov.

In that rehearsal, he kept saying, “You can give me more.” After my injury, I think I tended to dance with much less abandon and fearlessness, and Sasha was the one who pushed me beyond those limits.

What is so special about this photograph is the intimacy it shows between you and your coach. There you are in this amazing theater, where “Swan Lake” had its premiere, on this colossal stage, but it’s just one dancer, a pianist in the orchestra pit, and the coach. Look how committed Sasha is: His hands are over his face, like mine, because he is enacting the scene with me.

Flowers and bows
This was a final hug with Anna Nikulina, after “Winter’s Tale.” When the curtain goes down after a premiere, you feel you have jumped off a cliff, and you have to see how that worked out! But I was mostly pleased with this performance.

There is no flower culture elsewhere like the Bolshoi theater. Every bouquet that you are sent gets brought on to the stage, and it’s not gender specific, like at Ballet Theater or the Royal Ballet. I love flowers, and it’s such a generous, beautiful tradition.

I have great memories of taking bows with the Bolshoi dancers. Audiences were a surprise for me in Russia; they really control how long you bow for, rather than a stage manager making that call. And the custom is that as long as people are clapping and appreciating you, you bow. You can go out 20 times, and by the end there are 10 people still screaming, and you think: Wow.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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