David Hallberg's new job: Decision-maker

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David Hallberg's new job: Decision-maker
From left, Ako Kondo, Brett Chynoweth, Callum Linnane and Sharni Spencer of the Australian Ballet, costumed for George Balanchine’s “Jewels,” at the Royal Opera House in London, July 31, 2023. The former American Ballet Theater star David Hallberg now leads the Australian Ballet. (Charlotte Hadden/The New York Times)

by Roslyn Sulcas

LONDON.- It was March 2020, and David Hallberg, who had weathered more than two years of injury and physical rehabilitation, was back in the saddle, rehearsing “Swan Lake” with Natalia Osipova at the Royal Opera House in London. Then the world shut down as the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns became a new reality. Hallberg, a resident guest principal at the Royal Ballet and a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, saw his packed schedule of performances collapse like a house of cards.

But he was less upset than he might have been. On March 1, Hallberg had been offered the position of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, and had secretly flown to Sydney from London to accept the job.

Three years later, he is back in London, heading the Australian Ballet’s first international tour since the pandemic, and its first appearance at the Royal Opera House in 35 years. On Wednesday, the company, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary, will present the first of five performances of George Balanchine’s “Jewels,” as well as a one-off gala, including works by Pam Tanowitz, Yuri Possokhov and the troupe’s resident choreographer, Alice Topp.

“It’s nice to walk in the stage door as a director,” Hallberg said, “and not feel any of those anxieties I did as a dancer.”

His first year wasn’t easy. He started in January 2021, when Australia’s pandemic restrictions were among the most severe in the world. But he eventually managed to get performances going, and put together two triple bills of work mostly new to Australian audiences, including a commission from Tanowitz.

“With David, what you see is what you get,” said former ballerina Sylvie Guillem, who spent almost a month in Melbourne, Australia, earlier this year, coaching Rudolf Nureyev’s “Don Quixote.” “He is straightforward, he speaks his mind, but in a very elegant manner, and he knows how to manage people.”

Over coffee near the opera house, Hallberg talked about what it was like to begin the job in the middle of a pandemic, his vision for the Australian Ballet and whether he is pro-Vegemite. Here are edited extracts from the conversation.

Q: You had a long history with the Australian Ballet: You rehabilitated in Melbourne after your injury and danced as a guest principal with the company. Did you ever think about directing it then?

A: The job really wasn’t on my radar at all. When David McAllister, the director, told me he was leaving and felt I should apply, I was totally shocked. I had thought about directing a company, but I was apprehensive about being that person who just transitioned from principal dancer into that role.

But the truth was that I had weathered 2 1/2 years of physical and mental hardship with the injury, and when I performed afterward, I didn’t get the same thing out of it. My head got to me, I doubted myself, I was fearful.

When discussions first started about the job in 2018, my first reaction was, I don’t know if I’m ready. By the time the process was complete, I felt, OK, it’s time.

Q: You arrived in late 2020 during lockdown. Was the transition difficult?

A: Yes, but when I am faced with difficulties, I lean into them. There were some silver linings. Once the dancers were allowed back, I gave class in groups of 12 and got to know the entire company really well, looking at their physicality, their technique, and saying you can do more and this is how you get there. And I learned the gears of the organization without having to be at full throttle immediately.

We got Pam Tanowitz there, and some ballet masters — those who were willing to quarantine — and we started performing, although it was very on and off.

I think I only realized after the pandemic how big a move it was, how much I left in New York: 20 years of friends, of routine, culture, an artistic community. I didn’t realize how lonely it was going to be. I was now the boss. Regardless of how approachable you are, the room changes when you walk in. That was very uncomfortable for me.

Q: Were there elements of the job that surprised you?

A: One of the biggest adjustments for me was how everyone looks to you for decision-making about even very minor things. I always want things to be collaborative, and often people don’t want that — they want you to lead.

The other big thing was trying to balance my time and learning what and how to prioritize. I had been warned by other directors how pressurized you feel, but you just can’t imagine it. I still find it tricky.

Q: Part of your job involves talking to artists who can feel vulnerable and anxious about their careers. What’s that like for you?

A: That comes quite naturally to me. My office is a safe space for emotion. When we are having difficult conversations, I want them to feel they are getting an honest answer, not just being calmed down. But emotion inside the studio — tantrums, tears, meltdowns — isn’t productive. That’s when time is precious, and we get to work.

Q: You have already brought a wide variety of dance styles to the company, including works by Justin Peck, Wayne McGregor, William Forsythe and Crystal Pite. How contemporary do you want the repertory to be?

A: Australia is isolated, and my long-term vision is to show the major choreographic voices from all over the world. We have already done a lot, but I sometimes feel there is an issue with just shopping for existing works. I want choreographers to create pieces on the company, and I want to develop Australian voices. What I haven’t yet really accomplished is from-the-ground-up commissioning.

My career was pretty classical, but I have always been curious about contemporary work. At times I have to keep my personal taste in check, but because the company is so versatile, we have the opportunity to perform a real breadth of repertoire.

That said, for my first real season and our 60th anniversary, I have deliberately leaned into classical work. We have a reconstruction of Anne Woolliams’ “Swan Lake” in September, we have brought “Jewels” to London, we have performed the “Don Quixote” that Nureyev created for the Australian Ballet. I am eager to push the dancers classically.

Q: Have you explored the Australian dance scene?

A: Yes, I have gotten to know the contemporary dance community. I think at first they were shocked that someone from the Australian Ballet was coming to their performances, but I am like a fan girl. Most of the choreographers on my radar are women: Lucy Guerin, Jo Lloyd, Melanie Lane, Stephanie Lake, Deanne Butterworth, Sandra Parker. And our resident choreographer Alice Topp.

Q: What is your life like in Australia? Have you embraced Vegemite? Outdoor sports?

A: I do eat Vegemite! I have an Australian boyfriend. I bike to work. And the sheer natural beauty of Australia is incredible. I don’t take it for granted.

Q: You briefly returned to performing during the pandemic. Any plans to do that again?

A: No. I no longer plié.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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