His great leap

When the Kings of the Dance tour -- a showcase of some of the top male dancers in the world -- premiered at the Stanislavsky Musical Theater last week, the representative of the legendary Bolshoi Ballet was South Dakota-born David Hallberg. An American in the Bolshoi? It was unimaginable just months ago.

But the Bolshoi did imagine it, and on Sept. 21 what some dubbed a defection in reverse was announced, recalling the days when heralded dancers, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov among them, fled the Soviet Union for Western companies.

“It is a lot to swallow, the pressure is very high, the responsibility is huge,” Hallberg said, taking a break from Bolshoi rehearsals. “I have always looked at people who have been part of the Bolshoi history -- [Vladimir] Vasiliev, [Yuri] Grigorovich and the list goes on and on -- and just to think that I can become part of that is so hard to wrap my head around, it is so overwhelming.”


Hallberg, born in Rapid City 29 years ago, becomes the first American member of the 235-year-old company after six years as a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre, where his starring roles have included Prince Charming, Romeo and Prince Siegfried.

“When I saw David for the first time on stage, I was simply shattered as I saw a real prince, ideal for our classical productions,” said Anatoly Iksanov, general director of the Bolshoi Theater. “There and then I told myself: ‘This artist must dance at the Bolshoi!’ ”

Hallberg’s contract involves an undisclosed sum that Iksanov said doesn’t exceed the size of contracts of the other Bolshoi premier dancers.

“I wanted to do the offer justice, for if I were to commit myself to it, I was going to do it with full intentions,” Hallberg said, adding that he had consulted the former Bolshoi Ballet artistic director and now ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. “Alexei said it was a great historical moment, a huge opportunity and a huge moment in the Bolshoi history.”

Hallberg’s first appearance in a Bolshoi production will be partnering with Natalia Osipova in “Giselle” on the New Stage of the State Academic Bolshoi Theater on Nov. 4. But two weeks later he is set to experience a career highlight when he opens the season on the renovated main stage of the company’s historic theater, pairing with prima-ballerina Svetlana Zakharova in a new production of “The Sleeping Beauty.”

Far from artistically defecting to Russia, Hallberg is planning to live and work in Moscow and New York a month or two at a time as, he said, he remains committed to ABT -- a key provision in the Bolshoi deal.

“I really don’t want to lose my influence and my place at ABT because I feel like I represent American ballet, and I feel a responsibility to do that even more now,” Hallberg said. “In Russia, now I represent the globalization of ballet.”

The dancer hopes that as he finds more time, he will rent an apartment here and discover his own Moscow: “I mean not the Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral, but I want to discover my own Moscow, my cafes, my grocery store, galleries, museums and performance houses that I like to go to.”

Becoming immersed

” Raz-dva-tri, raz-dva-tri.”

Bolshoi former premier dancer and current coach Alexander Vetrov sets the pace for the morning ballet class in the newly renovated -- and still smelling of fresh paint -- spacious rehearsal hall of the historic Bolshoi building. A dozen dancers go through routine movements, the tall, lean and fair-haired Hallberg among them, his big gray-blue eyes full of resolute concentration.

“Some of these boys will have less time on stage now that David is here but this kind of competition is good for them I think,” Vetrov said.

“On the whole it is a good political decision as it may open up new prospects of foreign tours for the theater and also attract new sponsors given David’s name and world prestige.”

By now Hallberg knows that raz-dva-tri is Russian for one-two-three but admits that mastering the language will be one of the big challenges in the coming year. He pondered for about two months on the Bolshoi offer, which he said came as a complete surprise.

‘A bold move’

Sergei Filin, the new Bolshoi Ballet artistic director, offered the job to Hallberg over lunch earlier in April when the dancer was in Moscow with ABT.

Hallberg recalled that Filin said it “was a bold move for him and that he wanted to usher in a new era for the Bolshoi Ballet.”

“Everyone in America knows about the Bolshoi Ballet, but it was not even on my radar as I was not thinking about the Bolshoi because it seemed to be so far away and belong to a different world,” he said, in a cafeteria in a corner of that very different world.

“And when I came for the first time to dance at the Bolshoi as a professional dancer in 2004, in an American ballet gala show on its historical stage before the renovation, I thought, ‘OK, this is the once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I will never be back, so I should enjoy this moment.’”

Last week was a very busy time for Hallberg. Classes and rehearsals at the Bolshoi in the mornings and afternoons and Kings of the Dance performances in the evenings filled almost every minute of his time. His entire year is similarly jampacked.

The Kings of the Dance tour (also featuring Guillaume Cote from the National Ballet of Canada, Marcelo Gomes of American Ballet Theatre, Denis Matvienko of the Mariinsky Ballet, Ivan Vasiliev of the Bolshoi and Leonid Sarafanov of the Mikhailovsky Ballet) includes stops in St. Petersburg, Russia; Riga, Latvia; Novosibirsk, Russia; Kiev, Ukraine; the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa (Oct. 21-23); and next year, in New York.

Heading stateside

And Hallberg continues his relationship with ABT, where his calendar includes Ratmansky’s new choreography for Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” making its world premiere in Costa Mesa in the spring.

Not to mention the Bolshoi.

“I understand what kind of pressure and responsibility he must be feeling now, and of course I will do my best to help him on stage,” said his “Sleeping Beauty” partner Zakharova. “But he will be helping me too, which will result in a good duet, I am sure.”

She said their first rehearsals revealed that Hallberg is “a very sweet and nice person, confident and composed and ready for the challenge.”

Although Iksanov, the theater’s general director, sees Hallberg as a lead dancer in the company’s classical productions, the dancer himself doesn’t want to be limited in his choice of roles. “I feel a search of new works is so necessary for me, and I don’t want to come to the Bolshoi Theater to only dance in ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ ” he admitted.

For the time being, the most famous American ballet dancer of the moment enjoys a very warm welcome at his new company.

A Bolshoi premier dancer and Kings of the Dance co-star Vasiliev calls him “a good friend and a tremendously talented artist.”

“The ballet world only looks small, but in reality it is big enough to accommodate all of us.”