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David Hallberg, Bolshoi newcomer, greeted with praise, criticism

— David Hallberg is off and running in Moscow. On Friday night he made history for the Bolshoi Ballet as the first American in a leading role on its historic stage in a new production of the fabled Russian ballet “The Sleeping Beauty.”

And it’s not just any stage: Older than the United States and the jewel of Russian culture, the Bolshoi Theatre is newly restored for its 236th season.

Hallberg, the American Ballet Theatre principal who is now also a premier dancer with the Bolshoi, and Russian prima-ballerina Svetlana Zakharova received a standing ovation from the packed house of more than 1,750 spectators, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But at least one of his fellow dancers was not as welcoming.

As Prince Desire and Princess Aurora, Hallberg and Zakharova danced elegantly to Tchaikovsky’s music, both dressed in luxurious costumes by Italian designer Franca Squarciapino amid lavish scenery by Italian art director Ezio Frigerio, all put together by the maestro of Russian ballet Yuri Grigorovich.

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Hallberg, 29, who already appeared on the Bolshoi second stage Nov. 4, partnering in “Giselle” with prima ballerina Natalia Osipova, has had just a month to get acclimated to his new country and company.

He spoke this week about adjusting to life as a Muscovite. He’s moved from the Metropol Hotel to a comfortable apartment off downtown’s Tverskaya Street and said he experiences Moscow mostly as he walks to the theater every morning to take part in endless classes, rehearsals and performances.

“I was a little intimidated by Moscow at the beginning,” he said in a small cafeteria in the auxiliary building of the Bolshoi. “But because of the Bolshoi Theatre, because I have this work, because I am so dedicated to my work and everything, it gives me a basis on which to grow from, to define my flow, my energy, my routine.”

Hallberg said that he will start taking Russian language classes after he is done with “The Sleeping Beauty.” But the schedule is busy. The second performance of “The Sleeping Beauty” is Sunday and will be seen on live telecasts in movie theaters around the world. Later in the month he will appear as Basil in “Don Quixote.” His short-term plans with the Bolshoi also include dancing in “The Bright Stream” (music by Shostakovich). Early in December he is due back in New York to perform in the ABT production of “The Nutcracker” by Alexei Ratmansky.

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“ ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is the most important to me now, but after the premiere [Bolshoi Ballet artistic director] Sergei Filin and I will sit down and we will look at the time that I have in Moscow and try to take advantage of that in the best way possible,” Hallberg said. “I don’t want to come in as this big star and tell everyone what should be done.

“I have to really become part of the Bolshoi before I start doing that, before I start suggesting choreography,” he added with a chuckle.

The quiet American lived up to his word during the dress rehearsal Thursday as he patiently waited while his star partner Zakharova called all the shots onstage, stopping the show and asking the orchestra to play faster or slower and complaining of the lighting and then explaining to Hallberg in English what was going on.

Hallberg said that it was relayed to him that it was Zakharova who ultimately decided that he should dance with her on opening night.

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Filin confirmed that, saying that he and Grigorovich had offered her a choice of six partners for the premiere.

“So Svetlana was to choose a prince for herself,” the artistic director said. “She looked at the list and said that although she would be happy to dance with all of them she would rather dance with David Hallberg if she can, and the issue of her partner was resolved.”

Hallberg in turn spoke very highly of Zakharova, who he said “is very supportive both on- and offstage.”

“Svetlana is fabulous and I can’t ask for more,” he said. “She is le grande dame at the Bolshoi and she is prima ballerina of the world, and again I had to prove to her that I can partner her well.”

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On the whole Hallberg said he is very happy with the reception at the Bolshoi and said he had “never felt uncomfortable here, never felt not well taken care of.”

“It is obviously a very important moment not only for me but also for the Bolshoi Theatre, because it is the first big production on the historical stage; it is kind of the turn of the new Bolshoi,” he said. “They are really making a statement of globalization of ballet by having an American do the principal role” in the premiere of “The Sleeping Beauty”.

But some of his colleagues are ready to argue that statement.

“I like David very much and respect him as a dancer, but it is an insult to the entire Russia ballet, a demonstration of indifference to the rich Russian tradition and culture,” Nikolay Tsiskaridze, a Bolshoi premier dancer said in an interview Friday.

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“The state spends a fortune to support our ballet school and at the same time the theater hires a foreigner, an American, to open the ballet season on the historical stage instead of all the great Russian dancers that we have.”

Tsiskaridze, a longtime principal dancer of the company, is scheduled to perform the same role the fourth performance, on Wednesday. He said that the company’s management, in hiring Hallberg, projects a certain attitude, and because of that, among other things, “Russian dancers see no future for them in the Bolshoi.”

Tsiskaridze’s bitter words echoed in the wake of the news that rocked the Bolshoi earlier this week when the company’s star couple of premier dancer Ivan Vasiliev and prima-ballerina Osipova announced that they are leaving the Bolshoi and moving to St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, newly headed by Spaniard Nacho Duato.

“There comes a moment when you need to move on, when you want to develop, to try something new, new, new,” Vasiliev said in a recent interview with First Channel, the Russian television network.

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The Bolshoi general director Anatoly Iksanov called it “an attack on the Bolshoi by some business” luring its best dancers away by “unthinkable high contracts.”

Bolshoi spokeswoman Yekaterina Novikova said that the controversy was in no way connected with Hallberg.

For his part, Hallberg said that he can understand his friends and colleagues’ “search for something else.”

“They were definitely a bright energy to the Bolshoi Theatre and obviously among its biggest stars, but you know, all artists need to search for themselves, to find their own challenges, situations and discover new things,” Hallberg said. “And if they feel that they will be afforded new opportunities at Mikhailovsky I give them my blessing and I won’t discourage their search for something else.

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“That is exactly what I did myself by coming to the Bolshoi Theatre as people were asking why I was leaving America, whether it was something that I couldn’t find in America, whether I was defecting,” he added. “No, I am not defecting. I am just spreading my wings and looking for new opportunities.”

sergei.loiko@latimes.com


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