David Hallberg, the American ballet star, wasn’t in Moscow in January when an assailanthurled acid on his boss, Bolshoi director Sergei Filin. The attack all but blinded Filin and horrified the world, and no one more so than Hallberg. After all, he had been one of the man’s first hires and made history because of it.
Yet the lanky, delicately built dancer, speaking Saturday night on the Eisenhower Theater stage with Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser, left no doubt about his resolve to return to Moscow.
“I questioned my safety — I don’t have a bodyguard, I have no protection — but what I didn’t question was my commitment to the company,” Hallberg said. He heads back to the Bolshoi on Tuesday.
“Yes — I’m very happy,” he announced, beaming a brilliant smile to the appreciative audience.
Just down the hall from the Opera House, where he has often held the stage as one of the world’s most celebrated ballet princes, Hallberg proved he is as graceful in words as he is in movement. In a wide-ranging tour through his career, titled “David Hallberg: In Conversation With Michael Kaiser,” Hallberg spoke agreeably and thoughtfully about his often torturous rise to the top of his field, a journey that wound through Rapid City, S.D., Phoenix, Paris and New York.
And for the first time in public, he spoke about the attack on Filin, the man who invited him — “a boy from South Dakota” — to be the first American principal dancer of the legendary Russian powerhouse.
“First and foremost, art is sacred,” Hallberg said. “It serves as an escape, whether it be Beyonce — ” he paused, looked pointedly into the orchestra section and flashed a firm smile, touched with mischief. “Yes, I’m saying she’s an artist. Or whether it’s Andy Warhol. Art is sacred. . . . To do that to someone with such an unbelievable vision for a company as important as the Bolshoi — I have no words for it.”
When the attack happened, Hallberg was in the States, nursing the foot he broke stumbling down stairs in a dark hallway at the Metropolitan Opera House. (He splits his time between the Bolshoi and American Ballet Theatre, where he is also a principal dancer.) In 10 months of healing, “I came to the realization that I’m human,” Hallberg said. “I can break.”
Humanity and vulnerability were the themes of the hour-long interview, which unspooled in a cozy, relaxed manner.
The set could have come straight out of the play “Frost/Nixon,” performed on the Eisenhower stage five years ago: Kaiser and Hallberg in wingback chairs, arranged on an area rug to make the vast space look more intimate. At one point, an overhead screen showed Hallberg’s audition tape for the Paris Opera Ballet’s school at age 16, when the elegant line of the future prince was very much in evidence. A year later, Hallberg landed in Paris, where he spoke no French, had no friends, was teased by other students and, outside of ballet class, was generally miserable. He stuck out the year, then joined ABT.
The man who shot that audition tape, Kee Juan Han, was seated in the audience, but Hallberg asked him to rise for sustained applause and cheers. Now director of the Washington School of Ballet, Han taught Hallberg at the Arizona Ballet School.
“He cracked the whip,” Hallberg said with evident affection. “He was like a drill sergeant.”
The dancer also spoke of his awe for Fred Astaire, in whose honor he taped nickels to the bottoms of his loafers: “I knew I wanted to do what he did. I wanted to move like him.”
Hallberg spoke movingly of the frustrations of being a perfectionist. He described himself as “doomed” because “it’s never good enough. . . . The numbers of performances I’ve maybe been pleased with I can count on one hand over a 12-year career.”
Yet dancing the prince in “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” has limited appeal. “I only get a certain amount of fulfillment in those roles,” he said. What he prefers “is someone pulling me out of my comfort zone, like an avant-garde choreographer in New York or dancing projects that don’t use my ballet technique.”
Having toured the National Gallery’s “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929” exhibit, Hallberg spoke of wanting to dance works of that era: “Petroushka,” “Spectre de la Rose,” “Afternoon of a Faun,” and he mimicked the Faun’s iconic flattened profile. “How does it look?” he cracked.
But what Hallberg said he craves is new roles. “The perpetual search of a dancer is to find a voice within another choreographer working today,” he said, adding that he has found that with Alexei Ratmansky, ABT’s artist in residence and former Bolshoi director.
Hallberg has thrown in his lot with Russians, it seems, by happenstance perhaps more than design. He spoke of the deep artistic rapport he shares with Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, a guest artist with ABT.
“In a sense, she’s who I would like to be as a dancer,” Hallberg said. “She runs by the beat of her own drum, questions everything and makes everything her own.”
Kaiser asked if she had anything to do with his joining the Bolshoi. “We don’t really talk, to be honest,” said Hallberg, laughing. “Her English is, uh, getting better, and my Russian is . . . ” he paused, with perfect comic timing, “staying the same.” But, he added quietly, “a big reason to go to the Bolshoi was for me to dance with her.” That plan was dashed when Osipova left the Bolshoi to join another company.
Hallberg’s Bolshoi invitation came over a sushi lunch with Filin, who had been the director for only two weeks when ABT arrived in Moscow on tour.
“I started asking a lot of questions,” Hallberg said. “Like, ‘Do you really mean this?’ They said, ‘We have gotten approval from the Kremlin.’ ”
Ratmansky, who was also in Moscow at the time, urged him to accept, Hallberg said. Washington audiences can see the result of this circuitous journey in May, when Hallberg returns to the Kennedy Center for the Bolshoi performances of “Giselle.”