As falls from grace go, David Hallberg’s was spectacular. Tall and elegant, with a swoop of blond hair and the haunted air of a Victorian poet, Hallberg was one of the world’s greatest ballet stars. Fueled by an obsessive work ethic, he’d risen from a South Dakota boyhood to become the hot property of two elite companies at once: American Ballet Theatre, where he was a principal dancer, and Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, where, in 2011, he made headlines by becoming the first American invited to join its top rank.
A few years later, he vanished.
Ballet fans knew he’d suffered an injury and had moved to Australia, but no one knew when, or if, he’d return to the stage.
It turns out he was adrift in a sea of Carlton Draughts, and about as far from “Swan Lake’s” Prince Siegfried as he could get. As Hallberg reveals in his candid and engrossing memoir, “A Body of Work,” he effectively went into hiding on the other side of the globe. During more than a year of self-imposed exile in Melbourne, he spent hours on park benches, washing away the pain of a wrecked career with six-packs of beer.
The courtly perfectionist who’d dazzled audiences around the world was now “the stereotypical drunk,” Hallberg writes. “The one whom everyone would fear and take pains to avoid.”
His may seem an extreme reaction to a foot problem, which was the catalyst for Hallberg’s drastic move and the depression that followed. But with a light touch, he leads the reader through his fanatical devotion to dance, how he came to be an adrenaline junkie hooked on performing and “the preparation, the buildup and that exhilarating, inescapable pressure.”
Year after year, he jammed his calendar with commitments around the world in a constant quest for artistic challenge. Like many an athlete in his prime, Hallberg figured he was invincible. And he could always sleep on the plane.
So by the time we read about the excruciating mess he’s made of his foot, exacerbated by botched surgery, it’s easy to see his situation the way he did: The End of Life Itself.
Hallberg is not only a brilliant technician, he is also thoughtful and studious. When I’ve had occasion to interview him, and when I’ve watched him pick apart a role in rehearsal, his preference for honesty and clarity over showmanship has always been apparent. This is also true in his writing, which is clear and somewhat restrained, but tinged with feeling. His book is peppered with disclosures, many of them painful: the bullies; his first love; his snotty classmates during a year of study in Paris — and that one intimidating ballerina.
“I understood why Michele felt like a guinea pig,” Hallberg writes of his frequent partner early in his career, former ABT principal Michele Wiles. He was still in the corps de ballet at the time, on a steep learning curve as a would-be prince. When it came to rehearsals of the bedroom pas de deux in the bodice-ripping ballet “Manon,” ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie stepped in to lead Hallberg and Wiles through “Kissing 101.”
Surely, it was just a little bit funny for these two nervous dancers to work out where the noses go, but Hallberg is sparing. “Eventually,” he reports, “after weeks of laboriously ironing out the details of the intricate partnering, we were kissing as easily as we were turning and jumping.” The hint of obligation there is a signal that perfecting the choreography of passion is one thing, but getting along in the studio is another.
Hallberg’s richest account is of his long period of pain, when he vacated social media, shaved his head and devolved into a chain-smoking loner who slept till noon. But “A Body of Work” is not a story of self-sabotage or addiction recovery. It’s about love — crazy, confusing love, an artist’s obsessive love for his art: “a combination of duty and destiny,” he calls it.
That combination carries a poignant undertone of loneliness: as a boy who danced, as a hyper-focused professional with little interest in anyone outside the rehearsal studio and as a guest star around the world. He was forever the outsider, especially in his glamorous new gig at the Bolshoi. Dance was his truest companion.
“Since childhood I have had an insatiable hunger for dance,” he writes. “I cannot control it. It controls me.” His first inspiration was Fred Astaire. Hallberg copied his tap moves in shoes with nickels taped to the soles. After a stint in “The Nutcracker,” he switched to ballet.
If dance class was heaven, bullies made everything else hell. They called him a girl and an anti-gay slur, and a group once cornered him and poured a bottle of perfume on his head. “From that scarring moment on I built a shell around myself,” he writes. Hallberg beautifully describes a middle-school romance, but he mentions no other lovers and few friends. Is that discretion, or a consequence of his shell? By the time he attained his goal of joining ABT, it was pretty thick.
“Do you ever get the feeling we are becoming less and less worthy of David Hallberg’s time?” an ABT dancer quipped at the company’s annual roast. Stung, Hallberg realized “that my drive had gotten in the way of basic human interaction. That was a personal turning point.” Yet Hallberg reveals himself to be quite the opposite of his stuck-up reputation. He writes exhaustively about what he strove to improve, and he passes lightly over his successes. He never quotes from reviews — no mention of critical praise or fans or his (very funny) appearance on Stephen Colbert, or any other signifiers of his fame. He doesn’t seem to see himself as special, but rather, as a half-decent instrument needing lots of tuning.
In fact, he writes, he was so over being cast as the prince. He’d find himself watching the clock during rehearsals, bored by interpreting the same few classics over and over.
Those doldrums ended with the “life-altering” Bolshoi invitation from Sergei Filin, the Moscow company’s director. Just a year later, Filin would fall victim to a vicious acid attack, allegedly orchestrated by one of his dancers, which left him nearly blind. A horrified Hallberg learned of it while home in New York, recuperating from an injury.
That was the beginning of his slide, as the 30-year-old at the peak of his physical powers found it impossible to rest. “My addict self took over,” he writes. “I didn’t pay attention to anything except my desire to dance.” He dove in too soon; within two months he’d flown more than 45,000 miles, and learned and performed four new productions. He wrote in his journal at the time: “My guiding principle has to be: Work hard. And then work f---ing harder.”
It’s an excellent motto, as long as you don’t let it kill you. Hallberg’s thoroughly enjoyable book is a splendid reminder of that. It proves the humble little point that a job well done is its own reward. Not that other rewards aren’t nice, too. A glance at ABT’s performance calendar and casting will tell you how Hallberg’s story ends, at least for now. I hope he has many more chapters to come.
Sarah L. Kaufman is the dance critic of The Washington Post.
By David Hallberg
Touchstone. 424 pp. $28