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Interview: David Hallberg

David Hallberg, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater, became the Bolshoi’s first American principal dancer in 2011. He’s been described by this interviewer’s friend Cory as having “the best feet of any man” she has ever seen. Hallberg is in New York in July with the Bolshoi, dancing the part of Siegfried in Swan Lake. He spoke candidly with Metrosource about topics from ballet in general to gay people’s lives in Russia. But not until we talked ‘90s club jams.
By Matt Gurry

METROSOURCE: You recently took part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project with the awesome DJ Anne Litt. You chose artists like Nina Simone, Snap! and Robyn. So my question to you, David Hallberg, is: When did you steal my iPod, and may I please have it back?
DAVID HALLBERG: Ha! I’m glad to get that feedback because people are either going to think I’m totally crazy or I don’t know what. I tried to pick a good mix of songs and I’m happy I did! I’m happy I touched at least one person out there. [laughs]

Do you think people might be surprised to hear a classical ballet dancer cite club hits like “Dancing on My Own” or “Rhythm Is a Dancer” when asked which music is some his most influential?
I think in terms of the traditional sense of what people view a traditional ballet dancer as, yes. But I think in doing that, my main objective was to create the ballet dancer as a contemporary modern figure. It’s really important for me to try to have general audiences think of ballet as a modern art form. When given the opportunity to pick any songs I want that I connect with— It was hard to narrow it down to five, but I wanted to portray that I’m moved by all forms of music. Certainly there’s Bach and there’s Nina Simone, and then of course there’s Snap! and Robyn, which as a raver at 13—

Wait, you were a raver at 13?
Yeah. [laughs] When I would go raves at 13, that was my form of escapism, just listening to really deep, early ‘90s house, I loved.

What is a rave in early ‘90s South Dakota like?
Early ‘90s Phoenix, actually! [Hallberg was born in Rapid City, SD, but then grew up in Phoenix.] Early ‘90s Phoenix had a very, very good rave scene, to be honest. They got some really great DJs, they had really great venues because it was summer year-round, so things could be outside in the middle of desert, et cetera, et cetera. So it was a really great rave scene.

Wow. I was just practicing my baritone horn in early ‘90s Georgia, so none of the kids invited me to raves. Good to know what I was missing. So what other culture are you consuming right now? Books, music, fashion, theater, anything!
Books: As a matter of fact, Hillary Clinton’s memoir. If I am given the chance to vote for her for the next presidency, I will do everything in my power to get every single American to vote for her!

Fashion: [Here, Hallberg listed several designers he’s paying attention to right now. However, the interviewer, being way out of his element on this topic, couldn’t get the names down and failed to figure them out later when listening to his tape — several times. With one exception, oddly: the Russian designer Natalia Valevskaya.]

Music: Apart from what we’ve touched on, a little happy hardcore, which for me is bringing it back. But also, Beyoncé is Queen B. And I was just listening to Fauré’s Requiem as well. It goes from Jay Z and B to Fauré.

Art, for me, it’s all things contemporary. I just saw saw Robert Wilson’s production [The Old Woman] with Misha [Baryshnikov] and Willem Dafoe, and it was so fantastic. To me, of course, Baryshnikov strikes a chord, but I felt this showed the audience that at 65 he is still an unparallelled artist. So that’s a little bit of what’s been interesting me as of late.

Reading and watching interviews you’ve given, with everyone from the super-highbrow to Stephen Colbert, I’m a little taken aback by how much you have to say about capital-A Art. It seems a lot of what’s out there about ballet goes very technical or very historical, very quickly. Do you think we tend to push your particular craft into these corners?
You know, I’ve had to ask that question myself, and I think it’s a couple things. I think, one, ballet backs itself into a corner. Speaking of ballet specifically, like opera or any other (quote/unquote) “high art,” it’s a calling you’ve had since you were very young. It was your true love from the beginning. But what happens is you get into this bubble, and the further you dive into it, you tend to alienate outsiders more easily. You dive so far into your craft that you relate to dancers easier — you stay in your little bubble. There’s no sense of reality or even connecting to your general public, because it becomes such a niche. So I feel it’s the art form’s fault a little bit, that we tend to stop connecting with a general public that could be interested in ballet. But the fact that we stay so far in history that we’ve become clones of each other, we alienate the general public by doing that.

Another thing, and Baryshnikov really validated this, even in that Robert Wilson play he did: He’s very much an artist, he will always be an artist. And his interest in reaching a mass audience. It’s about fulfilling his desire as an artist and seeking out his interest in art. Therefore, he’s had this career where he’s been given opportunities to reach audiences because of what he brings to the artform. I think it’s multi-layered, I think first and foremost. It’s not the general public’s fault; it’s Ballet’s fault. We have to be the one to reach to the general public and not vice versa.

You know, in (quote/unquote) “high art” like ballet or opera, the plots aren’t hard to understand. They all take on super-basic human emotions. You don’t have to do homework to see them (though it helps). But people can easily see them as unapproachable. Is it hard to get people in the door to take that first—
It definitely is. Because at one point or another, ballet sort of lost its mainstream appeal. Things are shifting so fast from other forms, inevitably. It’s not entirely the fault of the art form. In what I have done outside the ballet world — in fashion shoots, going on Colbert, doing certain publications that reach a high number of people — I have found that people are inevitably very interested in ballet dancers. It’s an art form that uses the body as an instrument. And so there’s a fascination which obviously underlines its ignorance, and that’s not the fault of the person seeing a ballet for the first time. But I always find that whether I’m reaching a photographer or a reader in a magazine or someone on TV, there’s always a fascination with ballet, but a lot of time people just don’t know much about the art form.

So no, it’s not entirely fault of the art form. But tickets aren’t cheap, and of course it’s certainly not cheap to produce a grand ballet. So for someone like you in particular, who has a prominent role in both an American company and a Russian company where the government helps pay for it, do you think there’s a difference in why ballet would so ingrained in more of Russia than more of America?
Certainly, I totally agree with that. The Bolshoi is a government institution. It’s funded so handsomely by the government. The theater’s almost like a city, with 3,000-plus employees. So it’s a huge, huge part of government and cultural life in russia. And that doesn’t so much exist in America. Things are more privatized, we don’t have government funding — or very little government funding — supporting big arts institutions. Those institutions have great benefits, but it can be a struggle in terms of finances, and for artists to create the art they want to show to the general public, and in implementing new ideas and taking risks. It’s a trickle-down effect. So money has a lot to do with it. Unfortunately.

On the subject of Russian culture, we’ve heard so much about LGBT Russians over the past year, but you’re the first I’ve talked to who lives there, if even part-time. What is the day-to-day climate for gay people in Russia? Or at least in Moscow?
I appreciate the question because it doesn’t ask the negative, which I’ve gotten a lot of.

The day-to-day life for a homosexual in Russia is quite surprising to many people who read [American op-ed writers]. I have gay friends in Moscow who are living open, happy, fulfilled lives. Many are artists, some are DJs, some are designers. They weren’t attending the Gay Pride parade like my friends were in New York, but they do live very happy and safe lives. I’m certainly not defending any sort of discrimination because discrimination on any count is not acceptable. But my gay friends in Moscow live very comfortable, safe, fulfilled lives.

I’m really glad to hear that. You don’t really hear that part of the story. I guess maybe it doesn’t fit in with the big narrative. But on a human level, I am glad to hear that. Still, the friends you mention — DJs, designers — a lot of them are by nature public figures, and talking to you even, you’re a celebrity. Do you think you guys in the public world might get sort of a pass? Because you talk the press or whatever? Or — and this is another question — with your being an American, do you get any sort of a pass there?
In terms of the government, possibly? Because yes, I am a public figure. But when I’m on the street — anywhere — I’m not a rock star, so I don’t walk down the street and people immediately recognize me.

Oh, I’m surprised to hear that.
I mean, people have a lot of respect for a ballet dancer, but I’m not recognized like DiCaprio would be recognized. It’s not that kind of celebrity. Therefore, when I’m on the streets in Moscow I’m very much like another Russian. So I don’t think in terms of living and everyday life in Russia — walking the streets, grocery shopping, whatever — I’m very much like any other Russian. So I’m not given any more leeway than anyone else living in Moscow, I think.

I want to hear about Live Out Loud. Will you tell me about it?
Sure! Live Out Loud is an organization that empowers gay, lesbian, transgendered youth. I got involved with them through a friend and got to know Leo [Preziosi Jr., founder]. You know, remember my youth, having to find my sexuality. It was not easy. I was teased, made fun of, called every name in the book, et cetera, et cetera. Very typical American suburban upbringing. But I survived. I loved my art form from day one, even though I tried to hide the fact that I loved dance. But I have very vivid memories of what it felt like to struggle through American mainstream culture, feeling different and not being accepted for being different. And so my affiliation with Live Out Loud is exactly that: I really want to empower and reach out and do whatever I can to gay youth because it’s such an important time in anyone’s life where you’re creating a foundation for how you treat people as an adult, how you act as an adult. Whatever I can do to help ease that or help empower them along the way, I’ll do that.

And what is it, exactly, that Live Out Loud does?
Live Out Loud gives scholarships to gay youths, monetary scholarships and mentorships, and serves as a helping hand to gay youths.

That’s awesome. Now back to ballet. You’re dancing Siegfried in Swan Lake this week at Lincoln Center. I like this part because it’s just as much his story as Odette’s. Can we say this role is more than the cliché men’s job of just throwing the girls around?
Swan Lake I’ve gone in and out with. I’ve hated it to death, I’ve wanted to retire it. As of late, I’ve sort of found a resurgence and inspiration with the character. So, you are the Prince and of course you are supporting the ballerina, but there are nuances with the character that I’ve found as of late that have kept me moving along with the ballet, which is nice.

OK. I’m about to compare you to Madonna, so get ready for that. Years ago, someone was interviewing her and she said something to the effect of, “If I ever have to sing ‘Like a Virgin’ again I’ll kill myself.” And of course she used the word “fuck” like three times. And then on the next tour, she threw “Like a Virgin” in there—

Inevitably. People want to see what they want to see, so when you’re an artist who does deal with the classics, whether Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” do you have to just suck it up and give the people what they want?
Yes. You can’t bite the hand that feeds you. And I also can’t take the stance that I’m “so over” something I find inspiration in. I’d be doing ballet a disservice by saying I’m so over Swan Lake, it’s so over. Well, it’s not because it’s a huge part of ballet history, and you have to be respectful of that.

So let’s say there’s someone for whom this Swan Lake will be their first ballet. Anything you want to tell them as they’re coming into the theater? Maybe to someone who’s thinking he’s not going to get it, he’s not smart enough, whatever. How should someone approach this if it’s their first ballet? In an aesthetic way. The story is simple enough that if you take four minutes and read the program notes, you’re set. I think they should just take in its visual beauty. Swan Lake is so visually beautiful. Act 2 is iconic with all the swans, especially with the Bolshoi. There’s so much precision and exactness to the swans and to the whole company, for that matter. So a first-time ballet person should just come in and watch it because dance is a visual art form.

Tickets to the Bolshoi’s run at Lincoln Center Festival are hard to come by at this point, but if you can get them, get them. The company presents Swan Lake, Don Quixote and Spartacus from July 15–27. David Hallberg dances Swan Lake July 15, 17 and 19. For more information on Hallberg, visit http://davidhallberg.com/.

Metrosource is a glossy lifestyle and entertainment magazine geared towards the modern metropolitan gay community. Metrosource has three editions: New York, Los Angeles and National. For more great articles like this, subscribe here or download Metrosource for iPad, iPhone, Android and Kindle.

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