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David Hallberg, Wild at Heart

This episode is sponsored by MDM Dancewear

Today I’m speaking with David Hallberg. We actually started this season with David McAllister who had just stepped down as Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet. We are now speaking with David Hallberg, the brand new Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet. David was born in a small American town called Rapid City in South Dakota. He started dancing at nine years old, after seeing Fred Astaire on the television. And he only started ballet when he was 13. But by 17, he was selected to do a year at the Paris Opera Ballet School before joining his dream company, ABT, the American Ballet Theatre.

He rose swiftly through the ranks, to principal within four years. And then he was the first American to ever be asked to be a principal with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Russian juggernaut that had previously only accepted Russian trained dancers. In this wonderfully engaging interview, David talks about his love of dance, growing up in America, and the moment he was first named as a principal. But David also shares some of his darker moments. He talks about bullying, and the injury that crippled him for over two years, before finally returning to the stage and becoming the new Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet.

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Transcript

Claudia Lawson: David, I guess I wanted to take you back a little bit, and ask you about where your love of dance first started.

David Hallberg: My love of dance was from Fred Astaire. Of course, I went into this ballet career, and I’m running a big ballet company, but it didn’t start with a ballet dancer. It started with one of the most lyrical, smooth suave dancers on the silver screen. And he became my idol when I was about eight years old. I saw him on the TV I think, I can’t exactly remember where, but I was transfixed.

CL: And then did that translate into “Mom, dad, I want to do dance lessons”?

DH: It translated into, “Mom and dad, I want to do that.” I actually didn’t know what that was, but that actually was tap dancing.

CL: That’s right.

DH: And so yeah. So I didn’t have tap shoes. So I taped nickels to the bottoms of my Sunday loafers and clicked away down the sidewalk and would lose nickels here and there. Then my parents bought me tap shoes and I went into tap class. I mean, that was around nine years old. And the obsession just… and the interest… it wasn’t obsession at first, it was just interest. It grew and grew. And then I found ballet 13, and had a fabulous teacher who trained really, really well. Almost like a soldier. And then ballet was it. I knew it.

CL: I mean, 13 is quite late really to start ballet. I mean, generally thought of as quite late.

DH: Yeah. No, it was late. And that’s what my teacher told me. He said, “You’re starting late, you have a lot of catching up to do. So if you are serious about this, I’ll catch you up.” But he took no prisoners, he never relented, he never really gave me positive feedback or positive reinforcement. And I actually thrived on it. I loved the whip, being cracked, and I loved just him asking for more and more and more. And that’s something that carried me throughout my career as a dancer, that feeling of pushing yourself to the limit in a way.

CL: So you were born in Rapid City, which is in South Dakota, in the States, did you train there or you mostly trained in Arizona?

DH: No, I’m mostly trained in Arizona. I moved around a bit when I was a kid, and then landed my formative years, my teenage years, in Arizona. And that’s where I primarily danced.

CL: I wanted to ask if you could set the scene for us. Because I know in this country, and it’s not so bad now, but perhaps when you were going through it. A lot of boys who danced when they were young, got bullied, and it’s really hard to persevere when that’s happening in school. And so I just wondered if that’s the case in the States in your experience.

DH: Absolutely. It was the case. A Freudian therapist would say I still have childhood scars from being bullied. And that’s really the case. I mean, I was called every name in the book. And as well, it wasn’t just because I danced, it was because I was different. It’s because I was a little bit of feminine. It’s because I wasn’t like a normal kid, or a normal boy around the block kind of thing. And I’ve come to terms with the experience it was, but it’s also formed me into the person and made me the dancer I became. But yeah, I was really bullied. And now, interestingly, I think because of my experience, I have no patience for minorities or young boys who want to dance or anything, to be singled out and picked on or laughed at, or made to feel lesser than. It really boils my blood when those instances pop up. And I’m very quick to shut them down.

CL: Yeah, so it sounds like that experience or those experiences then made you more resolute or more resilient. As you then went on to pursue your career?

DH: Yeah, well it did, and also interestingly, it made me want to dance even more. And I have come across young guys who are being teased and they need advice, and they’re thinking about stopping dancing because they’re being teased so much. And of course, I’d say, “Don’t relent.” But for me it was never a question of, “Should I stop dancing because I’m being teased about it?” It was more and more of my escapism and my reason for actually needing it and reason for getting through the hard times in my childhood.

CL: Incredible. So your career at the ABT or American Ballet Theatre is really I suppose quite well known. I mean, you started at 13, can you take us through then how you get to ABT?

DH: Sure. Well, ABT was always my dream. And I always wanted to, I don’t know, be a principal dancer at ABT. It was like this major company in New York and that was the dream.

CL: A lot of Australian young dancers really dream of joining the Australian Ballet. Is that the equivalent of ABT in the states?

DH: Yeah, yeah. Very, very similar. So when I was finishing my schooling, I also wanted to go away to a professional school because I trained with my teacher, Mr. Han is his name. In a very small school, I was the only boy, and for my last year of high school, I wanted to go away to a big professional school. So I said, “Well, why not try for one of the best and try and go to Paris Opera School.” So I auditioned, and I got in, and I went for the year. And it was a bit of a repeat childhood experience in that, they were not nice to me. They bullied me a bit, I think because I was just a very friendly American and they were very unfriendly French. But I learned a lot during that year. But my sights were still set on ABT. So I went back to ABT and auditioned and I got in. And so I went to ABT via Paris Opera. But really ABT was always my goal when I was younger.

CL: It’s a really interesting to hear because not only did you travel to Paris and live in France, obviously, I mean, that’s even quite unusual for I imagine, a kid who’s training in Phoenix, Arizona, we all know the statistics of US or Americans that have passports. So I imagine that was quite a decision.

DH: Oh it was huge. Oh listen. I mean, I will out myself and tell you that when I moved to Paris from Phoenix, I bought a year’s worth of shampoo, conditioner and deodorant, because I mean, why could you get shampoo and conditioner and deodorant in France? It’s Mars. And so I came to this country that of course has shampoo and conditioner and deodorant! But as American, you really have no concept of the unity of the world. And it’s not a sense of us and them, it’s more just a sense of naivety. And so it was a big deal for me to hop on a plane and leave home and in my luggage have a year’s worth of shampoo and conditioner.

CL: I love that. And obviously I assume you probably didn’t grow up learning French either. So that’s also hard to cope with all the language differences, incredible.

DH: Huge language barrier.

CL: And so you rise through the ranks of ABT and then you are the first American to be named as a principal with the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia, which is classically known to have only accepted really Russian trained dancers up until that point. How did that come about?

DH: Well, the director at the time, who I knew through the dance world, I had been to Moscow a couple of times and danced in galas and things. And he was just taking over. I was in Moscow, dancing with ABT, on tour, and he took me to lunch and he said, “I want you to join the Bolshoi, as a principal, and I want you to be the first American principal of this company. I want to change the current.” And I looked at him like he was crazy, I never thought that Bolshoi was even possible. So I thought long and hard about it actually. It wasn’t an immediate “Yes.” But I eventually accepted, and to his credit, he really had the vision. And I went on the ride. And of course it was life-changing.

CL: Wow. And I mean, what is it like to dance as a principal with the Bolshoi? What was that experience like?

DH: Lots of pressure. The Bolshoi is like AFL [Australian Football League] here, rugby here, baseball in America. As a society, Russia views ballet dancers and Bolshoi dancers specifically in very high regard, which means there’s a lot of pressure to uphold that title in a way. And I found that yes, there was that pressure, yes, I needed to dance well and… this goes against people’s preconceived notions of Russians. I felt very welcomed, people were very, very welcoming to me, the dancers, the administration of Bolshoi, and the audiences. So I have very, very warm memories of my time at Bolshoi and the people that I came across.

CL: When you were named principal for both ABT, and then again at the Bolshoi, was it everything that you dreamed? Did you have the sense that you’d made it?

DH: It’s funny because when I was promoted to principal at ABT, that was my goal all the time. It was to be a principal there. And once it happened, I looked around and I started to flounder. Because I didn’t know what the next goal was. I was thinking, “Okay, now what?” And that happens a lot of the times when dancers really aspire to be a certain thing then they get it and they’re like, “Okay, well what now? Because I can’t keep going up the ranks I’m at the top rank.” So people can lose a bit of focus and hunger, but when I was invited to go to Bolshoi, and I went and I sometimes took a look around and I thought, “This is beyond anything I ever imagined would happen.” Yeah.

CL: Do you mean in terms of the standard? Or just the exposure or—

DH: In terms of the experience of being at such an iconic theater and company, to hear the applause and the appreciation of audiences, to just be there. I’m from a small little town in America, and I have moments and be like, “How am I here? How is this happening?” There was no sense of expectation. There was no sense of entitlement. There was no sense of, “I’m taking things for granted.”

CL: So fascinating to hear. So then of course, in your story, you have the injury.

DH: Yes sure. The injury. I was at Bolshoi and I was riding high, and I in a nutshell, abused my greatest asset, and that was my body. As a dancer, your instrument is your body. And I wasn’t taking care of it. I just was abusing it. And so I started having a pain in my foot, and I ignored it, and I ignored it and I kept going and then eventually I couldn’t dance anymore. I couldn’t take off for a jump. I decided to have a surgery in America. I had a torn ligament in my foot. And the surgery was botched. And then a year later, I had to have another surgery to fix the first, all in New York. And I was reaching wits’ end. I was like, “Is this the end of my career?” I couldn’t seem to get back on the horse. So I couldn’t even… I wasn’t even feeling like I was making any progress in that regard. So I was watching it slip through my hands.

CL: And then, you say those surgeries were a year apart. I mean, that sounds quick when you say it. But to live a year, trying to rehab an injury, that’s epic.

DH: Yeah. And then to realize you have to go and do it all over again. And I was… I mean, dancers are at the most, they’re typically out for a year, tops. And after a year, I was like, “I can’t even dance properly.” And I knew how great the physio team at the Australian Ballet was. And in the back of my mind, I was like, “This could be the way forward. It’s either this or I’m done.”

CL: Because I was going to ask, what took you to Melbourne? How did you know that there’s a good physio team at the Australian Ballet?

DH: Oh well, I had danced with the Australian Ballet before as a guest artist. And as well, I had met the head physio who built this whole department in Japan, in a gala. Sue Mayes is her name. And I just knew through experience by just having some massage or whatever when I came as a guest artist. But as well through the grapevine, I heard how great they were. And I just said, “I’m going to buy a one-way ticket.” I asked Sue if I could come down and I basically gave them an ultimatum now that I think about it, I said, “Save me or my career is over.”

CL: And so what, you’re just calling up David McAllister and being like, “I’m coming down, you’ve got to fix the ankle”?

DH: I called up David McAllister, yeah, I did. And I said, “Will you have me?” And he said, “We’ll have you.” And I went down and I shaved my head, shed the skin, got on a plane, didn’t know when I was coming back. And 14 months later, they saved me and got me back on stage.

CL: I mean, it’s a huge amount of time to be rehabbing. Where is your headspace in these two years?

DH: Very dark. In a very, very dark place. The darkest time of my life. And honestly, it was this reemergence though. It was this rebirth. I just became a person. I became a human. I wasn’t this kind of dancer that I was defined by. And I just worked from the ground up.

CL: Wow. It’s interesting. Because you said then, when you got promoted to a principal with ABT, there’s this moment of floundering. Because what’s the goal now? Where’s the dream? You’ve achieved it. What drove you to come through that injury back to the stage? Where was the motivation? How did you find that?

DH: I’ve been asked this question before, and I actually can never answer it. Because I don’t know what kept me going forward.

CL: Is it just that you have no alternative in a way?

DH: Well that’s a really good question. Potentially, but you know, interestingly, I was asked during the injury, to become a director of a company in the US—

CL: Why you? Can we ask which one?

DH: It will remain nameless because I’m now a director of a company that I love very much. But, I was asked to become a director of a ballet company during these dark days with an injury. And I said, “No” so it’s not like I didn’t have any other options, something just kept me going. It was like every day I said, “One foot in front of the other.” And that’s really what I would tell myself. I just felt like there was unfinished business.

CL: It’s interesting that you say that. I do want to ask another question because I’ve heard you say in another interview, that part of the other things that brought you to Melbourne included love. And I wondered if that was an element of you coming out of whole that injury and rehabbing?

DH: Well, you’ve done your research. That’s great. Well, it was love at the time, yes. We are no longer together, but I’ve always had a love affair with Australia and Australians. So I think that’s partially maybe what brought me here for the rehab, because this person was advocating for me to come to the best physio team in the world. So maybe it was a mix of a couple of things.

CL: Okay. So you rehab, you make it back on the stage. So was artistic directorship, always in the back of your mind? How did that come to be the next step in your career?

DH: An artistic directorship wasn’t always on my radar in a way. It wasn’t always really the plan. I knew I wanted to stay in the dance world, but I didn’t want to teach, I didn’t want to choreograph, and I always knew maybe I would lead in a certain way, but it wasn’t until David McAllister shared with me the news that he was leaving, and he also admitted that he felt that I was the right person to take the job. First of all, I was floored he even said that. It was not on my radar. I wasn’t vying for the job, but it planted the seed. And then obviously push came to shove and here I am living in Melbourne.

CL: Which is actually a really similar story to David McAllister. Because he had just retired as a principal with the Aussie Ballet. And at that time, nobody expected him to take on the artistic directorship.

DH: Yeah. Very true. I mean, he was the underdog. He’ll be the first to admit. Yeah, well, look at the shoes I have to fill.

CL: Is it strange going from the stage to now running a company?

DH: Yeah, oh it is strange. I mean, there’s no two ways about it. I don’t miss the stage, I really feel like it was the right time for me to say goodbye to my performing career, but there’s so many different aspects to being director. And you will never be prepared for it until you’re in the position. But for me, I do have these driving forces and these inspirations and these ideas to lead this company that I love and respect so much. So it’s a really exciting moment, because I’m seven months in and I’ve barely sat down on the chair.

CL: And I guess for those young dancers in the throws of the RAD exams, and all that syllabus work, can you tell us what you look for in a dancer on the stage? What’s your aesthetic in terms of what you like to watch?

DH: Interesting because I just spoke to the first year corps de ballet members in the Australian Ballet. And we had a bit of a debrief and I shared with them some memories of when I was a first year at ADT and then we got onto the subject of what I’d like in a dancer, or what attracts me to a dancer. And interestingly, it has nothing to do with feet, legs, line, turns, jumps. It has everything to do with individuality and a unique drive to be the artist that whomever wants to be.

And I’m not looking for this is dated, in my opinion, cookie-cutter ideal of what a ballet dancer needs to be, or needs to look like. For me, it’s really about individuality, and diversity and a definition that they define. And ballet really tends to breed dancers to just be obedient. As I said, when I was training, I was like a soldier and I loved it. I loved being obedient. But now I take a look around, and I think I don’t want obedient dancers in the Australian Ballet. Of course, we’re a team, we’re a collective, we work together, but I want individuals. I want artists that question and push themselves further and do things their way. That’s what really interests me.

CL: Is there any part of you that when you watch them wishes you were still back on the stage?

DH: There’s a part of me that wishes I would have taken the advice that I have just given.

CL: Although many would view you as the rebel. As the guy who joined the Bolshoi, so that’s interesting you say that.

DH: Yeah, no I mean, I guess I’ve always loved to swim up-current, but I played the prince a lot in my career and there’s more to me than the prince I think. And I think if I were to be at their age again, I would think, “No, I want to do things my own way. Not the way ballet tells me to do.” If that makes sense.

CL: Yeah. And so just I guess on that, looking back, do you have any regrets from your career as a dancer?

DH: I do. And interestingly, that’s another question that some of the first year corps de ballet members asked me. One of my regrets was I didn’t pursue my own voice as much as I would’ve liked. And what I mean by that is, yes, I went to the Bolshoi, Yes I danced in the major opera houses, I was afforded these amazing opportunities, but there’s a different side of me as an artist that’s a bit darker and a bit—I don’t know, pushes the limits a bit more, I didn’t tap into as much as I would’ve liked. Not to say I wasn’t fulfilled, because I was really fulfilled by dancing in the Bolshoi. But everyone is multifaceted and there’s a part of me that I didn’t tap into enough.

CL: Do you think that you’ll then tap into that as an artistic director? I mean, now that you get to curate programs, do you think we’ll see that?

DH: It takes courage. And I think maybe I didn’t have the courage in my dancing career to really dive in deep with that. And I need to have the courage as an artistic director to know, or have the confidence that what I’m presenting, what I’m giving the dancers to dance, what I’m giving the audiences to watch, is worthwhile and is important, and is worth seeing. Even if it’s not meeting the perfect box office projection or whether it’s meeting the success and the popularity of certain works that’s one like “Romeo and Juliet” but it does take courage.

CL: Yeah totally. I think especially as a new artistic director, there’s a sense that you need to consolidate for the first couple of years and show you can run the company, and then it’s like, “Oh, now I can branch out.” But to have courage early, I agree, it takes a real person who can take a risk.

DH: Yeah exactly and I’ve taken the stance that I’m not here to just completely turn everything around and reinvent the Australian Ballet. No, this’ll take time. And incrementally I’ll chip away at what my vision is for the company. It cannot happen in one year.

CL: Especially a year where you’re half not on the stage.

DH: Especially a year where I can barely program anything because of the pandemic. But it takes time. It takes patience.

CL: Well, Australia is so excited to see what you bring. And I wish you all the best with that courage. It’s exciting. So thank you so much.

CL: Just before you go, any quirks of Australia which you just think, “Oh my goodness.”

DH: No quirks that I think, “Oh my goodness.” But quirks that I love. Especially all the food that I’m diving into. Vegemite and Vita-Weats, which I’m loving. But as well, I’ve taken to the city that I’m living in. I have a bike, I bike to work. I think I’m becoming a true Melbournian.

CL: So good to hear. I’m so pleased that you’re thriving here!

DH: Thank you so much.


Since we spoke, David is working to launch the 2022 season for the Australian Ballet. If you’d like to read more about David’s life, his autobiography is called A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back. For Australian Ballet updates, you can find them on Instagram @ausballet, and to continue to follow all of David’s adventures, you’ll also find him on Instagram @officialdavidhallberg. David and I recorded remotely, with David dialing in from Melbourne, the land of the Kulin people, to which we pay our greatest respects.

Talking Pointes is taking a short break. But because of the overwhelming response, thank you so much, we will be back for a new season shortly. In the meantime, if you loved our podcast, we’d love if you could give us five stars and follow or subscribe to be notified when season two arrives. Your host and producer is me Claudia Lawson, additional production by Penelope Ford with editing and sound production by Martin Peralta. And for the latest in all things dance, head to fjordreview.com.

  1. David Hallberg. Photograph by Pierre Toussaint
  2. David Hallberg with artists of the Australian Ballet. Photograph by Pierre Toussaint
  3. David Hallberg. Photograph by Pierre Toussaint
  4. David Hallberg in rehearsal with the Australian Ballet for “Shades” from “La Bayadère.” Photograph by Christopher Rodgers-Wilson