by patrick pacheco | July 23, 2014 | Lifestyle
David Hallberg and Svetlana Zakharova in Swan Lake, which they will perform at Lincoln Center in July.
Having danced the role numerous times, David Hallberg once swore off the role of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, but then the Bolshoi Ballet came calling. If the invitation from Artistic Director Sergei Filin to become the first American to join the legendary company as a premier dancer included more stints in Tchaikovsky’s much-beloved ballet, then Hallberg was determined to discover additional facets to the part of star-crossed lover Siegfried.
Hallberg’s prismatic Prince will be on display when the Bolshoi Ballet plays the David H. Koch Theater, a highlight of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival, in a program that includes Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and Spartacus. As anyone who’s been following the news knows, the fabled troupe has recently had as much internal drama (leadership turmoil, an attack on the artistic director) as any of the tempestuous ballets in its repertory.
American ties to the Bolshoi date to its debut US Tour in 1959, when New York audiences were wowed by the company’s “spectacular bravura,” says Anna Kisselgoff, former chief dance critic of The New York Times. The robust athleticism of its male dancers, honed by years of rigorous Soviet training, drew in not only balletomanes, but also people from the non-dance world. “It was an explosive, electrifying event,” adds Kisselgoff.
The Bolshoi’s productions of Spartacus, which will be performed at Lincoln Center.
Nigel Redden, the director of the Lincoln Center Festival who presented the Bolshoi in 2000, says it’s unfortunate the group hasn’t danced in New York in more than a decade. “I don’t have to tell you that there have been changes at the Bolshoi,” he says explaining the delay. “But one of our mandates is to bring companies that have to be seen here if the city is to remain one of the cultural capitals of the world. And the Bolshoi is one of those companies.” Jane Hermann, the former director of presentations at the Metropolitan Opera House, says that the ballets the Bolshoi is bringing for this engagement have long been among the most popular in its repertory, which will allow contemporary audiences to experience the type of performances that enraptured New Yorkers more than 50 years ago.
As Hallberg readies himself for the New York tour, he says he feels the weight of the Bolshoi legacy more than ever. Having spent nearly three years acclimating himself to the company, Hallberg credits his ballet comrades in Russia for inspiring him with their passion and fierce work ethic, even though they were slow to warm to him at first. “It’s a mutual learning experience,” he adds, explaining how he appreciates the “pure physicality” of the Bolshoi method. “There’s an attack to movement, to jumps, to turns, to emotions, and that’s sort of been the biggest adjustment for me,” Hallberg says. “I went through a period where my body was in extreme pain because it was being pushed to such limits. It was kind of in shock.”
But Hallberg admits he joined the Bolshoi to be pushed beyond his idea of possibility in terms of body and technique. Over time he says he’s been given the creative space to discover a balance between technical feats and artistic interpretation. “I found the audiences in Moscow were appreciative of the subtleties in the characters I’m portraying. They did not demand that I jump as high or do as many turns as my [fellow colleagues].”
David Hallberg spends four months of the year in Moscow; four in New York.
Russian critics were welcoming, too. “Entrancing and refined in his every movement,” wrote one reviewer—and The New York Times writer Alastair Macaulay raved, “Has the Bolshoi already made him faster, higher, more expansive?” When Hallberg appeared on the The Colbert Report, the irreverent host called him “Benedict Arnold in slightly tighter pants.”
Hallberg points with particular admiration to prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova who chose him to partner her in The Sleeping Beauty, which ran at the renovated and newly reopened Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 2011. She will be dancing as both Odette and Odile, heroine and antagonist, to his Prince Siegfried on opening night. “We have developed such a deep trust that we can allow ourselves to play with the roles, giving different shadings so that each performance is unique, which is really important in a partnership,” he says.
Their chemistry, says Hallberg, is prompted by the choreography of Yuri Grigorovich, now 87, who has dominated Russian ballet for decades. It is his Spartacus, also on the Lincoln Center program, that gave the Bolshoi its singular reputation for athletic daring and enduring popular appeal in the modern era.
“I feel so proud to be a part of this company,” says Hallberg, who remains a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and spends about four months of the year in Moscow and an equal amount of time in New York. “To stay relevant [as a dancer] you have to be willing to take a risk, to keep your artistic heart beating. I had to go in headfirst not knowing if I would come out on the end. But you can’t question whether ballet is alive or relevant when you see a performance of the Bolshoi. They’re just emoting the sheer beauty and incredible strength of dance.” The Bolshoi Ballet will perform July 12–July 27 at Lincoln Center, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-875-5000
opposite page: photography by Damir Yusupov (Swan Lake); this page: Damir Yusupov-Bolshoi theatre (don quixote); Elena Fetisova-Bolshoi theatre (spartacus); david armstrong (hallberg)