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The young prince

David Hallberg, 25, is making a fast ascent to ballet royalty.

March 26, 2008|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

At 25, David Hallberg has the classic male dancer's physique and a growing collection of verbal bouquets for his artistry and technical aplomb.

But according to critics and colleagues alike, he has something rarer too: a timeless elegance that belies his age and all-American roots.

As Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, puts it, the South Dakota-born, Arizona-raised Hallberg "has unusual qualities for a male dancer that not too many through the generations have had -- the potential for the danseur noble."

L.A. audiences will be able to judge that for themselves beginning Thursday night when Hallberg takes the role of Prince Siegfried opposite his frequent partner, Michele Wiles, as Odette in the opening performance of ABT's "Swan Lake" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He'll also perform in the four-day run's closing matinee Sunday with Julie Kent.

The ABT principal made his "Swan Lake" debut in 2004. It was his first full-length story ballet, and the experience, he recalled by phone recently, was "pretty monumental" -- a tutorial in pacing, in learning when to rest and "when to just blast it out 110%."

Now, he said, each performance is an opportunity for discovery.

"As a dancer, the steps stay the same," he explained. "As an artist, the character is constantly evolving. Often, what happens spontaneously ends up being the most interesting aspect of how you portray the character."

Ballet today, he said, "is an interesting balance between upholding tradition and history and not letting it get dusty. I think that's something ABT is very good at."

Such thoughtfulness is characteristic of Hallberg, who, it turns out, has been working in ballet for a mere dozen years. He started formal training at 13, older than most beginners, after studying jazz dance and tap from ages 9 to 12 at the School of Ballet Arizona in Phoenix. He was taught by the school's then-director, former Boston Ballet soloist Kee-Juan Han, who now heads the Washington School of Ballet.

The arts weren't big in his family, but Hallberg's parents not only recognized their son's "obsession," they nurtured it, he said. "It's such a cliche, but it really was a calling. I was just drawn to it."

A childhood fascination with Fred Astaire's black-tie elegance could also have been an influence. "Maybe that rubbed off a little bit," he said.

Han says that his former student's poise and regal bearing were evident from the start: "It's very innate, you're just born with it." But he says that Hallberg also thrived on four years of rigorous training as a teen and still approaches class as a learning process rather than a warmup to go onstage. "Choreographers and directors and teachers like working with him because of that full concentration on his art form," Han said.

Hallberg left home at 16 to study at the Paris Opera Ballet School, did two stints in ABT's summer program and joined the Studio Company in 2000. He was accepted into the corps de ballet the following year and named a soloist in 2004 and a principal in 2006.

The pace of that ascent may not have been what he wished for. "When you join the company, you want to be a principal in a day," he said, but "that's not how a flower blooms and not how an artist blooms. It takes time and effort."

Indeed, a serious shoulder injury three years ago that required five months' recovery was a blessing in disguise, he said, forcing him to "step away from the art form and realize life outside the ballet -- outside culture, in a sense. It was an eye-opener, because when I graduated high school, I had started my professional career."

All the same, the young dancer stood out from the start with "an amazing facility for ballet," Wiles says. "You couldn't be any more perfect than that. He had the legs, the feet, and he's extremely handsome. He had everything any male dancer could want."

But much to learn about partnering, Hallberg said.

"A lot relies on spontaneity and instinct, feeling what [a ballerina] needs, how much power to give her and how to let her do her own thing. You can be out there by yourself, but you're essentially telling a story with someone else, so it's great when you read each other and really just listen to each other."

Now Hallberg is looking to the future. To prepare for his debut as the prince in ABT's "Giselle" this summer, he recently flew to Amsterdam to meet with former ABT principal Guillaume Graffin, a ballet master at the Dutch National Ballet.

"We dissected the character and that was really beneficial and productive," he said.

His desire to further his evolution as an artist also includes plans for roles that are the antithesis of ballet's romantic princes. "I dream to do the exact opposite," he said.

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