MOSCOW — When the Kings of the Dance tour -- a showcase of some of the top male dancers in the world -- premiered at the Stanislavsky Musical Theater last week, the representative of the legendary Bolshoi Ballet was South Dakota-born David Hallberg. An American in the Bolshoi? It was unimaginable just months ago.
But the Bolshoi did imagine it, and on Sept. 21 what some dubbed a defection in reverse was announced, recalling the days when heralded dancers, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov among them, fled the Soviet Union for Western companies.
"It is a lot to swallow, the pressure is very high, the responsibility is huge," Hallberg said, taking a break from Bolshoi rehearsals. "I have always looked at people who have been part of the Bolshoi history -- [Vladimir] Vasiliev, [Yuri] Grigorovich and the list goes on and on -- and just to think that I can become part of that is so hard to wrap my head around, it is so overwhelming."
Hallberg, born in Rapid City 29 years ago, becomes the first American member of the 235-year-old company after six years as a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre, where his starring roles have included Prince Charming, Romeo and Prince Siegfried.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 13, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Bolshoi dancer: A headline on an article about dancer David Hallberg in the Oct. 12 Calendar section implied that he was a member of the Bolshoi's ballet corps. Hallberg is a principal dancer with the company.
"When I saw David for the first time on stage, I was simply shattered as I saw a real prince, ideal for our classical productions," said Anatoly Iksanov, general director of the Bolshoi Theater. "There and then I told myself: 'This artist must dance at the Bolshoi!' "
Hallberg's contract involves an undisclosed sum that Iksanov said doesn't exceed the size of contracts of the other Bolshoi premier dancers.
"I wanted to do the offer justice, for if I were to commit myself to it, I was going to do it with full intentions," Hallberg said, adding that he had consulted the former Bolshoi Ballet artistic director and now ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. "Alexei said it was a great historical moment, a huge opportunity and a huge moment in the Bolshoi history."
Hallberg's first appearance in a Bolshoi production will be partnering with Natalia Osipova in "Giselle" on the New Stage of the State Academic Bolshoi Theater on Nov. 4. But two weeks later he is set to experience a career highlight when he opens the season on the renovated main stage of the company's historic theater, pairing with prima-ballerina Svetlana Zakharova in a new production of "The Sleeping Beauty."
Far from artistically defecting to Russia, Hallberg is planning to live and work in Moscow and New York a month or two at a time as, he said, he remains committed to ABT -- a key provision in the Bolshoi deal.
"I really don't want to lose my influence and my place at ABT because I feel like I represent American ballet, and I feel a responsibility to do that even more now," Hallberg said. "In Russia, now I represent the globalization of ballet."
The dancer hopes that as he finds more time, he will rent an apartment here and discover his own Moscow: "I mean not the Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral, but I want to discover my own Moscow, my cafes, my grocery store, galleries, museums and performance houses that I like to go to."
" Raz-dva-tri, raz-dva-tri."
Bolshoi former premier dancer and current coach Alexander Vetrov sets the pace for the morning ballet class in the newly renovated -- and still smelling of fresh paint -- spacious rehearsal hall of the historic Bolshoi building. A dozen dancers go through routine movements, the tall, lean and fair-haired Hallberg among them, his big gray-blue eyes full of resolute concentration.
"Some of these boys will have less time on stage now that David is here but this kind of competition is good for them I think," Vetrov said.
"On the whole it is a good political decision as it may open up new prospects of foreign tours for the theater and also attract new sponsors given David's name and world prestige."
By now Hallberg knows that raz-dva-tri is Russian for one-two-three but admits that mastering the language will be one of the big challenges in the coming year. He pondered for about two months on the Bolshoi offer, which he said came as a complete surprise.
'A bold move'
Sergei Filin, the new Bolshoi Ballet artistic director, offered the job to Hallberg over lunch earlier in April when the dancer was in Moscow with ABT.
Hallberg recalled that Filin said it "was a bold move for him and that he wanted to usher in a new era for the Bolshoi Ballet."
"Everyone in America knows about the Bolshoi Ballet, but it was not even on my radar as I was not thinking about the Bolshoi because it seemed to be so far away and belong to a different world," he said, in a cafeteria in a corner of that very different world.
"And when I came for the first time to dance at the Bolshoi as a professional dancer in 2004, in an American ballet gala show on its historical stage before the renovation, I thought, 'OK, this is the once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I will never be back, so I should enjoy this moment.'"