Classicism, by definition, has well-established roots—a slant on beauty that is governed by tradition, achieved only through a kind of monastic grit. But even the most Apollonian of ballet dancers, David Hallberg, has found a way to skirt the usual order of things, in part by refusing to stay rooted. In 2011, six years into his reign as a principal with New York’s American Ballet Theatre, the lithe-limbed South Dakota native took on a historic post: the first US emissary to join the Bolshoi in Russia. Given the country’s famously exacting state-funded arts program—with no shortage of homegrown talent—it was a coup for an American to nab the title of premier dancer. It also was an unusual case of reverse migration, after a decades-long tide of Soviet stars heading west.
Hallberg got his first taste of the foreigner’s life as a coltish teen, during a year spent training with the Paris Opera Ballet. Later, as the ABT and Bolshoi touring schedules ramped up, he settled into an intercontinental rhythm. But it was a devastating lower-leg injury in 2014, followed by a cascade of complications, that sent the dancer halfway around the globe. There, in Melbourne, he hunkered down with the Australian Ballet’s physiotherapy team—and a steady drip of good local coffee—for fifteen months. The Hail Mary pass worked (as chronicled in Hallberg’s memoir, A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back), and he returned to dancing in December 2016, just as the firestorm raged about Russian election interference.
What is it like to represent the two adversaries in the Trump era? Hallberg sees himself in the role of “artistic ambassador,” operating in a different sphere than politics. (There is much to disagree with on both sides, he points out.) It’s the close friendships, along with the unspoken language of ballet, that connects him with his Russian counterparts, including Natalia Osipova, the luminous former Bolshoi principal—now with the Royal Ballet in London—who recently headlined a program with Hallberg at New York’s City Center. The following morning, en route to the airport bound for Moscow, he made time for a call to talk about travel. Fitting enough.
Tell me about the quick turnaround from last night’s performance to today’s flight. Do you have certain routines for a smooth transition? Totally. Adrenaline doesn’t stop after a show for at least four hours, so by 2am is when you start to consider winding down, maybe going to sleep. Fast forward to the morning after, and you’re kind of shell-shocked because of the obvious exertion of energy. You have to put your travel brain on, which means switching gears. All of that has to happen pretty quickly—but there’s always a point after a show where I just need a really cold beer and a moment.
Is that your favorite way to wind down? A cold beer, or last night it was a Belvedere martini. I went to the Park Hyatt lobby; usually it’s somewhere close by. My favorite thing to do when I finish shows at the Met Opera is to sneak away with my manager and go to Café Luxembourg. We sit in a corner and have a beer and a meal—no big party after, no big event.
What makes Moscow feel like home to you? My friends really anchor the sense of feeling like I’m back in Moscow. There’s a very famous bar called Simachev, which, after ten years, is closing its doors today. I’m missing it by a matter of twelve hours, but all my friends are bidding it farewell right now. To be honest, the canteen at Bolshoi Theatre is something I have grown to love so much because it’s serving the same kind of Soviet food that it’s been serving for decades. It’s very simple meat, vinaigrette salads, borscht, great soups. An entire meal is like $4, and the food is very fresh and delicious. Almost every day that’s where I either have lunch or a snack before the performance.
How’s your Russian language coming along? It’s not bad; it’s certainly better than in past years. The problem is that all of my colleagues—the dancers, the administrative staff, the cleaning ladies—everyone knows the American in the building, and so they all try to practice their English! It has been a point of connection, but lately I’ve sort of put a stop to that. I’m ready to learn the language in the country that I’m spending a good amount of time in.
Is there a nonverbal code-shift when you return to Bolshoi, in terms of the ballet vocabulary? There’s certainly a difference in style, but as well at Bolshoi you really feel the weight of its history. A lot of modern ballet dancers working today could find that very daunting, but I see it through an outsider’s eye and have really grown to appreciate the traditions that Bolshoi has, and the language that it speaks. But dance is also a universal art form. I’ve been in circumstances where my partner and I don’t speak the same language, but we can dance together—we can get the job done.
What drew you to Melbourne during that fraught time with your injury? I was at a crossroads. I was either going to give up and completely retire because of the injury, or, having had intermittent first-hand experience with the physio team down at the Australian Ballet, I knew how good they were. I just had a hunch that if I went down there and committed everything, that I would reap the benefits. I bought a one-way ticket and decided to go rehab with them, to see if anything could be done. What ended up happening was Australia just served as this geographical and even emotional healing place. In America, everything is fixed with surgery; if something is torn or broken, just put a pin in it, or a needle and thread to sew it up. The approach at the Australian Ballet, it’s more through conditioning and manual therapy. It takes time and commitment, but it’s a noninvasive approach. It gave me an education of how to approach my body as an athlete.
What is your first pit stop when you’re back with the Australian Ballet? The minute I get to Melbourne, I crave their world-famous coffee. I hit a place called Dukes, which is on my way to the theater. There’s something really unique about any coffee shop in Melbourne. They have just perfected the art of individual service. For me, Dukes not only is a great cup of coffee, but it has this homey energy. People get to know you quite quickly. There’s also Tivoli Road Bakery. When I walk in, even if I’m away for a number of months, they remember you, they know what you’re drinking. Places in New York tend to stay impersonal, in terms of grabbing a cup of coffee. Everyone’s always on the run.
Do you partake in local wellness practices? I’m curious about the Russian baths. I absolutely do. There’s a very famous banya in Moscow called Sanduny, and I’m there almost every Monday with another dancer at Bolshoi. It’s the real deal. There are big fat Russian dudes drinking steins of beer, and it opened in, I think, 1808. It’s very old, very traditional, and very, very beautiful.
Speaking of treasured buildings, what are your favorite ballet theaters around the world? Bolshoi Theatre—because as “big” (big is bolshoi in Russia) as the stage is, it’s the perfect size for a tall dancer like me. New York City Center—because of the memories I have made on that stage in the beginning of my career. Met Opera House—because the audiences and I know each other the best, a relationship over many years. Mariinsky Theatre—because on its stage: Balanchine, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Petipa. I can’t help but feel reverential. And Sydney Opera House—simply because after a show, leaving and being surrounded by that harbor.
Are there any unusual backstage traditions in the Russian dance world? One thing I’ve noticed post-show during bows: Russians aren’t afraid to give men flowers onstage. Flowers are a big gesture in Russia. You always get the birthday-girl flowers; they’re a very emotional gesture, in a way. If you come to see a performer, you can get them flowers, drop them off at stage door, and they’ll deliver them to the dancer onstage during the bows. But in America, for some reason, people think that’s very emasculating. They would never give a male dancer flowers onstage, which I think is quite comical. Sometimes male dancers will be retiring from the stage, and they’ll get a bouquet of flowers in the shape of a horseshoe, which has always boggled my mind. Why try and mask it—like you’re American Pharoah at the Derby, having a horseshoe wrapped around your neck? Flowers are a beautiful gesture—regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.
Laura Regensdorf is the beauty director at Vanity Fair and a contributing editor at Vogue.