David Hallberg Talks Ballet and How Collaborations Fuel Creativity

David Hallberg, principal dancer with both American Ballet Theatre in New York City and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, returns to Phoenix this April to teach master classes, coach emerging dancers, and help raise funds for his eponymous scholarship at The School of Ballet Arizona. The scholarship helps boys receive dance instruction at the school, where Hallberg trained as a teen with Kee Juan Han, now director for The Washington School of Ballet.

Born in South Dakota, Hallberg moved to Phoenix as a child. He came late to ballet, starting formal training at age 13. Hallberg graduated from Arizona School for the Arts. Hallberg moved to New York City, the place he now considers home, when he was 18. Hallberg says he's thrilled to be part of the city's bustling cultural scene, where he often heads to museums, galleries, and performances of opera, theater, and classical music. Most recently, he saw Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway-bound musical Hamilton.

See also: State of the Arts: 10 Things Phoenix Needs To Do

Hallberg is more Renaissance man than bon vivant, and leads a life as disciplined as it is glamorous. By the time the sun is coming up in Phoenix, he's already made his way to the gym for conditioning, weight training, and isolation exercises that keep assorted body parts such as feet, legs, and abdomen in prime condition. Hallberg withdrew from performances with ABT this spring following a foot injury that required surgery, and has withdrawn from the coming fall season as well. Still, he stays plenty busy -- focusing on making a full recovery.

After gym-time, he hits ABT classes that typically start at 10 a.m. and run 90 minutes. Rehearsals start at noon. Depending on the ballet, they can last three to five hours. He's done with that chunk of his day by about 5 or 6 p.m. "Then I'm a normal person," quips Hallberg. He sees friends, does dinner, and enjoys the city he calls "the cultural hub of the world." For Hallberg, friends are folks like world-renowned opera singer Renee Fleming. Still, he comes across as remarkably down to earth rather than elitist.

As we talked with Hallberg by phone about his artistic journey, we got the feeling that Phoenix artists could learn a lot from his arts practice and approach to dance. "I embody that ballet world so much, but I see a lot of contemporary dance," says Hallberg. "I like to gain inspiration elsewhere." Hallberg describes ballet as his day job -- the "bread and butter" of his existence. But he's keen on exploring the breadth and depth of cultural experiences beyond ballet world, too. For Hallberg, the artistic journey is all about "continual artistic discovery."

Part of that discovery, he says, comes from collaborating with others who work in different media. "I'm collaborating with Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli for a big project this fall in New York," he says. "And I may develop some material for a Russian theater company." Hallberg's other interests include photography, but he's also dabbled in the world of fashion.

The collaborations not only fuel his own creativity, but also engage audiences in art forms they might not explore otherwise. "In collaborations and cross-cultural mediums, I'm tapping into an audience that doesn't know the dance world." They might not go to watch ballets, he says, but they'll see dance when it's paired with music written by their favorite composer or played by their favorite band. "It really boils down to visibility."

He adds, "In the art fields, and some are better at it than others, it's imperative to keep changing the format to fit our era." Gone, he says, are the days of doing the same work the same way for 40 years. "We shouldn't dummy the work down," he says. Instead, he favors educating audiences -- in part through collaborations that expose them to national and international arts and culture. Hence the need for arts organizations to "keep their hand on the pulse of what's happening internationally."

Regional thinking leads to mediocre art, Hallberg says. And visionary art requires visionary leadership. He's quick to praise Ib Andersen, artistic director of Ballet Arizona, for "contributing such an amazing portion of his knowledge" to the community.

Engagement with the community is essential, he adds. "Ballet, opera, and fine arts don't do themselves any favors if they're elitist." It's a mistake, for example, to perform opera solely in the opera house. Moving art forms beyond brick and mortar settings helps to reinforce their standing as a necessary part of life, he explains.

When we asked Hallberg about thriving arts communities outside of big cities like NYC, he spoke first of Houston, noting that Houston Ballet plays an important part in driving the city's arts scene. Next he mentioned Seattle, crediting their ballet, museums, and architecture with helping to create "an important cultural landscape."

Hallberg's injury has given him pause to consider the nature of his own professional landscape. "When you're on the horse, you're moving really fast," he says. Now he has time to "sit back and question" a wealth of options. "I have projects spanning upwards to three years," he adds. "It's all a matter of how long I want to dance classical ballet." Hallberg notes that he's already "started to take the role of producer and curator," which is something he'd like to continue moving forward.

"When I finally retire I'll have a responsibility to push the art form forward," says Hallberg, who talks of being a "spokesperson for American ballet" both here and abroad. For now, he's focused on his "responsibility to mentor a generation of young artists." It can be especially difficult for boys who feel "the calling of an artist." They're rarely encouraged to pursue an arts career, he says. He's hoping his time in Arizona can help change that.

During A Day With David Hallberg at Ballet Arizona on Sunday, April 19, he'll offer two master classes in which he'll teach technique and share anecdotes about what he's learned dancing around the world. Ballet Arizona is offering the opportunity to watch these classes for a $25 donation per class. Limited seating is available for a luncheon that features an interview with Hallberg and Andersen, which requires a $150 donation. Find more information on the Ballet Arizona website.

See also: Wendy Whelan on Restless Creature and Life After New York City Ballet

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