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From South Dakota to the Bolshoi, a dancer’s leap
NEW YORK _ When David Hallberg was 9, he brought his brand new tap shoes to show-and-tell at school. The other boys all brought their hockey sticks. It can be lonely being a boy who loves dance, especially in the American heartland.
But 20 years later, Hallberg is in the midst of a remarkable journey, one that’s taken him from South Dakota to Minnesota to Arizona to Paris to New York, and a career as one of the world’s very top young ballet dancers. And now, to something else: He debuts on Friday as a premier dancer at the storied Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. He is not only the first American accorded this honor. He’s the first foreigner, period.
Longtime ballet teacher Kee-Juan Han was sitting in a cafe in Las Vegas when his phone rang earlier this year.
“Mr. Han, I have something to tell you,” said the voice on the other end, filled as much with trepidation as excitement.
It was his prize former pupil _ Hallberg, 29, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, whom Han had taken under his wing nearly two decades earlier in Phoenix. He was a scrawny kid, Han remembers, with a shock of blond hair, long in front, short in back, who’d taped nickels to the bottom of his shoes so he could tap down the street _ a bit like an American Billy Elliot.
In the ballet world, earthshaking news is hard to come by. Long gone are the days when dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov were household names. Dancers debut new roles, join companies, get promoted, retire. Faithful fans track it all, but it’s an insular world.
This, though, was pretty big. Exactly 50 years after Nureyev defected to the West for artistic freedom, and 37 years after Baryshnikov did the same, Hallberg was being offered a reverse voyage of sorts, one that showed how much the world has changed since those events, and how global culture had become.
He also had the chance to show Russians on their home turf that an American was as good as the best Russian dancers, who for so many decades had dominated the ballet world.
Yet Hallberg was struggling with the decision. Could he make it work, along with his duties as an ABT principal? And would he be up to the task? He wanted the opinion of his favorite teacher.
After a few months of searching talks with his parents in Phoenix and with ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie, who gave his blessing (Hallberg will split his time between the companies), Hallberg accepted. He starts with “Giselle” on Friday, alongside Natalia Osipova, the young Bolshoi phenom with whom he’s forged a thrilling artistic partnership.
Unsurprisingly to those close to him, he understands acutely the historic import of his move.
“I have a responsibility now,” he said in a recent interview in a midtown New York City cafe, taking a break during a packed day of classes and rehearsals. “Not to get existential or anything, but you’ve got this talent, you work very hard, and now, there’s even more of a responsibility.
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