A conversation with David Hallberg

I spoke with David Hallberg, principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, the morning after Natalie Portman waltzed away with a best actress Oscar for her performance in “Black Swan.”

Hallberg noted that she’d done some of her dance training for the film at the ABT studios in New York, and was generous in his praise of her work in developing the level of movement needed to perform the role of “Nina.”

Still, he’s quick to dispel the myth that “Black Swan” is a ballet flick. Instead, Hallberg describes it as “a great horror movie.”

Hallberg uses the term “focused pressure” to describe his own experience as a principal dancer — noting that he’ll be performing in March with the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia.

“All the world and Russia will be watching,” reflects Hallberg. One “could buckle under the pressure,” he says. “But — knock on wood — I never do that.”

So is there a strategy Hallberg suggests for developing dancers? “Focus the stresses,” he says. “Know how to use them to your best advantage.”

David Hallberg performs in “Other Dances” (Photo by Rosalie O’Connor)

It sounds like he got plenty of experience doing just that during his five years as a student at Arizona School for the Arts — which recently honored Hallberg with its inaugural “Distinguished Young Alumnus Award.”

Arizona School for the Arts, a charter school in downtown Phoenix that serves grades 5-12, is currently celebrating its 15th anniversary.

ASA students spend their mornings in academic classes and their afternoons in arts classes. The school enjoys partnerships with several professional arts organizations, including Ballet Arizona.

Hallberg credits much if his success to Kee-Juan Han, with whom he studied both at ASA and at what’s now known as the School of Ballet Arizona.

Despite his devotion to ballet, a talent Hallberg first honed during his early teens (which is late by ballet standards), he was always expected to study hard and get good grades.

“My parents were never okay with me having a secondary academic career,” shares Hallberg. After a full school day at ASA, he’d take more dance classes at the Ballet Arizona studios.

Hallberg recalls doing homework during brief breaks between classes — then heading home around 9pm for a protein shake, more homework and that scarce resource known as sleep.

While studying at ASA, Hallberg’s mornings began at 5:15am. First there was the drive to school. Then more homework. Then classes and dance for the rest of the day.

David Hallberg performs in “Cinderella” (Photo by Marty Sohl)

But what about the students studying dance who haven’t the same passion for pursuing a ballet career? Hallberg says they enjoy the same benefits — developing discipline, a strong work ethic and the focus that’s helpful in all walks of life.

Hallberg recalls that French was among his favorite academic classes at ASA, where all students are required to complete several years of study in either Spanish or French. It came in handy during his time with the Paris Opera Ballet.

Hallberg describes developing greater appreciation for history and language arts as his “school career went along.”

He’s especially intrigued by European history and the “molding influence of arts” on movements like the Renaissance and the Reformation. He also sees the influence of arts in contemporary movements and events.

David Hallberg performs in “Giselle” (Photo by Rosalie O’Connor)

So was there something specific in his ASA education that gave Hallberg this appreciation for the interplay of arts and culture? “I had an education,” reflects Hallberg, “that was out of the box.”

“It wasn’t a conventional A-B-C type academic education,” says Hallberg. “It taught me to see all shadings of a certain situation.”

Hallberg feels the experience sets him apart from his peers. “I realize my responsibility as an artist to influence my contemporaries and the next generation.”

Too often public education in our country doesn’t value or respect students as individuals, according to Hallberg. “At ASA,” he says, “being an individual is encouraged.”

“Being a unique individual,” muses Hallberg, “is what sets you apart from the status quo.” Hallberg says his years at ASA were “very positive and formative” — helping him “spread his wings” to become the person he is today.

Experiences at ASA taught Hallberg to keep reaching and growing — and to share the wealth of his experiences with others.

“When you have a talent or a calling,” says Hallberg, “it’s one thing to rest on your laurels.” The higher calling is “owning up to the responsibility that brings.”

When he’s not dancing or traveling, Hallberg enjoys experiencing “other art forms.”

Hallberg rattles off a long list that includes visual arts, museums, other performance art and classical music. Also something he calls “techno” — a fact shares with a bit of a giggle.

But how did Hallberg even realize he had an interest in dance? What made him take that first class? What started the journey to so many places far and wide?

“I saw Fred Astaire on television at the age of eight,” recalls Hallberg. “I just knew I wanted to move like him.”

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about ASA’s affiliation with another Valley arts organization, Phoenix Theatre.

Coming up: Burning questions (inspired by Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony), Real drama in Wisconsin, Scottsdale Conservatory Theatre

Update: Mr. Hallberg has accepted the position of premier (principal dancer) with the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia, the first American dancer to do so. Learn more at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/21/arts/dance/american-to-join-the-bolshoi-ballet.html?_r=2&hp. Updated: 9/20/11.

Update: The Opera & Ballet in Cinema Series presents a live simulcast of the Bolshoi Ballet production of “The Sleeping Beauty” featuring Svetlana Zakharova and David Hallberg in three Arizona theaters at 8am on Sun, Nov. 20. Click here for details. Updated: 11/3/11.