Pointe Stars

David Hallberg on His New Memoir, and How His Injury Recovery Changed Him

An emotional Hallberg during bows after a performance of "Giselle" last May at the Metropolitan Opera House. Photo by Kent. G. Becker, Courtesy Simon & Schuster.

On November 7, David Hallberg's highly anticipated memoir, A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back, will be available in bookstores. (It's currently available for pre-order from Simon & Schuster and various other retailers.) Published by Touchstone Books, the autobiography details Hallberg's arduous recovery from a series of career-threatening injuries, and his triumphant return to the stage. Marina Harss spoke with the American Ballet Theatre principal about how his experience has changed him, his future with the Bolshoi and his desire to someday direct a company.


Courtesy Simon & Schuster

Why did you decide to write a memoir?

The initial seed was planted by New York Times dance critic Roslyn Sulcas. This was way before the Bolshoi. She just said you're traveling a lot now. You know, maybe just start to jot some things down about your experiences. So I took her advice, and then Simon & Schuster called and expressed interest in a book, and I dove in headfirst.

The focus of the book must have changed a lot after the injury.

Absolutely, and to be honest, the book had no backbone before the injury. It was "dance memoir 101." Not to say I didn't have a story to tell. But the meat of the book and for me, the heart, and soul, and the gut, is the nightmare that I went through with the injury.

As I was reading the book it felt almost as if you were a survivor of some kind of trauma.

It was emotionally traumatic. It was physically traumatic. It was mentally traumatic. Everything unraveled, and everything went wrong.


How has the experience of being away from the stage for two years, and coming back from a series of potentially-career-ending injuries changed you?

I see things more holistically. It's really not just about the self and the ego anymore. I'm more compassionate, and I know that when something comes my way, I can live through it. I'm a lot more aware of everything around me, of who I'm partnering, of portraying a character, of boiling it down to who I am within a given framework.


Hallberg backstage with ABT's physical therapist, Peter Marshall. Photo Courtesy Simon & Schuster.

You talk a lot about the ego in the book, and in your profession you need a healthy ego. So how are you going to reconcile this new outward focus with the ego that goes with being an artist?

One thing I haven't lost is my ambition. It's never good enough. There's always something to discover. When I step onstage as Albrecht or in a new ballet, I do so wanting to discover the experience, using what I've been given and my years of experience. But the sour part of ego, that's when things spoil and when the goal is compromised, and it becomes about something more fickle than artistic fulfillment.

It seems that one thing that led to your injury is overwork. Have you learned to say no?

Absolutely. I revel in preparatory time, in being afforded six weeks to prepare for the fall season as opposed to coming in two weeks before and doing repertoire that I already know so I could just throw it onstage and say I've done a full season. I don't have to run around like crazy. It doesn't make me feel good anymore.

Another important theme in the book is loneliness. Is it something inherent in the profession? Or is it more about who you are?

It's the loneliness of the path I chose. I chose to travel a lot. I chose to accept these invitations. I chose to put myself in an environment where I knew no one and didn't speak the language. It's more who I am than about the profession. I go to Australia, and there, it's this inclusive environment. The dancers are so beautifully taken care of. They all go through their entire school and professional lives together. It's this environment that's very protective, and you feel this connectivity with everyone around you. I had the opposite, and so I guess it's what I crave as a person.

You crave it? It sounds like a double-edged sword.

Yeah, it's difficult, but I've learned that I get bored if I don't have those challenges. I love the difficulty of saying I'm going to Moscow alone. How exciting. How scary. Or, I'm moving to Paris. I don't speak the language. I know no one. I'm buying a one-way ticket, and I'm moving to Australia for I don't know how long to see if strangers, essentially, can save my career. Those experiences are who I am.


Hallberg with Evgenia Obraztsova in "Onegin" at the Bolshoi Ballet. Photo by Batyr Annadurdyev, Courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Are you going to go back to the Bolshoi?

Not sure.

You haven't made plans yet?

No. To be determined.

You write very movingly about what it felt like to dance Giselle and Romeo and Juliet with Natalia Osipova. And how bewildering it was when she left the Bolshoi, where you had hoped to dance with her. It has recently been announced that you will be dancing Giselle with her next year, at ABT and the Royal Ballet. Have you been in touch?

I have. It makes me emotional.

Was that the ultimate experience for you?

It was. That's why I dance. To experience what we had, not just what she gave me, but what I gave her, what we give each other.

How have you changed as a dancer?

It's a constant evolution. I feel like physically, I'm more earthbound. I've restructured my entire instrument, and it has more weight. I carry myself differently because I have a lot more to support myself with.

You had help on the physical side, but was the rest of it, the mental healing, up to you?

Well, one of the branches of the rehab team is a sport psych. So I would see a sport psych every week, just mentally get me through the process. But I have to say, as much as it helped seeing a sport psych and as vital as it is going through an injury, it was the moments of just sitting in the park drinking beer, and smoking, and just, being alone that really…. Those were the most productive moments.


Hallberg and Australian Ballet principal Amber Scott. Photo by Kate Longley, Courtesy Simon & Schuster.

Now that you've gotten so close to losing your dance career, can you imagine a life after ballet?

Absolutely. I still think about it daily. I was this close.... I was about to step over the edge and go into another life. I know my passion as a dancer is so crystalized because of what I went through, but my passion for what I want to give as a non-dancer is even more crystalized. That was part of the process, as well. I know what it tastes like. I'm not scared of it at all.

And what is that?

You know, I feel so empowered to give to this art form as a leader. I can see where it is now, and I want to drive it forward. The most obvious thing would be to be a director of company. I feel so impassioned about leading dancers and taking what I've been given in my career around the world and applying that to an institution. I've always had an interest in that, but eventually, push will come to shove, and I will hopefully find an institution that I believe in and that believes in me, and I'll be so ready.

Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington Ballet

You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.

How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.

Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas

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Summer Study Advice
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.

Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.


Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

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