If you ever want to get to know a person quickly, ask them what they’ve been reading lately. For David Hallberg, the internationally renowned dancer and recently installed artistic director of The Australian Ballet, it’s “So Much Longing in So Little Space”, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 2019 book on the expressionist painter Edvard Munch.
“It’s a sort of interpretation of Munch as an artist; it meditates on his development and what he was going through mentally,” Hallberg says. “I typically read non-fiction because I just like the whole process of life.” Hallberg was turned on to Knausgaard when he ripped through the Norwegian writer’s dense and polarising six-volume, 3,600-page autobiographical novel, “My Struggle”.
“It’s a big undertaking,” admits Hallberg, 39. “But I’ve realised that I’m a person who doesn’t like things to be easy.” And there you have it, words that get right to the heart of who Hallberg is: a man for whom the road well travelled is anathema, whose life has been one continual march towards that which challenges and often downright terrifies him.
But, of course, one would expect no less from a dancer who’s been described by the New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay as “the world’s foremost paragon of classical style”, a dancer of such talent he was the first American to be invited to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal. He has undertaken every notable part on every notable stage in the world and has been dubbed the Rudolf Nureyev of his generation.
Hallberg’s appetite for the almost impossible saw him rise to the highest ranks, succumb to a potentially career-ending injury at the tender age of 33 and then — after two surgeries, a year of beer-and- cigarette-fuelled depression and 14 months of painful, tiresome physical rehabilitation — rise again like the proverbial Lazarus and return to the stage. He documents this archetypal hero’s journey in his 2017 memoir, “A Body of Work” (in the closing pages, he writes, “There is no deeper gratitude than when something is taken away from you and you regain it through the help and guidance of others and, most significantly, your own sheer will.”)
That hunger is also what drove him to accept the artistic directorship of The Australian Ballet in 2020, in spite of the fact he’d never been the director of a company before and would have to pack up his New York life and relocate indefinitely to Melbourne.
“It’s something that’s always been innate in me,” he says over the phone in early January from his parents’ house in Phoenix, Arizona. “When I look back at times in my life where things have been easy, I’ve become uninspired, bored and predictable. It makes me unsettled.”
As if on cue, the universe saw fit to plague Hallberg’s transition from dancer to artistic director with as many complications as possible. The news that he would take over from David McAllister in 2021 (his much-loved predecessor had served as the company’s artistic director for almost 20 years when he announced his retirement) broke on March 2, 2020, and the first year of Hallberg’s tenure was spent leading the company through endless cancellations and postponement caused by Covid-19.
“I didn’t have time to think, ‘How am I transitioning [into this role]? How am I going? How is my mental health?’ because what was in front of me was The Australian Ballet going through a crisis that no-one has ever experienced in their lifetime,” he says. “I had no time to come up for air. And I think that was probably for the best, because had I stopped to let myself think about it or let the experience wash over me, I probably would have been going through it — but I didn’t even have time to go through it.”
The pandemic not only cast a long shadow over his first year at the company, it also meant that a farewell tour he had planned to undertake in 2020 and 2021, his last as a dancer, was cancelled. “I didn’t get the closure that I was setting myself up for,” he admits, though he doesn’t rule out the possibility that he’ll perform again at some point. In many ways, the new role saved him from the inevitable identity crisis that would have plagued an ageing principal forced into months-long global lockdowns. Asked if he thinks it is harder for ballet dancers — so used to tightly controlling their every move, their every muscle — to surrender to the uncertainty of the pandemic, Hallberg nods.
“Dancers can’t just pack up and take our work home with us,” he says. “We need a space, we need a studio and, most importantly, we need the stage and the thousands of people who watch a performance. If I had still been in my dancing career, the uncertainty of when the next performance would be, trying to stay in shape — you know, a dancer is an athlete in a way, and we have to keep our instruments finely tuned — the consistency of that at my age would have been really, really difficult.”
The Australian Ballet has a stellar international reputation, but it’s no overstatement to say that securing Hallberg was a major coup (“To put it in sporting terms, imagine Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo announcing their retirement from football to go and coach the Socceroos,” explained a local newspaper). But Hallberg refers to the role as a “calling” and says he’s long harboured an emotional investment in The Australian Ballet, and Australia in general.
“There is a human-ness, a human quality on the stage, that I was attracted to the first time I came here, in 2010,” he says. “The Russians don’t have it, the French don’t have it, the English don’t have it — it’s this warmth. I really feel that’s why there is such a devoted audience in Australia to The Australian Ballet, because the dancers are these elite athletes, these artists, but they connect with the audience on a very human level. It’s a very beautiful thing.”
Plus, there’s the fact that it was The Australian Ballet’s world-renowned physical rehabilitation team, led by Sue Mayes, that ensured Hallberg’s recovery from his ankle injury in 2017. The story of his physical and mental recovery in Melbourne forms the emotional core of “A Body of Work”. When Hallberg made his triumphant return to the stage, to perform the role of Albrecht in an American Ballet Theatre production of “Giselle” at the Metropolitan Opera House, his parents flew out Sue Mayes and her team members Megan Connelly and Paula Baird Colt to watch the performance.
“I would not be where I am now without that experience,” says Hallberg, who spent his 14 months of rehabilitation getting to know everyone at the company, from the dancers to the cleaning crew. “I learned about the DNA of the company in a way that is so valuable to my role now.” That role includes attracting a new level of international talent to collaborate with The Australian Ballet, like Pam Tanowitz, the acclaimed New York City choreographer whose 2021 piece “Watermark” was Hallberg’s first commission as artistic director.
And while Hallberg is tight-lipped about his future plans for The Australian Ballet, he points to the company’s upcoming show “Kunstkamer”, a contemporary piece originally commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Nederlands Dans Theater, as an example of “exactly the kind of rich, modern work I want The Australian Ballet to do”.
His role also extends to nurturing commercial partnerships, such as the ongoing collaboration between The Australian Ballet and the high-jewellery house Van Cleef & Arpels. In addition to being the company’s official jewellery partner, Van Cleef & Arpels is also the major sponsor of Bodytorque.Digital, which showcases immersive digital-led dance pieces via The Australian Ballet’s YouTube channel (launched in December 2021; work so far includes short pieces by the choreographers Alice Topp and Daniel Riley).
It’s part of the broader Bodytorque program (also supported by the brand) that has been running since 2004. “There’s a real authenticity in the connection between the company and Van Cleef,” says Hallberg. “They really nurture and support The Australian Ballet.”
So much of Hallberg’s life has been spent in motion, as he hurtles towards the next challenge. As a dancer, he used to travel tens of thousands of kilometres across the globe each month, from Paris to Milan, London to Moscow, New York to Rio de Janeiro. He never really had the opportunity to put down roots. So, as he embarks on his second year as the artistic director of The Australian Ballet, has he had a moment to reflect on his career thus far? Is he astonished at the level and speed he has operated at?
“I haven’t looked back. I think I’ll be on my deathbed and I won’t look back,” he says with a laugh. “A good friend of mine paid me one of the greatest compliments. He said, ‘You’re always two steps ahead.’ I don’t know if I am or not but, my God, what a compliment. I’m not looking back and lamenting on what was, or what I did; I’m two steps ahead of myself. That’s what I always want to continue to do — be always looking forward.”