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In Joining Bolshoi, American Dancer Makes Historic Leap

American ballet dancer David Hallberg performing in "The Sleeping Beauty" in New York (Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)
American ballet dancer David Hallberg performing in "The Sleeping Beauty" in New York (Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)
"The Bolshoi stage is so huge that it can be a little intimidating at times," says American ballet dancer David Hallberg. "The amount of space you have to cover [and] the size of the jump you have to accomplish..."

"But I am a tall dancer [and] I have long legs, so hopefully I'll be able to fit those shoes," adds the soft-spoken 29-year-old.

The leap Hallberg is making is indeed large, but the shoes he is hoping to fill have never before existed. On November 4, he will make his debut in Moscow as the first foreign member of Russia’s legendary Bolshoi Ballet company -- entering a rarefied space at the very core of Russia’s artistic heart.

His hiring provides a counterpoint to the storied defections by Soviet dancers during the 1960s and '70s. It was, in fact, exactly 50 years ago that the man many call the greatest male ballet dancer in history -- Rudolf Nureyev -- stepped off a plane in Paris and slipped through the grasp of the USSR.

Hallberg doesn’t see his reverse journey as the equivalent, but he does acknowledge its significance.

"It's an interesting full circle in my opinion," he says. "It's not as dramatic, I think, as the defection of Nureyev [in 1961] or the defection of [Mikhail] Baryshnikov [in 1974], but it's still very important because [now] there's a foreign premier [principal dancer] at the Bolshoi Theatre, and not only a foreign premier, but one that is American, no less. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to do this justice."

"The relationship between Russia and America is in constant evolution," Hallberg adds, "and I can only just try and be some sort of ambassador to that relationship."

To Moscow, Via South Dakota

Born in the sparsely populated state of South Dakota, the lanky American says he was first inspired by Hollywood dancing legend Fred Astaire. He took up tap dancing at the age of 10 and only began ballet training at the age of 13, after his teacher recognized that he had an ideal physique and natural ability.

After training in Arizona, Paris, and New York, Hallberg joined New York’s American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in 2001. Within four years, he had been promoted to principal dancer.

Performing dozens of leading roles, Hallberg also appeared as a guest dancer with companies in Stockholm, Buenos Aires, and Kyiv. He toured Russia with ABT in 2008 and 2009, and even appeared as a guest dancer on the Bolshoi stage.

The idea to hire Hallberg permanently at the Bolshoi came from Sergei Filin, who became the company’s artistic director in March. Filin offered the American a coveted principal dancer spot just one month later, but he had been watching Hallberg’s progress for years.

Someone else who has been following Hallberg is Sarah Kaufman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet critic for "The Washington Post." She believes he is "obviously one of the great male dancers in the world."

WATCH: David Hallberg performs in "Giselle" as a guest dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet

"He just has beautiful feet -- a very princely, noble line," she says. "He's got a very elegant bearing and there's a kind of an effortless quality about his dancing. He doesn't force things -- he doesn't screw himself up before a turn, he doesn't grimace or have any of the other faults that you sometimes see in male dancers."

"Additionally, the real strength he has is in his dramatic approach to dancing. He really wants to invest himself in a character and that's what makes his performances so compelling."

Kaufman thinks Filin recognized the Bolshoi’s shortage of superior male dancers and saw a place for Hallberg.

A Bold Statement

But actually inviting Hallberg to become a member of the troupe was a move the dancer himself admits was "a bold statement," one he suggests might indicate a culture shift at the elite company.

"The Bolshoi is an amazingly historic entity," he says. "It's based on such tradition. And I feel that with this type of move, it's really opening up its doors not just to me, which I'm grateful for, but also to tell the dance world and to tell the world that it's recognizing the globalization of the art form."

Asked if has had heard of any dissent within the company about the decision to take on an American dancer, Hallberg demurred and said he is "quite naive about the internal politics of the Bolshoi administration."

But he also points out that Filin had the approval of the state-owned company’s overlords before he offered the position.

At his own request, Hallberg will remain a part-time principal at the American Ballet Theatre while also holding the rank at the Bolshoi.

Dance critic Kaufman agrees that Hallberg’s hire is a milestone, and she believes it reflects a decade of gradual changes at the Bolshoi.

"The Cold War is now over," she says. "[The Bolshoi] is not the closed-off fortress that we may think."

A Rare Opportunity

Much of that change is attributable to dancer and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who spent years in the West before returning to run the company.

Nevertheless, dance-world observers don’t expect it to open the floodgates for foreigners.

Katerina Novikova, a spokeswoman for the Bolshoi Theatre, says the company will maintain its tradition of selecting 90 percent of its vast corps of dancers from its in-house ballet academy.

With well over 200 members, the Bolshoi is the largest ballet company in the world.

Novikova says Hallberg was invited to join because of his extraordinary talent, and she says his presence could give the whole company a lift -- after he’s had a chance to prove himself.

Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, seen one month before its reopening.
"Some people might be very friendly, some people might be jealous, some people might feel quite competitive, but overall, for the company development, it's always a great step when you invite a great dancer to join," she says. "As soon as you have a great dancer in the company, the whole company pulls up, so this is always a very good mood."

Hallberg’s debut will come just one week after the 19th-century ballet and opera house is reopened following a rocky six-year restoration.

President Dmitry Medvedev will officially reopen the building on October 28 in a grand ceremony that organizers now hope will repair an image tarnished by delays, budget overruns, and an embezzlement scandal.

More undesired attention came in March with the resignation of deputy director Gennady Yanin, who stepped down after graphic pictures of him in bed with other men were posted online. Some said the leak was the result of warring factions within the company.

Hallberg has little time to think about all of that, however, describing himself as "consumed" by the prospect of starting with the company.

His first ballet will be "Giselle," in which he plays Albrecht, a character Hallberg says "dances to live and dances to his death." The character was one of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s signature roles.

In his first few performances, Hallberg says he’ll be measuring the Moscow audience, adapting his style to his fellow dancers, and "pushing myself to my limit." But he also has ambitious long-term goals.

"I feel like, personally, I want to walk away from the experience with a completely different texture of my life and my career," he says. "But also, I want to show to the ballet world that, you know, nothing is impossible."

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