Acclaimed dancer David Hallberg thinks of ballet in existential terms—and shows us his ‘dirty side’

As part of the Bolshoi Ballet, Hallberrg wants to propel the ensemble into the the 21st century. He speaks with architect Charles Renfro for Document's Spring/Summer 2013 issue.

David Hallberg raised more than eyebrows after his appointment as the first American principal of the Bolshoi ballet, including public critique directed at the Bolshoi’s artistic director. Dividing his time between Moscow and New York, where he is also a principal of the American Ballet Theater, Hallberg is as active as he is exacting. The dancer sat down for a conversation with Charles Renfro, the renowned architect and partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who himself is responsible for designing some of the most acclaimed dance spaces at Julliard, Alice Tully Hall, the ICA in Boston, and the American Ballet Theater studios.

Charles Renfro: I don’t want to start this discussion with the typical “how does it feel to be the first American dancing at the Bolshoi” or “how old are you” but rather go for the jugular: Why ballet? I’m curious about this from both a personal and cultural point of view, from a place that’s larger than you and will outlast your direct contribution to it. What does ballet mean in the 21st century and what do you hope to do with it?

David Hallberg: What a great kickstarter. For me it’s more of a question of not just, “why ballet, but why art?” I like to think of myself as more than just a ballet dancer. To speak in basic terms, ballet chose me. I had no choice. It was this gust of wind or force stronger than myself, working behind me and propelling me forward. It’s more of a calling than a profession. Consequently I love it and I have huge amounts of respect for it. But to answer your question, why are people drawn to art? Why are people drawn to people creating art? For me, it’s the questions of life as a whole. It’s not always about beauty. I think it goes deeper than that. I think it begins to uncover disturbing existential questions of why we are here. My work addresses questions that I am asking about my life. I cry with art, I cry about what I do, I laugh, I want to kill myself, I want to crawl in a hole and disappear. All of the above really. It’s bigger than ballet I think.

Charles: When you and your Russian Bolshoi partner rose to your feet after your first performance of Romeo and Juliet, you were both in tears. I almost started crying when I read about that moment. What was going through your mind?

David: I think for once in my career I actually wasn’t portraying the character, I was the character. I have had a really hard time differentiating between being an interpreter of classic ballets and being the character I’ve been given. That was one of the very, very few moments where I felt like I was Romeo, and over the course of three hours, I lived a lifetime: from a child screwing around with his friends being an asshole, to falling in love at first sight, to conflict, to pain and death. You don’t know what has hit you. Life has forever changed. Both my partner and I experienced all of that for real on stage that night.

“It’s amazing where your mind goes and what is hashed out while you’re watching a piano recital or an opera—about your day, your stresses, your relationship or whatever, not to mention the pure bliss of the experience itself.”

Charles: That’s an amazing catharsis to have shared with the audience. That wasn’t you being Romeo, that was Romeo as you.

Ballet is a pure art form based on specific language handed down through generations. It’s not as open as modern dance or time based art so it would seem that much of the mission of contemporary classical ballet must be about preservation and education.  Is that an accurate assessment?

David: Yeah. I think that is the one of the biggest challenges in classical ballet today. There is an idiom and there is a technique that has been preserved for hundreds of years which is in and of itself beautiful.  The Bolshoi has financial support from the government to uphold certain standards, which might seem to be archaic. A lot of what is presented or expected of a dancer appears archaic, particularly in relation to a contemporary audience. Most kids aren’t exposed to ballet. It’s not part of mass culture and it makes me question what I’m doing a bit. I wonder how I can move ballet forward in lockstep with my passion. Opera is now being shown in cinemas, Black Swan was a blockbuster, So You Think You Can Dance is very popular, so there are little infiltrations of these traditional artistic forms into popular culture. But it’s not like when Nureyev was dancing and on the covers of magazines.

Charles: I wonder how much of ballet’s popularity or lack thereof is its restriction to traditional theaters? As you know, my firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, while primarily an architecture firm, dabbles in all forms of cultural production including dance and theater. One of our preoccupations is the space of the theater itself—we’ve been tearing it apart and reassembling it for years, trying to make it new or unrecognizable. And a lot of performance and time-based art has broken out of the traditional theater, moving into the city and street, expanding its audience and making its subject matter more contemporary. Should ballet attempt a venue shift? Could it survive such a change or is it completely dependent on the sense of remove and magic that only a proscenium can provide?

David: I think it certainly is a place of remove. That’s something I absolutely love about it. Not just in terms of value, but the act of sitting in an actual theater, not being allowed to check your phone. For me it’s therapy, because I have to sit there for two hours and listen or watch. It’s amazing where your mind goes and what is hashed out while you’re watching a piano recital or an opera—about your day, your stresses, your relationship or whatever, not to mention the pure bliss of the experience itself.  I find that experience extremely sacred as well. Too often we are allowed to distract ourselves with other things.

Charles: Contemporary visual artists are more than ever working multi-modally and multidisciplinarily. You have mentioned your respect for the Ryans:  Ryan Trecartin, Ryan McGinley and Ryan McNamara. Each of these artists resists traditional classification and is making work that is antithetical to the rarefied space of the theater or museum. These guys are working right in the moment, making work which reflects or informs popular culture with media being a common thread. I was curious about how you use media and social media in your work and in your personal life and how artists like Ryan Trecartin either factor into the way you think about your art or not. There must be a crossover there.

David: Social media can be so completely self-centered or shallow or obvious with everyone fed a boring and predictable obsession about Gaga or whoever. But I think it’s also a platform to express what you like, what you deem worthy.  I have a public life on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr where I post what interests me. Ryan Trecartin and people who are using media and the “now” as their content make for quite a disjunct with a ballet dancer. Because ballet is a classical art form, it demands a certain aesthetic rigor and physical discipline to uphold the standards of the form. A complete career is made out of simply being a classical ballet dancer. But my insatiable curiosity always gets the best of me, and I do wonder about doing some sort of multi-media, Trecartin-esque dance piece. I think it would be interesting. I am attracted to artists who keep you guessing. Artists who are challenging what you think of them. What I’ve run into as a classical ballet dancer is that people typecast you. People say “you’re the prince.” I’m grateful for it, I don’t take it for granted. But I would love to try and show people the dirty side.

Charles: I think the dirty side is really interesting. Do you choreograph or want to?

David: I don’t. I feel like choreography is something that is your calling. My standards for choreography match my standards for dancing. I demand a lot from a choreographer. It’s daunting to think about. I don’t have a natural calling to test movement out. I could very well go into the studio and test something out but more often than not it would be total bullshit.

Charles: We must respect the experts for their expertise. Though we are good and have opinions about everything, we’re not always the best in everything we’re involved in. We want the best. This suggests that the best work is made in collaboration with others.  Is that something you seek out in your work?

David: Completely. The challenge is finding the right collaboration. I have tried to forge collaborations before and they haven’t worked because my ambition gets the best of me.  Sometimes working with an artist that I truly respect doesn’t flow naturally. It feels forced.

“Every artist—a ballet dancer, or a painter, or anyone, even an architect—needs their place of creation; a private place of creation more importantly. When you are being gawked at, when you are being watched, it inevitably changes the conditions of creation.”

Charles: Can you name someone you’ve worked with?

David: Sure. Jerome Bell. He’s not a dancer but he created deconstructed dance in France. Beautiful. I was 24 and sent him an email through his website. I saw a piece of his in New York and thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. I sent him an email and told him that and added that I’d love to work with him if he ever had any interest, though that wasn’t my intention for writing the email. He said something like “how does a ballet dancer want to work with me, this is so weird, who are you, I’m intrigued.” So for about a year and half we traded ideas. Then I travelled to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on my own dime where he was doing performances. I met him cold to see if we could work something out. It was so ballsy.

Charles: It’s like when my mom brought home other dogs to mate with ours. She got all the family around to watch them do it but it would never happen.

David: I have the same childhood experiences. We put the golden retrievers in the garage. And we kind of just watched them. I was like five.

Charles: Middle America! How did that meeting end up?

David: It prospered for about a year and a half. We were in final stages in Paris closing in on the piece and had about 45 minutes worth of material. Jerome said, “Where is the conflict?” and I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “This doesn’t show me any conflict. It shows me that you like what you do; you respect what you do; and you’re curious. But why are you here? Why are you meeting me? Is there something you aren’t telling me or aren’t ready to tell me?” And he said, “This isn’t going to work out right now.” I was devastated. I was 25 at that point. But maybe when I’m 45 we’ll do something together. We still talk and see each other whenever we’re in the same town.

Charles: Do you feel hesitant to reach out to potential collaborators because of that?

David: I’m cautious. I’m cautious because what I’ve noticed is that people have preconceived notions of a classical ballet dancer. And especially with the artists I want to work with. I’m not calling up the equivalent of George Balanchine, I’m calling up Ryan McGinley or whoever.

Charles: It does suggest that there is a bit of you that is trying to determine where a moment of intersection with more populist, contemporary art practices might be. It seems like you would let something emerge naturally out of a found or discovered situation rather than force it top down.

David: Yes. Again it’s my insatiable curiosity.

Charles: Speaking of curious, I’m curious who is out working in the ‘classical’ world that is right on the edge of what would be considered classical. A dancer or choreographer that’s about to be ‘ejected’ from the classical club because they are pushing the envelope a bit too much. Perhaps they have a foot in two camps. Is that interesting?

David: Yes. A perfect example is Pina Bausch and people who are still working in the classical idiom like Christopher Wheeldon or Wayne McGregor. Wayne is going to be doing a new ballet at the Bolshoi and he’s really pushing things forward though still using classical ballet dancers and form. But Pina is a great example of someone that had classical training but then expanded her outlook. She went to Wuppertal and said “this is how I see art.” Everyone said it was bullshit for a while. No one could see that her work originated in the classical idoim. It had narration. It was somewhere between theater and dance. It was beautiful, brilliant, amazing.

Charles: And Forsythe.

David: He has such a mind. I have nothing but great things to say about him. I don’t know him well but he’s going, he’s pushing.  It’s unbelievable.

Charles: We thought of the High Line as an unfolded theater with visitors alternating between spectator and performer. The city plays an active role as well, impacting the actions of the visitors. It constructs performative narratives between people. Would you ever think that your dance could invade the real world? Could it be more imbedded in life? Or does that cause it to lose its power?

David: That’s a good question. It loses its magic. I think there’s such unbelievable beauty in the theater, in maintaining the forth wall and the voyeurship that theater imbues. I have watched performances where you witness love, death and every emotion. When you take it out of that rarefied place it’s a completely different kind of atmosphere. Perhaps it’s just a problem with classical ballet. There have certainly been amazing examples of artists interacting with the viewer. Marina Abramović is a good example.

“For me, being gay in Texas forced me to focus as a way to escape persecution.”

Charles: Breaking down the fourth wall has been such a preoccupation in the second half of the twentieth century whether it’s in art or performance art or dance or theater. Jerome Bell places cardinal markers on the stage to lock the theater into a real place, making the walls “transparent.” But he’s not asking you to suspend your suspension of disbelief, he’s actually fictionalizing reality—he’s commodifying the outside world by bringing it into the controlled environment of the theater. The theater guarantees a fixed point of view and allows careful construction of effect.

David: And you’re confined by certain requirements.

Charles: I want to talk about age. A ballet star is kind of like an athlete. You will lose physical ability over time. How does one deal with that? Do you anticipate a moment where you take your art into a place that is related but an offshoot?

David: This is a sensitive topic for a lot of dancers but not for me. I turned 30 in May. It was the greatest birthday I’ve had. And 30 in the real world sounds so young, but 30 is a milestone in the dance world. What I got when I turned 30 from a lot of dancers was “oh, but you look 22.” What exactly were they implying? Ballet dancers have an expiry date. There’s no two ways around it. I have made the conscious decision not to be afraid and not to be ignorant to the aging of the ballet dancer. My job is to stay as alert and aware of as many art forms and realities and questions and desires that can facilitate me being an artist in a bigger way. I know I’m not going to do Sleeping Beauty forever, but I can always create. I don’t have a choreographic voice but I would love to lead some sort of arts organization, kind of act as a curator. If that means being director of a ballet company, great. If that means being a facilitator in bringing artists to an organization, great. The medium has yet to be determined.

Charles: I know we all think of professional athletes that way. Baryshnikov has defied a lot of people’s expectations.

David: Totally. He has done theater, TV and film.

Charles: I imagine one of the things you want to do is educational in nature, preserving the art form and introducing it to new audiences.You have the advantage of working in a media-centric age. Your work is already being archived and disseminated throughout the world. This may be a first in the ballet world.

David: There is the question of responsibility as well. What is my responsibility to this art form? What do I owe to it? I have dedicated years and years of training and care and respect to it. So now with that knowledge, after years of a professional career, what is my responsibility to it?

Charles: What do you think that is?

David: Well, first and foremost, it’s still very much alive. It still has a beating heart. People may think that Swan Lake is over but they still want to see it. Part of my responsibility is that ballet stay crisp, clean and modern. Not modern in a Raf Simons way, but stylistically fresh. For this reason, I’ve started a scholarship at ABT that mentors young students. It’s a small way I can help kids who are aspiring to be who I am.

“Ballet chose me. I had no choice. It was this gust of wind or force stronger than myself, working behind me and propelling me forward.”

Charles: DS+R worked at ABT, making two glass enclosed studios within two existing ones. Between them we made a transparent gallery for parents to watch their kids. We wanted to reveal the process of making ballet. But the school wanted more control, so the glass is electronically dimmable, blurring views into the studios at the touch of a button. It allows for an expanded audience while guaranteeing a safe creative space.

David: Every artist—a ballet dancer, or a painter, or anyone, even an architect—needs their place of creation; a private place of creation more importantly. When you are being gawked at, when you are being watched, it inevitably changes the conditions of creation. You are never not aware of someone looking at you. When the likes of Anna Wintour would call and ask for access to ABT for a profile in Vogue, even if it was pitched as non-invasive, the school would recoil. It’s not like the fashion or film world. We’re not media based. Leave us alone–we’re doing our thing.

Charles: Everyone and everything is overexposed. To navigate the litany of information  we’re constantly exposed to, we’re forced into a defensive position. We can’t let new things in, only things we already know and experience. We are determining in advance what makes us happy and gives us pleasure. We’re eliminating the process of discovery. Ironically, ballet may offer a recourse to this predictability. While it’s part of an artistic continuum, it’s so removed from the here and now it just may be the escape we need.

David: That’s a really great way to explain the ethereal side of dance. It’s live and it’s real. That amazing performance can never be repeated. How can you capture that on film?

Charles: What about growing up gay? For me, being gay in Texas forced me to focus as a way to escape persecution. I became quite good at clarinet. I got a full scholarship on music at Rice University. Though I didn’t plan it that way, my defensive escape became my ticket to success. I wonder if you’ve had a similar experience?

David: Take your classical music experience and change it to dance. I grew up in suburbia. I went to Desert Shadows middle school, a public school. I was called every name in the book. I was really affected by it. I didn’t raise my fists, I didn’t fight back, I just took the abuse. Now, I’m involved with an organization that is called Live Out Loud that empowers gay youth. It’s very anti-bullying. When I was being bullied and being called a faggot every day it didn’t always have to do with the fact that I was a dancer, it had to do with my affectations or my character. But being a dancer obviously added fuel to the fire. Other dancers tried to hide it, but I never questioned whether I would continue dancing. Every time school would end, six times a week, it was my escape.  And thankfully that blossomed into all of the above. My life.

Charles: You’re amazing to watch as a dancer and as a person. I wish you the most luck.

Grooming Adrien Pinault at Management Artists and Tomo Jidai at Streeters.