David Hallberg on rehabilitation and returning to the stage in Coppélia

Just after I filed my story to The Australian on David Hallberg’s keenly anticipated return to the stage on December 13, with The Australian Ballet in Sydney, the paper’s deputy editor sent me an email. She simply wrote: “He has amazing feet …”

He does indeed. With their dramatic arch and superhuman articulation, they carve shapes that leave an indelible afterimage and give a marvellous sense of elongation and suspension when he is airborne but, as with so much, you don’t get anything for nothing. “Every dancer has different issues – hips, knees, whatever. For me, as much as my feet have become a kind of trademark, I do pay a price for the flexibility,” Hallberg said.

David Hallberg

David Hallberg in Sydney ahead of his return to the stage for the first time in more than two years. Photo: Copyright Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. Published with permission.

For the past year the American dancer has been based in Melbourne undergoing intensive rehabilitation with the AB’s medical team, a group of people Hallberg says gave him back his artistic life. The work was set in motion by a troublesome ankle injury but became something much more radical as Hallberg and a team led by Sue Mayes took a root-and-branch approach to recovery. It wasn’t just about fixing an ankle, but rebuilding a body.

In July 2014 Hallberg was burnishing his reputation as ballet’s biggest male star, performing with the Bolshoi Ballet in his home town of New York. A few weeks later an image popped up on social media of Hallberg’s left leg in a cast. He’d decided it was time to attend to his long-standing ankle problem. “It was basically wear and tear and something I was more or less in denial about. My schedule was very packed. And then I had to face the music.”

He thought he’d be back on stage in maybe four to eight months. “And here we are, two and a half years later.”

While offstage in the US, having had to cancel many performances, Hallberg nevertheless kept busy. He led master classes, coached, continued to support a scholarship for boys at the School of Ballet Arizona, and created a program for last year’s Youth America Grand Prix. Called Legacy, it illustrated the individual “texture, vocabulary and singular place in dance history” of five international ballet companies. Late last year he appeared at New York’s Performa festival in a work he created with artist Francesco Vezzoli called Fortunata Desperata. That was on November 1.

“Right after Performa, I shaved my head and got on a plane to Australia and have been here since,” Hallberg said. On November 5 he tweeted: “Goodbye New York. There’s some stuff I have to take care of once and for all.” The accompanying photograph showed the shaven head and a sombre expression. Next thing he was in front of Flinders St station, saying to Melbourne: “Your arms were wide open to me.”

Speaking in a studio located deep in the bowels of the Sydney Opera House on a theatrically stormy afternoon, Hallberg looked relaxed and content. He has come a long way in those 12 months, and is happy to give all the credit to the AB’s medical team and three women in particular. “I was so physically and emotionally broken. I really came with nothing,” he said. Principal physiotherapist Mayes, body conditioning specialist Paula Baird Colt and rehabilitation specialist Megan Connolly “worked as a team to give me the education to be able to really support the entire body and not just the ankle. I’m not shy of saying I have completely restructured my entire instrument and my technique, and that’s taken as long as it’s taken.

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Amber Scott and David Hallberg in rehearsal for Coppélia. Photo: Kate Longley

“I had to fight just as much mentally as I did physically. I’ve had to completely rebuild myself in every aspect. It was so intricate that I really just had to devote my complete time and energy and complete mental capacity to this.”

Hallberg was aware of the AB’s reputation in rehabilitation long before his injury (he has been a guest artist with the company on several occasions). “I can’t express enough how knowledgeable and committed and devoted they are to not only rehabbing an injury such as mine, but furthering the field and dispelling myths about what dancer and even athlete injury is.”

Mayes said key elements of the team’s strategy are time, commitment, dancer education, research and something perhaps less tangible but vitally important: hope. “I always give hope. I believe the human body and mind have the most incredible capacity to heal and cope with adversity and often people don’t give the body enough time. We do very little surgery. We’ll commit even a year of rehabilitation before we’d go down that track. The great thing with David is that he had the time, so there were no limitations.” She says this is often not the case elsewhere, in sport as well as ballet.

“With most dancers, their goal is to get back to pre-injury status. Our goal, and I think that’s what we’re unique at, is getting people better than they were before. Not just in strength and resilience, but also technique. We’re training them to be the masters of their own body.”

Sometimes this will mean stopping dancing, “which can be devastating to a dancer”, but Mayes says all the dancers treated by the team emerge from rehab stronger, happier and better. “There was no ballet for months for David. Paula worked with him every day for months on motor control and strength.” Nevertheless, the work is intensely ballet-specific. “For Paula, every exercise has a balletic meaning. She says, ‘even though this exercise doesn’t look anything like an attitude, or an arabesque, this is the groundwork for that move’. You have to keep them engaged with the fact that they are still a dancer. We respect the dancer and we respect the art.”

Extensive research means the work is evidence-based, but put into ballet language. Dancers are educated in anatomy and the detail of movement. “It’s no good relying on us. We give them the knowledge so they can make the right decisions for themselves. I think our dancers are spectacular at that. They are very clever at working out what they need, but they have been taught all these tools right from the time they join the company.”

Hallberg’s comeback starts in Sydney when, for four performances, he stars as Franz alongside the Swanilda of AB principal artist Amber Scott, a “dear friend”, in the AB’s handsome production of Coppélia (based on the traditional Saint-Léon version, revised by Petipa and Cecchetti, with additional choreography by Peggy van Praagh and direction by George Ogilvie)It’s a role debut for Hallberg and a far cry from the aristocrats for which the tall, supremely elegant and sophisticated dancer is famous.

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Kristian Fredrikson’s design for Act III of Coppélia. Photo: Daniel Boud

Franz is a village lad whose charm far outweighs his smarts (although engaged to Swanilda he is strangely attracted to a still, silent young woman who takes no notice of him and is, in fact, a life-size doll). “Maybe what I connect to the most is that Franz has a good heart,” Hallberg said. “If I look back on the time I’ve spent here, I’ve had to just open myself up and really express only honesty with the medical team and with the dancers. They’ve seen me at my lowest. This strips you of all pretence, of all princeliness. I can bring that to Franz.”

It isn’t a fireworks role but does bring its own challenges, particularly for a dancer renowned for specialising in princeliness. In rehearsal, AB ballet master Steven Heathcote and AB artistic associate and principal coach Fiona Tonkin have had to tell Hallberg to “simplify, simplify, simplify”. “They keep saying this. I was doing the mazurka the other day and Fiona didn’t seem entirely pleased, which I like, because I respond well to brutal honesty, and she said, ‘you know, I think it needs to be simpler’. So that’s one of the things I’ve had to work on.

“I honestly can’t think of a better way to return – with the company that has brought me back to life. And really they have brought me back to artistic life. I didn’t want to just kiss them and hug them and leave. They aren’t comfortable with this word, but I am very indebted to them for the life they have given me again.”

It is not yet settled when Hallberg will return to American Ballet Theatre, where he has been a principal artist since 2006, and the Bolshoi, which he joined in 2011. “That’s what is actually taking most time now, getting my feelers out, and it’s more now the question of what repertoire will suit me. It’s not so much what company when, it’s what repertoire I’m able to do, and Coppélia is such a focus right now. I want to get my feet wet with Coppélia and assess where I’m at.”

Anyone who thinks Hallberg might be less attached to the Bolshoi because of the changes in leadership since he’s been offstage would be quite wrong. He described it as “a home to me, just as much as ABT”. Hallberg became a principal at the Bolshoi at the invitation of then artistic director Sergei Filin, who in 2013 was severely injured in an acid attack. Filin was replaced as artistic director earlier this year by Makhar Vaziev, with whom Hallberg has worked at La Scala, Vaziev’s previous directorship. Hallberg also said the Bolsahoi’s general director, Vladimir Urin, “has always been a huge supporter”.

“I’ve had a lot of time to reflect, of course, and I do realise, as I have before but even more so now, that Bolshoi is one of the most extraordinary ballet companies in the world. In terms of the tradition it upholds, in terms of the dancers they produce, in terms of the audience in Russia, and really the interest of audiences globally. It’s such an influential company. I’m so honoured to have been a part of that and to be a part of that in the future.”

Hallberg’s future may well also involve coaching and mentoring at the AB, which he described as having a “healthy energy” that helped him emotionally during a difficult period. “There’s so much talent in the company. If I can help in any way other than just coming and dancing and leaving, then I’m more than happy to do it.”

AB artistic director David McAllister said that Hallberg’s “incredibly difficult rehab” and the manner in which he persevered with its ups and down had already given young dancers important insights. “That’s what you need to be to be successful. It’s actually the hard yards of ballet, and [injury] happens to everyone. He’s incredibly generous. He’s such a gentleman.”

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