In late November David Hallberg told The New York Times that he wanted to “just step onstage quietly here” – the American dancer was referring to Sydney – “and see what transpires”. Realistically there was never going to be much chance of quiet when Hallberg made his first entrance as Franz in The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia last night. A packed auditorium which included a significant number of current and former dancers saw to that. Hallberg’s re-emergence after a two-and-a-half year layoff due to an ankle injury was big news internationally, but it was more than that. Hallberg has spent the past 12 months of his rehabilitation with the AB at its home base of Melbourne and he’s like family.
Hallberg has been very careful to talk about his return to the stage not as the end of a process, but a beginning. His recovery has been long and laborious and over the past couple of weeks Hallberg has spoken candidly about its difficulties and what led him to seek out the AB medical team, led by principal physiotherapist Sue Mayes. “I was so physically and emotionally broken. I really came with nothing,” he told me recently.
No wonder he looked so happy last night, getting his feet wet (his phrase) in a ballet that celebrates love and community. (In the figure of deluded doll-maker Dr Coppelius it also introduces a splash of darkness as a corrective to all that sweetness. Where there is sunshine there is also shadow, and growing up means learning to accept that.)
Franz was a role debut for Hallberg and something of a departure for a man widely acclaimed for his aristocratic roles. Could he be credible as an uncomplicated village lad? Indeed he could. Hallberg’s Franz is a young man vitally interested in everything, for a second. This girl, that girl, this friend who has just turned up, another friend who is hanging about, that older woman with whom he dances and kisses gallantly on the hand. He has the attention span of a mayfly but wherever it is directed there is a little beam of light. Most cherishable moment – of many? When, in Act II, Dr Coppelius offers Franz a drink that surely anyone would regard with suspicion, Hallberg comes up with an endearing touch of pride at being thought worldly.
No wonder Amber Scott’s Swanilda is prepared to persist with him, even when he has absolutely no idea – not the smallest part of a smidgeon of a clue – what she wants from him in the “stalk of wheat”dance. Scott falls into a few stock village-girl mannerisms in the first act but in the second act, in which she impersonates Dr Coppelius’s “daughter”-doll, she uses the theatricality of the situation with wit and brio.
Coppélia’s slender narrative is carried along joyously by the bountiful Delibes score, which includes the irresistible mazurka and czardas in Act I. Hallberg said he had been told in rehearsal to “simplify, simplify, simplify” his mazurka, and clearly listened to the advice. His naturalness and ease, along with his musicality, made the heart sing.
In Act III Swanilda and Franz are seen in a more serious light. They are part of a solemn ceremony to mark their marriage and their new maturity. Hallberg and Scott’s adagio in the wedding pas deux was radiant; her variation airy, poised and delicate; and his variation full of eye-catching expressions of elegant classicism. His remarkable feet are still a thing of great wonder and I can still see in my mind’s eye the gracious forward extension of his leg from a beautifully high retiré: the silly young man is improving his understanding of how to behave and widening his horizons.
At first blush Coppélia may seem little more than a lively cartoon with more hummable music than any score has a right to possess (the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was in the very safe stewardship of guest conductor Barry Wordsworth, the Royal Ballet’s music director). In the right hands, though, it is very human. That quality was to the fore last night in an emotional evening of many treasures (Sharni Spencer’s Prayer: divine), a few smudged moments and an audience united in delight.
Hallberg has said he is looking no further than Coppélia at the moment. The principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and premier danseur of the Bolshoi will then assess what is right for him. He and Scott have three more performances, on December 16, 19 and 21.