David Hallberg’s Tell All (About His Own Psyche)

David Hallberg’s Tell All (About His Own Psyche)


He did, thanks to a 14-month stint with the physical therapy team at the Australian Ballet in Melbourne. There he retreated into a monastic routine of daily physical therapy and exercise, relearning the fundamentals of ballet technique and how to use his body. Mr. Hallberg offers a detailed and moving account of this period at the end of his book, describing the solitude and depression that went alongside the physical work.

“You are worth nothing anymore,” he writes in an account of his persistent internal monologue at that time. “Look at where you were and look at you now. You did this to yourself, thinking you were invincible.” The thoughts continue. “It’s over. You’ve ruined your body. Your ego killed you. Rotted you.”

Mr. Hallberg was just as unsparing during the interview. “When I started writing, I was riding high, life was fast and furious,” he said. “The ego was rife. At one point when I reread, post-injury, what I had written, I was shocked.”

Photo

Mr. Hallberg in the Bolshoi’s “Swan Lake” in 2014 at Lincoln Center.

Credit
Karsten Moran for The New York Times

But he said the reality of his injury — initially a frayed deltoid ankle ligament, then a mass of complications — made him ask more urgent questions: “What was the calling of the artist, and how do you live up to that responsibility?”

“A Body of Work” may be unsparing, but it is not gossipy. “I didn’t write the book to give the reader an insider view of how other people acted behind closed doors,” Mr. Hallberg said. “The only tell-all aspect of the book is within my own psyche.”

The book, which he said took five years to write, is partly a conventional life story. It recounts his upbringing in “a typical suburban household” in Minneapolis; his discovery of, and passion for, dance as a child; the ostracism and bullying he encountered growing up; and his parents’ calm acceptance of his homosexuality.

Mr. Hallberg is relentlessly ambitious throughout: He must join Ballet Theater; he must become a soloist, then a principal.

“It always seemed to me, if I can just get that, it will be my dream come true, a never-ending cycle of desires,” he said. His book offers an inside look at that cycle: the endless hours of rehearsal, the preparation that informs the tiniest of details, the constant traveling, the brief thrill of performance.

Mr. Hallberg also describes living in Moscow and working with the Bolshoi, but says little about being a gay man in Russia, writing only that it was a nonissue. “I was never discriminated against; I never felt in danger,” he said.

He is similarly discreet about his colleagues, writing about them with respect and, usually, affection. (The only difficult relationship he details is with Michele Wiles, with whom he was frequently partnered early in his career.)

Photo

David Hallberg at 11, dressed for his first dance recital.

Credit
David Hallberg

Mr. Hallberg said he first began to write about his travels and professional encounters around 2008. (Full disclosure: I am credited in the book’s acknowledgments for suggesting he do this.) But it wasn’t until Simon & Schuster contacted him in 2012 that he thought about writing a memoir. After his injury, the material took shape. “I was losing control of my art form and my life,” he said, “and it eventually became clear that this would be the backbone of the book.”

Mr. Hallberg’s account of his decision to go the Paris Opera Ballet School in his senior year of high school is one of the most striking parts of “A Body of Work.” He endured a year of cool disdain from his French classmates, but never questioned his choice.

“Strangely, what I most enjoyed writing about were these very raw experiences,” he said. “Falling in love with my childhood friend, the Paris Opera school, the stress and pressure of going to the Bolshoi. And the injury. The more difficult the experience, the easier it was to write about it.”

The memoir suggests a pattern of risk, adventure and solitude. “When he finally made the decision to go to Australia, he cut off from everyone,” said Dianna Mesion, a close friend. “I think it was a safe space for him; there was only so much he could do to hold up his public face in New York.”

Mr. Hallberg is a dance world celebrity, a subject of intense critical acclaim and scrutiny. “As one of the most visible figures in the ballet world, the stakes for David were unique,” Sascha Radetsky, a Ballet Theater ballet master, said in an email. “He was in a dark place during his injury, and solitude and distance seemed to help guide him out of it.”

Since returning to the stage, Mr. Hallberg has become a resident international guest artist at the Australian Ballet; created roles in pieces by Alexei Ratmansky and Mr. Millepied; and worked with the choreographer Mark Morris.

But he is pacing himself, he said, only too aware of how a feeling of invincibility, and an insatiable drive to do it all, led to injury and despair. He is also, he added, less judgmental about his own work. “I still have the same love of work and critique,” he said. But “I know now that even if it isn’t perfect, the next time will be better.”



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