But 20 years later, Hallberg is in the midst of a remarkable journey, one that's taken him from South Dakota to Minnesota to Arizona to Paris to New York, and a career as one of the world's very top young ballet dancers. And now, to something else: He debuts on Friday as a premier dancer at the storied Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. He is not only the first American accorded this honor. He's the first foreigner, period.
Longtime ballet teacher Kee-Juan Han was sitting in a cafe in Las Vegas when his phone rang earlier this year.
"Mr. Han, I have something to tell you," said the voice on the other end, filled as much with trepidation as excitement.
It was his prize former pupil — Hallberg, 29, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, whom Han had taken under his wing nearly two decades earlier in Phoenix. He was a scrawny kid, Han remembers, with a shock of blond hair, long in front, short in back, who'd taped nickels to the bottom of his shoes so he could tap down the street — a bit like an American Billy Elliot.
And now, Hallberg was calling with the news of his Bolshoi offer.
In the ballet world, earthshaking news is hard to come by. Long gone are the days when dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov were household names. Dancers debut new roles, join companies, get promoted, retire. Faithful fans track it all, but it's an insular world.
This, though, was pretty big. Exactly 50 years after Nureyev defected to the West for artistic freedom, and 37 years after Baryshnikov did the same, Hallberg was being offered a reverse voyage of sorts, one that showed how much the world has changed since those events, and how global culture had become.
He also had the chance to show Russians on their home turf that an American was as good as the best Russian dancers, who for so many decades had dominated the ballet world.
Yet Hallberg was struggling with the decision. Could he make it work, along with his duties as an ABT principal? And would he be up to the task? He wanted the opinion of his favorite teacher.
"I said to him, David, you are very young," says Han. "There is no wrong decision here. Try it. Just think, you'll be learning the classics from where they began!"
After a few months of searching talks with his parents in Phoenix and with ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie, who gave his blessing (Hallberg will split his time between the companies), Hallberg accepted. He starts with "Giselle" on Friday, alongside Natalia Osipova, the young Bolshoi phenom with whom he's forged a thrilling artistic partnership.
Unsurprisingly to those close to him, he understands acutely the historic import of his move.
"I have a responsibility now," he said in a recent interview in a midtown New York City cafe, taking a break during a packed day of classes and rehearsals. "Not to get existential or anything, but you've got this talent, you work very hard, and now, there's even more of a responsibility.
"A responsibility to represent my country."
Colleen Hallberg still can't quite believe that her son, born in Rapid City, South Dakota, to parents who had no real interest in, or knowledge of, dance, who at first encouraged him to play sports, somehow got to this point.
Looking back, she thinks the first sign was David's fondness, as a child, for old dance movies.
"His older brother would be renting 'The Transformers,' and David would be asking for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers," says Colleen Hallberg. "We didn't know where that came from. Not from us."
Then there were those nickels taped to the shoes. "He had a little Sony radio with him, and he'd go tapping down the street," she says.
By his ninth birthday, when David got those real tap shoes, the family was living in Minnesota. They moved again, to Phoenix, when David was entering fourth grade. "He was thrilled because we were closer to Hollywood," his mother says.
Then one day, a flyer appeared at the jazz studio where he had started classes: auditions for "The Nutcracker," at Ballet Arizona. David had no ballet experience, but he got the lead boy part — the Nutcracker Prince. "That was it," his mother says. "He just became enamored with the ballet." His role ended in the first act, but he'd call home every night, saying he wanted to stay to watch the rest.
It wasn't easy being a schoolboy obsessed with dance. "I was teased relentlessly, incessantly," Hallberg says now.
"He was bullied," his mom says simply. "The worst year was seventh grade. He was called all the names you'd imagine."
Then came what the family calls a godsend. A public charter school opened, the Arizona School for the Arts. "I found an environment I fit into," Hallberg says. It allowed him to focus on dance, and life changed. He also met Han, who ran the dance program there and coaxed him into classes at the Arizona Ballet School. "He'd do jazz and tap, he'd have a full load at school, and then we'd work on ballet until 10, 10:30 at night," says Han.
The boy's long, lean, strong physique was a marvel. "It's not often that you see something like that," Han says. "But physique isn't everything. With David, you asked him to jump and he said, 'How high?'"
David may have been in a hurry, but his parents weren't. Over the next few years, they did the opposite of what many parents of seriously talented kids do. They kept him home, even though he was offered chances to study and dance elsewhere. "We didn't think he was ready," his mother says. "HE thought he was ready. But we were looking for personal maturity — and better grades." Looking back, she confesses, "I don't think we were very knowledgeable about just how good he was."
When he was 17, though, Hallberg's parents let him audition for the Paris Opera Ballet School. Two weeks after he sent in a video, a letter came in French, with an invitation.
Hallberg spent a lonely year in Paris. He didn't know the language. Friends were hard to come by. He would send home miserable postcards. When he came home for Christmas, his parents told him it was OK; he didn't need to go back.
"David was so offended," his mother says now. "He said, of COURSE I'm going back!' So I said, 'OK then, enough with the depressing postcards.'"
Things moved quickly after that. ABT offered Hallberg a spot in its junior troupe, then an apprentice job in the main company, then a place in the corps, where he spent three years.
He was still, he acknowledges, a man in a hurry. "I wanted to be a principal from the beginning, and I wasn't shy about saying that," he says. "I had some humbling moments."
McKenzie, his boss at ABT, knows what David is talking about. "I told him: I'm going to be your worst enemy," McKenzie says of those early years. "I'm going to hold you back. Because you're not ready."
McKenzie explains: "He was so talented, and so intelligent. But if you do things before you're ready, then you'll just be one of those guys who had great potential."
After a year as a soloist, Hallberg was promoted to principal in 2005. He quickly developed a following — and critical praise — for his elegant, clean line; his light, buoyant jumps; his princely demeanor. He was perfect for classical roles such as Albrecht in "Giselle," or Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake." He worked with various ballerinas, but many believe something special happened when Osipova arrived from the Bolshoi.
"That just lit David up," McKenzie agrees. The small, dark-haired, astonishingly athletic and fiercely emotive ballerina seemed the ideal partner for Hallberg. They performed a memorable "Giselle," but still, no one was quite prepared for the wrenching "Romeo and Juliet" they performed in July of last year. It was the first Juliet that Osipova had ever performed.
The ballet ends with the lovers splayed out in death: Juliet, stabbed, draped backward across a crypt slab, and Romeo, poisoned, on the floor. As they rose for the curtain call, the dancers seemed to be trembling and in tears. Stage makeup was running down their faces.
"We were sobbing," Hallberg says now. "Devastated, haunted for two weeks afterward. Natalia is such an intense performer. We're opposites in a way — her fire, my lyrical softness."
Some nine months later, Hallberg was doing a guest stint in Moscow when he was taken to lunch one day by the Bolshoi's artistic director, Sergei Fillin. It was more than lunch: Fillin offered a job.
"I was stunned," says Hallberg. "I just asked as many questions as I could."
He consulted with McKenzie. Aside from pesky scheduling issues, his boss was all for it.
"I thought, what better representative to have over there?" McKenzie says. "It's such a historic thing for the tide to be turning the other way.
"It's not surprising for me that it happened to David," he adds. "What's more surprising is that the Bolshoi did it. The company is three or four years older than our country! And it's worked pretty well. So this is a very brave move on Fillin's part."
Hallberg also called his parents and his teacher.
"It very quickly became overwhelming," says his mother. "He struggled with the decision for months. We played out various scenarios."
When the news finally broke, in late September, ballet had a welcome moment in the spotlight. Hallberg was besieged with interview requests. He was even booked on "The Colbert Report." ("I think I'm going to ask Colbert to dance with me," he quips; the show is scheduled for Dec. 7.) He realized he might need to change his regular Facebook page to a fan page.
Hallberg has an apartment in Moscow now, and he plans to learn Russian.
"Russians are very discerning about ballet," he says. "They're very opinionated about what classical ballet is. So I'm very flattered. But I think what this shows is, ballet is ballet — wherever you come from. I came from South Dakota. I didn't go to a renowned school. But I had a supportive family and the greatest teacher ever. I had what I needed."
That supportive family plans to visit him in Moscow later this month, to watch him dance "Sleeping Beauty."
"What makes us happiest is that the person David has become is so solid, so grounded," his mother says. "We don't think this will change him as a person."
And as for that teacher? Well, gushing isn't common in the ballet world. "In ballet we just kind of get on with it," Hallberg says. But Han will say this about his former pupil:
"David is one of the special ones. I think he'll go a long way."
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