Australian Ballet mixes fresh and faves

Dancer-turned-artistic director David Hallberg will lead the Australian Ballet through 2022.
Dancer-turned-artistic director David Hallberg will lead the Australian Ballet through 2022.

Spare a thought for David Hallberg, the Australian Ballet's (still) quite new artistic director.

In 2020, with much fanfare, the company's previous and longest-serving leader, former principal dancer David McAllister, passed the baton to South Dakota-born Hallberg, 39, a principal with both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet. It represented a major coup for the almost 60-year-old Australian company.

To put it in sporting terms, imagine Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo announcing their retirement from football to go and coach the Socceroos.

As Melbourne emerged from its second COVID-19 lockdown - all 112 days of it - in October 2020, Hallberg, who had forged a deep bond with the company as a guest artist over the preceding decade, was looking forward to an ambitious new chapter in his career.

Australian audiences and the company's own dancers were curious to see how one of the art form's undisputed superstars - Hallberg was the first American invited to join the Bolshoi as a principal dancer and has starred in ads for Tiffany and Nike - would take to the challenges of helming an arts company Down Under.

The vicissitudes of a global pandemic had already poured cold water on Hallberg's farewell tour, with engagements cancelled in Russia, New York, London and Milan. Relocating to Melbourne, Hallberg must have felt things were finally looking up.

Then came lockdown number three in February, followed by the fourth in May, fifth in July and sixth in August.

All up, the hometown of the Australian Ballet has endured more than 260 days of lockdown since the first state of emergency was declared on March 16, 2020.

As a result, 70 per cent of the 2021 season was postponed or cancelled.

This was on top of the company losing $32 million in ticket revenue in 2020.

Speaking shortly after the launch of the Australian Ballet's 2022 season, Hallberg is candid about the roadblocks endured.

In fact, he exhibits the kind of resilience that, famously, saw him stage a sensational comeback in 2016 following a two-year hiatus caused by a debilitating ankle injury - a comeback facilitated by the Australian Ballet's in-house medical and physical therapy team, who worked with Hallberg for a year.

"Good things come to those who wait, including me," he says.

"I've just rolled with the punches because I've had no choice. I've never doubted coming here or taking up this position, although yes, it's been hard."

During the most recent lockdown, the company received an exemption from the Victorian government, which enabled dancers to continue training.

"Thankfully, that kept things ticking along, so although we weren't performing, we could train and rehearse," Hallberg says.

The dancers haven't been the only ones learning fresh moves.

"I'm on a learning curve as a new artistic director," Hallberg acknowledges.

"A lot of dancers have transitioned from dancing to becoming artistic directors, but leading a company forward requires a completely different mentality," he says.

"It's no longer about how well prepared, rested and in shape I am for my performance at 7.30pm.

"It's about whether 75 dancers are well prepared, rested and in top shape. Now it's a matter of where I see this organisation headed.

"So yes, my vision has gone from 'me, me, me' to everyone else, and I feel really invigorated by that."

Hallberg is excited to share with audiences in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide the first season he's actually programmed himself, after McAllister took care of 2021 before exiting the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre.

And what better way to kick things off than with some Russian high drama in the form of Anna Karenina?

Based on Leo Tolstoy's 1878 canonical novel of love and death, the ballet is choreographed by former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Yuri Possokhov, whom Hallberg first met while dancing wth the Bolshoi in Moscow, and features a score by multi-award-winning composer Ilya Demutsky.

A co-production between Chicago's Joffrey Ballet and the Australian Ballet, Anna Karenina had its world premiere in the Windy City in 2019.

Now it's Sydney and Melbourne's turn, after the work had its Australian premiere in Adelaide earlier this year.

From the sinuous harmonies of tortured love in a cold climate to the intersection of art and science, Kunstkamer is the most ambitious full-length contemporary work the Australian Ballet has ever tackled, requiring almost the entire company to be on stage.

Direct from Amsterdam, home to the fabled Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), the work is devised by former house choreographers Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot (both long-time friends of Hallberg's), along with associate choreographers Marco Goecke and Crystal Pite, to mark NDT's 60th anniversary.

Kunstkamer (Dutch for 'art cabinet') draws inspiration from an 18th-century tome, The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, written by pharmacist, zoologist and collector Albertus Seba.

Riffing on the fascinating history of these idiosyncratic personal museums, which can be traced back to the studioli ('little studios') of 15th-century Italy, the work promises to quash any lingering assumptions that ballet is all about lighter-than-air sugar plum fairies.

"This is the kind of work, and the kinds of choreographers, I want to bring to nourish the company," Hallberg says.

"NDT is the gold standard in creation when it comes to European contemporary dance, so this will take us in a new direction, exploring new movements and nuances.

"Kunstkamer is a really big work, but it's also very intimate. What unfolds is a world of curiosity and beauty."

Also in a contemporary mood, Instruments of Dance comprises three shorter works by resident choreographers at New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet and Australian Ballet responding to an orchestral score by, respectively, American indie icon Sufjan Stevens, Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Australian composer Bryony Marks.

In Everywhere We Go, New York City Ballet's Tony Award-winning Justin Peck has drawn on the tropes of Hollywood and Broadway to choreograph a nine-part, pop culture-infused ballet set to Stevens' 42-minute work.

"Sufjan had never composed an orchestral score before, but listening to it, you'd be surprised to learn it's his first time working with a full orchestra," Hallberg says. "It's such a colossal, pulsing, fabulous score."

Meanwhile, The Royal Ballet's Wayne McGregor mines mythological and geological themes in Obsidian Tear, which is performed to Salonen's violin work Lachen Verlernt and the symphony Nyx, named after the Greek goddess of night.

And the Australian Ballet's own Alice Topp, who snared a 2019 Helpmann Award for her work Aurum, will present a new, as-yet-untitled work with a newly commissioned score by Marks.

"The connection between music and dance can be the greatest marriage," Hallberg says.

"Justin, Wayne and Alice all hear the music they create so differently, which makes for three varying interpretations."

After all that intensity, audiences might be in need of a dose of physical comedy, in which case Harlequinade is just the ticket.

Originally staged in 1900 by the legendary Marius Petipa of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty fame, the long-lost work, which is based on the traditions of commedia dell'arte, has been painstakingly reconstructed by modern-day choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

This production will be special for Hallberg, who originated the role of Pierrot the gloomy clown when American Ballet Theatre debuted Harlequinade in 2018.

"To resurrect from the archives a ballet by one of dance's greatest creators was something I cherished, and I look forward to passing the experience on to the artists here," Hallberg says.

Rounding out the season is Counterpointe, a program that sets the elegance and precision of 19th-century ballet favourite Raymonda against the fast and furious movements of legendary American choreographer William Forsythe.

And for good measure, there's audience favourite Romeo & Juliet (the John Cranko version).

Not bad for a debut season - but isn't there something missing? A performance by a certain someone who hasn't officially hung up his ballet shoes yet?

Hallberg laughs, running a hand through his impossibly blond hair.

"There might be something up my sleeve, if I can muster the courage," he teases. "But we're not quite ready to talk about it."

Hallberg still looks as though he could do fouettes for days.

"I try and stay in shape, not least so I can demonstrate to the dancers what I'm talking about," he says.

Speaking of which, what has been the biggest surprise of leading the company over the past 12 months?

"When I walk into a room now, people kind of act different," he says with a good-natured chuckle.

"I don't crave that kind of control or power, in fact it makes me a little uncomfortable, but I do see a different side of the dancers now - maybe they push a little more when they see me - and that's because I'm the one making the decisions now.

"What I'm trying to instil in them is what really hard work and intense self-motivation look like.

"But it's not about me cracking the whip. Each dancer has to define for themselves what their limits are, what their idea of success is, and then I just guide that."

For what it's worth, Hallberg doesn't come across as a whip-cracker (although he has danced The Nutcracker, including in Melbourne on his first trip to Australia in 2010).

And given his own globe-trotting career, he knows a thing or two about cultural differences when it comes to ballet.

"In Russia, it's very much about the star, the fight and the demands, whereas here in Australia, and I don't just mean at the Australian Ballet, there's warmth, openness, eagerness and hunger.

"It's a culture I've been very attracted to ever since I first came here."

Tickets to the 2022 season go on sale Wednesday. Visit australianballet.com.au

Australian Associated Press