Australian Ballet mixes fresh and favorites | Islander

A thought for David Hallberg, the newest artistic director of the Australian Ballet.

In 2020, with great fanfare, the former company leader, former principal dancer David McAllister, passed the baton to Hallberg, 39, from South Dakota, both director of the American Ballet. Theater and the Bolshoi Ballet. It was a major blow for almost 60-year-old Australian society.

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

As Melbourne emerged from its second COVID-19 lockdown – every 112 days – in October 2020, Hallberg, who had forged a deep bond with society as a guest artist over the previous decade, eagerly awaited a new one. ambitious 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 lead dancer and performed in commercials. for Tiffany and Nike – would take on the challenges of running an artistic company Down Under.

The vicissitudes of a global pandemic had already poured cold water on Hallberg’s farewell tour, with canceled engagements in Russia, New York, London and Milan. Upon moving to Melbourne, Hallberg must have sensed that things were finally improving.

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

In total, 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% of the 2021 season has been postponed or canceled.

This is in addition to the loss of $ 32 million in ticket revenue in 2020.

Speaking shortly after the launch of the 2022 Australian Ballet season, Hallberg is outspoken about the obstacles encountered.

In fact, he’s exhibited the kind of resilience that notoriously saw him make a sensational comeback in 2016 after a two-year hiatus from a debilitating ankle injury – a comeback facilitated by the physiotherapy and health team. internal medicine from the Australian Ballet, who worked with Hallberg for a year.

“Good things happen to those who wait, including me,” he says.

“I just rolled with the punches because I had no choice. I never doubted coming here or being in this position, although yes, it was difficult.”

During the last lockdown, the company received an exemption from the Victorian government, which allowed the dancers to continue their training.

“Luckily that helped move things forward so even though we didn’t play we got to practice and rehearse,” said Hallberg.

The dancers weren’t the only ones learning new movements.

“I’m on a learning curve as a new art director,” Hallberg admits.

“A lot of dancers have made the jump from dance to artistic direction, but leading a company forward requires a whole different mindset,” he says.

“It’s not about how well prepared, rested and fit I am for my performance at 7:30 pm anymore.

“It’s about whether 75 dancers are well prepared, rested and in great shape. Now it’s about where I see this organization heading.

“So yeah, my vision has gone from ‘me, me, me’ to everyone, and I feel really invigorated by that.”

Hallberg is delighted to share with audiences in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide the first season he programmed himself, after McAllister dealt with 2021 before leaving the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Center.

And what better way to get things started than with a great Russian drama in the form of Anna Karenina?

Based on Leo Tolstoy’s canonical 1878 novel on Love and Death, the ballet is choreographed by former Bolshoi dancer Yuri Possokhov, whom Hallberg first met while dancing with the Bolshoi in Moscow, and includes a score by multi-award-winning composer Ilya Demutsky.

A co-production between the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and the Australian Ballet, Anna Karenina made her world premiere in Windy City in 2019.

It’s now Sydney and Melbourne’s turn, following the work’s Australian premiere in Adelaide earlier this year.

From meandering 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 either on stage.

Directly from Amsterdam, home to the legendary Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), the work is designed by former house choreographers Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot (both longtime friends of Hallberg), as well as associate choreographers Marco Goecke and Crystal Pite, to mark the 60th anniversary of the NDT.

Kunstkamer (Dutch for “cabinet d’art”) is inspired by an 18th century work, The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, written by pharmacist, zoologist and collector Albertus Seba.

Drawing on the fascinating history of these idiosyncratic personal museums, which date back to the studioli (“little studios”) of 15th century Italy, the work promises to overturn any lingering assumption that ballet is all about sugar. lighter than air. fairy plums.

“It’s the kind of work and the kind of choreographers that I want to bring in to nurture the company,” Hallberg said.

“NDT is the gold standard of creation in contemporary European dance, so it will take us in a new direction, exploring new movements and nuances.

“Kunstkamer is a very big job, but it’s also very intimate. What takes place is a world of curiosity and beauty.”

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

In Everywhere We Go, New York City Ballet Tony Award winner Justin Peck took inspiration from the tropes of Hollywood and Broadway to choreograph a pop culture-inspired nine-part ballet on the work of 42 Stevens minutes.

“Sufjan had never composed an orchestral score before, but listening to it, you would be surprised to learn that this is the first time that he has worked with a full orchestra,” says Hallberg. “It’s such a colossal, thrilling and fabulous score.”

Meanwhile, Wayne McGregor of the Royal Ballet taps into mythological and geological themes in Obsidian Tear, performed on Salonen Lachen Verlernt’s violin work and the Nyx Symphony, named after the Greek goddess of the night.

And Alice Topp, of the Australian Ballet, which won a 2019 Helpmann Award for her work Aurum, will present a new untitled work with a score newly commissioned by Marks.

“The connection between music and dance may be the greatest marriage,” says Hallberg.

“Justin, Wayne, and Alice all hear the music they create so differently, resulting in three different interpretations.”

After all this intensity, audiences might need 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, the long-lost work, based on commedia dell’arte traditions, has been painstakingly reconstructed by modern choreographer Alexei Ratmansky .

This production will be special for Hallberg, who created the role of Pierrot the Dark Clown when the American Ballet Theater made its Harlequinade debut in 2018.

“Resurrecting a ballet from the archives from one of dance’s greatest creators was something I cherished, and I look forward to passing the experience on to the artists here,” says Hallberg.

To complete the season, Counterpointe, a program that pits the elegance and precision of Raymonda, the 19th century ballet favorite, against the swift and furious movements of the legendary American choreographer William Forsythe.

And for good measure, there’s audience favorite Romeo and Juliet (the John Cranko version).

Not bad for a first season – but isn’t there something missing? A performance by someone who hasn’t officially hung up their ballet flats yet?

Hallberg laughed, running a hand through his impossibly blonde 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 always looks like he can whip up for days.

“I try to stay in shape, especially so that I can show the dancers what I’m talking about,” he says.

Speaking of which, what has been the biggest surprise running the business over the past 12 months?

“When I walk into a room now, people kind of act differently,” he said with a cheerful chuckle.

“I don’t want that kind of control or power, actually makes me a little uncomfortable, but I see a different side to dancers now – maybe they push a little harder when they see me – and that’s because I’m the one making the decisions now.

“What I’m trying to instill in them is what really hard work and intense personal motivation looks like.

“But it’s not for me to crack the whip. Each dancer has to define for himself what his limits are, what his idea of ​​success is, and then I guide just that.”

For what it’s worth, Hallberg doesn’t look like a nutcracker (although he danced The Nutcracker, most notably in Melbourne on his first trip to Australia in 2010).

And given his own career as a globetrotter, he knows a thing or two about cultural differences in ballet.

“In Russia it’s a lot about the star, the fight and the demands, whereas here in Australia, and I’m not just talking about the Australian Ballet, there is warmth, openness, eagerness and hunger.

“It’s a culture that has attracted me a lot since I arrived here.

Tickets for the 2022 season go on sale Wednesday. Visit

Associated Australian Press

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