“I love a good carb, like anybody,” he says. “So fries. I love a good pub meal. We don’t have pub culture in America so I love sitting down with a good beer, even a Carlton or something simple. I’m not fussy about craft beer. And I like a good parma or burger, [although that’s] not very healthy.” Hallberg grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where giant portions, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s rule. “But I’m a 6 foot 2 guy so when I allow myself, I can really go for it.”
Having hung up his performance shoes, the former principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre who was headhunted by Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet and regularly guest starred at the Paris Opera, London’s Royal Ballet and Milan’s La Scala is “not burning up as much as I used to. It used to just go.” He snaps his fingers. “The stress, the rehearsal, the sweat, the performance. I couldn’t keep weight on me. Now honestly I don’t feel as guilty. Things stay on a bit longer but I just live a little bit more now.”
Hallberg is a captivating companion and a thoughtful conversationalist. When we move to more serious topics he often pauses to frame, or even re-frame, his answer. His sentences are lyrical with a distinctive rhythm; he uses repetition for emphasis. His is a quick but gentle wit. “I am trying not to do ballet,” he says at one stage, looking slightly embarrassed when his long arms stretch into a pose to make a point.
Today Hallberg orders a selection of dishes. “I chose things that were photographic,” he explains helpfully. A tofu poke bowl, prawn gyoza and a pork katsu sandwich. “You can help me eat them.” I order a salmon poke bowl with additional seaweed salad.
Now 38, Hallberg started dancing as an eight-year-old. “Fred Astaire was my idol. I just wanted to be like him. I started dance classes and became quite obsessed with tap, I was tapping everywhere. Then, when I was 13, so quite late, I found ballet and that was my calling.” There is a long pause. “It sounds sort of head-in-the-clouds but it really was a calling. It was something stronger than myself. I had to dance. I didn’t question it. It was a force stronger than me. Then there is a question of responsibility to the talent you have been given. Some people adhere to that responsibility and some people don’t. Some people don’t want to work.And then it became a question for me of how hard can I work with this? It can’t just be talent, it can’t just be hard work. They have to pair.“
It seems to be glamorous and of course it was – I got to see great parts of the world, dance in the best opera houses. But it was also very lonely.
His parents, Bruce (a businessman) and Colleen (a retired hospital administrator), “couldn’t have been more on board. They just supported me. I was very bullied. They just supported in that. Then when I came out, nothing but supportive. They are one of the most loving, accepting, patient [sets of ] parents and they are going to come visit when they are allowed in.” Having farewelled their son to train in Paris at 17 (another difficult and isolating experience for him), the couple have travelled the world to see him dance. “And now they will travel to see me direct a company.”
Hallberg says of his arrival at the Australian Ballet “when push came to shove, it just felt very right. I knew the time was now. I just felt it. I am happy to be here and happy, to be honest, not to travel so much. It got relentless, the living out of a suitcase. It seems to be glamorous and of course it was – I got to see great parts of the world, dance in the best opera houses. But it was also very lonely, very transitory.”
There was a particular connection with the Australian Ballet too. In 2015 an ankle injury and subsequent botched surgery in New York proved disastrous and, potentially, career ending. In desperation he came to Australia to seek help from the world-leading artistic health team at the Australian Ballet who were horrified by the magnitude of the injury. Combined persistence paid off. He returned to the stage in 2017. How is your foot now? I ask. “Foot is good. Foot is really good.
“I had a deep connection,” he continues. “It wasn’t just that I had been here before and liked it. I spent over a year [with the company] as a non-performer getting to know everyone in the building. And then I came as a guest artist, many many times.” When the former artistic director David McAllister decided to step away from the role “it became the perfect storm”.
In ballet you are like a soldier … I am trying to instil a culture of less obedience and more drive.
The new artistic director is excited by the opportunities. “But I don’t want to rush in. I don’t want to make any rookie moves.” But he does intend to “push the envelope”.
I tell him that the previous week at the Opera House I had overheard a horrified conversation from teenage ballet fans in the ladies’ loos. Hallberg’s first production, the triple bill New York Dialects, included an adventurous new dance work, Watermark, by New York choreographer Pam Tanowitz, flanked by two more traditional and crowd-pleasing ballet pieces by 20th century icon George Balanchine, Serenade and The Four Temperaments.
“Pam’s work was a test for the audience. I knew some people would really like it and some would want to know the meaning behind it. And there is no meaning. It is just dance. But for me, the fact that it sparks discussion is what makes an arts organisation vibrant. A reaction is good. I am glad it has sparked this standing-in-line conversation.”
He believes Sydney audiences are adventurous, schooled by the Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre. “I do find an eagerness in the public, an openness to new art here. They are not bogged down with this historical weight like the Bolshoi, the Paris Opera or the Louvre. I mean Napoleon occupied the Louvre!”
A self-confessed “art geek” who loves wandering around galleries, Hallberg is currently “a bachelor” after the break up of his long-term relationship before he moved to Australia. “I am getting my bearings and learning about the cultural scene here. Not just the dancing. That is my job now. To keep my ear to the ground. I really want to push Australian artists in general. Not just commissions for choreographers, but visual artists, musicians.
“I think the Australian Ballet has that kind of responsibility which I am happy to take on but I have to learn first. Who is around? Who is who? Yes, we will be doing Swan Lake, we will be doing Romeo and Juliet but we will also be presenting work which is for now, which is relevant and necessary for an arts organisation today.”
Hallberg takes the daily class with his 76 dancers and participates in rehearsals. “I also can still demonstrate what I mean which will become harder the older I get. My main objective now is to really nurture the talent, to set it on the right course. I am not itching to get back on stage but I am changing a lot of the aesthetic. In classical ballet the arms, the port de bras, can be boxed in. I am teaching them to expand their arms …” (Here he demonstrates while seated above his poke bowl).
“I am also talking more about risk taking. I think I spent so much of my career with a fear of risk, a fear of falling, a fear of messing up. I want to instil an acceptance of mistakes, of vulnerability, a sense that they are allowed to take a risk and not feel they are doing something wrong. In ballet you are like a soldier. You are always told how to stand this way, to have this arm. It is ingrained to be obedient. I am trying to instil a culture of less obedience and more drive, if that makes sense.”
Hallberg is hugely excited that the next production, Counterpointe, which opened this week, juxtaposes the1898 classical work Raymonda, choreographed by the Russian grandfather of classical ballet Marius Pepita and requiring “exquisite technique” with “living genius” William Forsythe’s 1984 piece Artifact Suite which has never been performed in Australia.
“It is such a visual feat. I have never danced it and as a non-dancer now I have such choreographic envy. When I first saw it, I was floored. It is so important we are doing work like this. And it is exclusive to Sydney! Just like Hamilton.”
The Australian Ballet’s production Counterpointe is at the Sydney Opera House until May 15.
Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, 9250 7032.