The Influence

The Australian Ballet’s artistic director, David Hallberg, says French choreographer Jérôme Bel opened his eyes – and broke his heart. By Kate Holden.

David Hallberg

Dancer Veronique Doisneau performs in the Jérôme Bel work that takes her name, and David Hallberg (inset).
Dancer Veronique Doisneau performs in the Jérôme Bel work that takes her name, and David Hallberg (inset).
Credit: Anna van Kooij (above), Pierre Toussaint (inset)

Since the start of this year, American David Hallberg has been the artistic director of The Australian Ballet, where he’s previously been a resident guest artist. He’s an award-winning star of classical ballet, having appeared as principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre and as a guest artist with many of the world’s most prestigious companies, including the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Tokyo Ballet and the Ballet Estable del Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. He has danced every major full-length classical work, published a memoir, A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back (2017), and established a scholarship in his name to mentor aspiring male dancers at ABT Studio Company and Ballet Arizona.

He chose to speak about Jérôme Bel’s Véronique Doisneau (2004), a performance in which a female ballet dancer speaks candidly about her career onstage at the Paris Opera.

Véronique Doisneau came out in 2004. Where were you when you saw it?

I actually saw the video that I sent you – I’ve never seen it live. I had read about the creator of this piece – Jérôme Bel is his name – before I saw Véronique Doisneau, and I’d read he was the enfant terrible of the dance world. He was the instigator, the bad boy, also someone who broke down the barriers of dance and had people viewing dance and art in a different way. He had created a piece at Paris Opera, which really wasn’t his MO. He was more in the contemporary scene, smaller theatres – not the pomp and circumstance of the Opera House in Paris. And I saw one of his other pieces live in New York and I was floored.

Can you explain for me what the piece is?

Bel took a dancer from the Paris Opera, her experience, and just went and showed us the back side of it. Véronique Doisneau is a woman, she was what’s called a sujet at Paris Opera, so she was middle of the rank of a very hierarchical company. At Paris Opera there’s a mandatory retirement at 42-and-a-half. So, she was approaching retirement. Jerome created this work about her experiences and her career. Part of it is she talks about the works that she’d always loved to dance but she never did. So then she dances a piece that she’s never danced onstage, that she was never given the opportunity to do; she dances a work that she loved the most. She just sort of reminisces about her career. The great things, the hard things: it’s very, very real. It takes away all the smoke and mirrors that ballet creates.

In the middle she talks about Swan Lake and how it’s the most beautiful work that ballet has ever created. And the White Swan pas de deux is the greatest ever created: everyone watches it and it’s so beautiful. There’s 32 swans all in a line, and there’s the principal couple in the front, the swan and the prince, and she says, “I’ve always been on the side, standing there. Like a piece of decoration. I want to show you what I do, during the most beautiful section of classical ballet that everyone can’t get enough of.” So she does the White Swan pas de deux in her role, the only one on the stage, when usually she has 31 other swans with her that create this symmetry. And she just stands there, like [raises one arm above his head]. And then hops a bit. And then stands back in the line. And then hops again; and walks over and stands at the line. And it showed this other side of this iconic moment of ballet. All she’s doing is standing there, and she says what she really wants to do is walk off the stage.

So, this work just made me think about art completely differently. And not only ballet but art in general. Then I started looking at conceptual art, and art that has meaning apart from the visual picture in front of you. He just completely opened my eyes.

For you as a performer yourself, you too have stood there – in pain, I guess. You too have been the body on the stage.

I had spent so many years practising ballet and being a prince, trying to be a prince – the prince in Sleeping Beauty, and the prince in Swan Lake, you know – lots of traditional classical ballet. Which I love and loved at the time. Yes, you look at the swans and you think, they’re a part of the piece, and they create the structure of the visual picture, but honestly, when you’re just standing there like that, you just want to get on with the show. You’re not feeling gorgeous, you’re feeling… pain.

Doisneau’s in her rehearsal clothes, carrying a plastic water bottle… She’s performing a role as herself, an individual, but she’s also representing the ballet experience. Is this as radical as it seems, to break free from being a nameless swan and into being the woman on the stage, with the two kids, the history of surgery and an income of €3600 a month?

Especially with the Paris Opera. They don’t do this; choreographers don’t create works for only one dancer. Jérôme came to Paris Opera and said, “I want the lowest-ranking dancer in the company.” The director said, “No, you can have the étoiles, the stars.” They agreed on the sujets. This is the kind of instigator that Jérôme is. He’s a provocateur.

I trained at the Paris Opera school, so I got to know that institution well over a year, and I saw the tradition, the hierarchy. I was pushed aside because I was American. Later I came back as a guest artist. And after I saw Véronique Doisneau I emailed Jérôme and I said, “Your work has moved me so much. I’m a dancer with American Ballet Theatre and if you would ever like to work together, I would be just so honoured.” He wrote back almost immediately, and he was like, “How is a ballet dancer from a major company interested in my work?” There isn’t usually that kind of crossover. Ballet dancers stay in their place, and contemporary dancers stay in their place. He was like, what’s the deal? I said, “You’ve completely changed the way I see dance presented.”

So, we started a collaboration together. It never came into fruition of performance, but he started to create my own kind of Véronique Doisneau. It was very different: it was about me being the “star”, or me being “the principal dancer” or whatever. That was his angle: “What is it like? Because Véronique was at one ranking in her career and you’re in another.” It was very honest and revealing, I shared with the audience how much I made each performance, I shared with them my favourite role, I talked about my experience with the Paris Opera school…

He made me look at it in a way that showed me two things. One, that I was just kind of a piece of meat: you know, just hire the principal dancer, make the money and sell the tickets. I hadn’t looked at it that way. It was nice to be wanted, it was nice to get the opportunities. And on the other hand, he questioned why I wasn’t satisfied. He said, “Why are you reaching out to me? Why did this work inspire you?” Véronique Doisneau is all about how unfulfilled she was. What are your disappointments? He really wanted to find that conflict.

But what happened was, we finished the work, and then one day he says, “There’s not enough conflict.” I was like, what are you talking about? I was 23. A child. He said to me, “Define to me what talent is.” I said, “Well, you’re born with talent, it’s what you do with the talent.” He was like, “That’s not enough.” So he canned it. I was devastated.

I’ve worked with other choreographers in my career and it’s like, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever done. People say that working with [George] Balanchine at New York City Ballet was like working close to God. I’d never felt like that. But with Jérôme, I really believed in this work. It was a really good time for me, in my early 20s, to see that and experience that and develop my taste: what I like to watch, what inspires me. But I’ve moved on. I direct a company now, and… I don’t know, maybe I’ll invite him to come and do a piece here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "David Hallberg".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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