David Hallberg recently announced as The Australian Ballet's first international resident guest artist talks about the incredible journey he has shared with TAB's Medical Team to stare down what might have been an end of career injury.
David Hallberg, 34, has exhilarated the dance world as a principal dancer with the Bolshoi and the American Ballet Theatre. Now American-born Hallberg makes Australia his third home. The Australian Ballet has announced he will be the company's first international resident guest artist- the latest development in a relationship that began in 2010. It follows his hugely successful return to the stage with The Australian Ballet at the end of the last year, following a debilitating injury.
His career in the balance, Hallberg’s re-emerged after a two-and-a-half year layoff due to an ankle injury, which was big news internationally. What might not be as well known is the that the work with The Australian Ballet's Medical Team has been vital to his recovery.
When it comes to dance stars, few shine brighter than David Hallberg. With his elongated lines, pristine technique and ultra-arched feet, he appears almost otherworldly, a man who fell to earth from Planet Ballet. At American Ballet Theatre, a company that imports the cream of the world’s talent to fill its top ranks, he was one of the first native-born Americans to reach the pinnacle of Principal Dancer. In 2011, he became the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a Principal, and divided his time between New York and Moscow, as well as guesting all over the globe.
David tells us about the injury and The Australian Ballet road to recovery:
What made you seek the help of the of The Australian Ballet’s Medical Team?
I had a tear in my deltoid ligament, a gradual wear-and-tear injury that emerged over a nine-month period, and I was trying to get back on track. I had had two operations on it, but things weren’t going well in New York. I had reached a fork in the road. One path was to retire because I was losing the fight to come back from my injury. I wouldn’t have been finishing my career on my own terms, but I realised I had had an amazing ride up to that point. The other path was to come to Australia. I always had in the back of my mind how great The Australian Ballet’s Medical Team was, how proactive they were and how positive their results with the dancers were. I contacted David and Sue Mayes, The Australian Ballet’s Principal Physiotherapist and Sue said, “How soon can you get here?”
I worked with Sue, Paula Baird-Colt, Specialist, Body Conditioning Specialist and Megan Connelly, Ballet Mistress and Reh Specialist. What I love about this team is that it’s a real collective. It’s not one individual dictating the rehab process, it’s a team effort.
We started over completely. After a very thorough assessment, the first step was to build strength, to overhaul my entire body, especially from the waist down. I didn’t do any ballet, I didn’t go into any studios, I didn’t put tights on. I was with Paula for five hours a day, just building, building, building. She taught me a whole encyclopaedia of exercises. It was a very slow, very incremental, very methodical process, so there was no danger of error, nothing left to chance. By the time I was ready to go into ballet with Megan, I had built a completely different support system. Megan restructured everything in terms of the way I used the strength I had built once I began to apply it to my dancing. With both Paula and Megan, it was slow, methodical work boiled down to every last detail.
What have you learnt through the whole experience?
It’s changed the way I dance, but also the way I condition myself. Before, I basically didn’t do any conditioning – I would just get warm for a rehearsal or a show, do it, and call it a day. I did no injury prevention, no prep work, just some crunches and lifting some weights here and there.
The team really taught me the power of prevention: even if it’s a fluke accident, you can often prevent it from happening if you have this really strong, intuitive, honed-in and turned-on support system. It acts as a shock absorber, cushioning the shock of turning, jumping, torsion, plié – every strain we put our body through as dancers. I’ve had a whole overhaul of my education.
When I’m dancing, I feel more in control of the way I move. I don’t feel I’m leaving things to chance, or relying on the body I was given. I’m more relying on the strength that I’ve built.
How has this time of recovery been for you mentally?
Going through a process of an injury is very stripping for an artist – to have your craft taken away from you. Revisiting ballet, I feel very different as an artist. I feel that I can give things that are richer, more individual, more in-depth, because of that hardship.
Sue is one of the best in the world. She has this insatiable hunger to educate herself, to develop her own work, but she also recognises that she’s working on some of the most honed athletes on the planet. Ballet dancers are sometimes the unsung heroes in that way – physically, the art form demands so much of us, and I think Sue really respects that and thrives on it.
There’s also an absolute lack of ego in the way that she works; as good as she is, she’s never one to readily admit that, and she’s always willing to work collectively. In my opinion, that’s what shines through more than anything else – this incredible depth of knowledge from each member of the team, where each person has an integral part in the process. They constantly check in with each other with their findings. That’s why the team has such amazing success rates and such amazing success stories. The injury rate amongst the company’s dancers is so low, it’s really impressive.