David Hallberg, Ballet Dancer


"I started dancing when I was nine—tap dancing and jazz. Then ballet, when I was 13. I started professionally when I was 18. I absorbed [ballet] like a sponge—I had a lot of catching up to do, because 13 is really old [to start] ballet. I performed in the Nutcracker and I was just enchanted by it. Not by what was happening on stage, but what was happening in the wings. The concentration, the devotion, the nerves…everyone was quiet and nervous, preparing their shoes. And then they’d go on. There’s the point at the brink, which is the edge of the wing. In the wing you’re hidden, you can do whatever you want, but then when you step out, everything changes. I could see that, and it was like, ‘Woah.’ Jazz was really fun—I’d just go and flail around. But when I saw these professional ballet dancers, what was so fascinating to me was how serious everyone took it. In the jazz world, it was like, ‘Feel it! Yeah! Dance the shit out of it!’ Which was totally different. I loved the discipline [in ballet]—still, that’s what drives me.

I went to the Paris Opera Ballet School when I was 17—so I spent my senior year in high school at this school in Paris. Then I joined American Ballet Theater here in New York. ABT was always my dream company—I just started working my way up getting more and more roles. Now I dance for ABT, but I dance too for the Bolshoi in Moscow, and I’m a resident guest artist at the Australian Ballet. I’m at a point where I’m kind of deciding where I am—I’m a little homeless right now. ABT is home, and it has an amazing eclecticism to it—there are a lot of different dancers from different parts of the world, who have come from different training backgrounds. There’s an energy and a vibrancy in how different everyone is, and it lives in this vibrant city, and it’s a good balance I think. But Bolshoi encompasses ballet. Bolshoi, to Russia, is like the Yankees to here. Or something. It’s hard to compare, because sports teams aren’t cultural gems to the identity of the country. Like, the crown jewel of Russia is the Bolshoi theater. It’s very embedded in the culture and the way people see Bolshoi. There’s a sense of respect and importance that’s amazing to experience as an outsider. There is more at stake [because of that].

Dance is so deeply embedded in me that when I retire, I don’t want to do it recreationally. I don’t want to go into a studio and just play around. I know what it is right now, so I feel like I’ll be able to move on. There’s so much more to life than tights. Although I love the stage, I don’t crave it like a drug, like some dancers do. The stage is fear to me—it’s funny to say that as a professional, with thousands of people watching a show or whatever. The stage to me is sacred—it’s really a sacred space—and magic can happen on that stage. For me, it’s more doubt and fear, and self-questioning about what I can produce on the stage, than it is a place for freedom or risk. Instead, what drives me is the work it takes to get to the stage. The closer I get to a performance, the more scared I am. It hasn’t eased up, 20 years later.

Appearance is very important on the stage, and I think I’ve become a little more seasoned in how to appear on the stage. I think ballet can stifle you a little bit in that way, because you have to wear your hair a certain way, you have to wear a certain amount of makeup—there’s a tradition you’re meant to uphold. The more deeply embedded I’ve become in the ballet world, the harder it is to shed that skin, and to learn to say no. Or to say, ‘that’s not who I am as a person,’ you know? I’m still learning from that. There are definitely two sides of life—my life onstage is definitely a part of me as a person, and I can express myself onstage to a certain degree. That’s an amazing outlet for me to have. But I have to keep a sense of reality in mind.

I’m working with Revlon now as the face of their new Volumizing Mascara, and it’s exciting for me because I’m the first guy to do it. I think there’s a wave happening now in terms of being a gay, male ballet dancer—it wasn’t started by me. When I began my career I was out, and everything was cool. But you still felt pressure onstage to give this persona of the ‘leading male.’ A little bit like Hollywood. And that has really changed—men are out and fine and verbal and vocal about it. Like, I play Romeo onstage, but I also hope to find my Romeo. I think that was an important step for Revlon to take, and for me to take as well.

I’m an early riser—coffee is the first thing I do. It takes me a while to wake up, although I get up at 6:30AM. I’m in the gym by about 8:45, and I’m there until 10:15. That’s like a non-negotiable, everyday thing—always the same exercises. An hour and a half of that, ideally, and then ballet class every day. Rehearsal is usually anywhere from two to five hours every day. And then physio or massage or acupuncture—not every day, but probably every other. It’s amazing to stick a needle in a muscle. Say you have a sore muscle, and you get a massage, and it feels better but it’s still kind of sore. What happens when you get acupuncture is like, it will just trigger one part of the muscle, and all of it feels like it completely releases—it’s a little bit shocking, like you’re being pinched. But it’s like deflating a balloon. It’s amazing. Afterwards you need to go home and chill—you feel a little pummeled. I do that at the end of a day, ideally with the next day off, to let things kind of recover. I see this woman Amy at Manhattan Physio Group. For massage, I see a lot of people at Manhattan Physio Group, but Michelle Rodriguez is an amazing physical therapist. She’s the best.

In the shower I use a normal bar soap—right now it’s Olay. But if I need an exfoliating, feel-good scrub I use this Aesop scrub that’s pretty amazing. It’s really grainy, and I use a Salux towel, and I just scrub it all away. It’s really amazing. I do that once a week. I don’t wear fragrance—fragrances are so personal, and I’ve been given gifts of fragrances that I wear sometimes, but nothing has really hit me. You know when you meet someone and the fragrance just bounces off of them, and you’re like, ‘Fuck, I should have that.’ But you can’t wear that, because it’s not yours. But you remember those people. For instance, Carine Roitfeld—she smells amazing. I was like, ‘Carine, what do you wear?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, it’s just my thing…’ That smell belongs to her.

I use Cetaphil cleanser every day. My skin is normal, a little dry, so Cetaphil is great. I sort of use whatever moisturizer is around. My mom uses Estée Lauder, so I’ve been using that. In between my workouts, it’s usually just cold water. I sweat so much that I can feel the salt on my face, so cold water is the best thing. End of day is Cetaphil again. A friend got me the La Mer Lifting Mask as a gift, and I love it. I just ran out yesterday, and I don’t know if I’m going to spend $275 on a fricking moisturizer. That’s insane! I’d love to find something comparable, because it makes my face feel great. But $275 man… I don’t see a dermatologist, but if there’s a serum I should be using, I want to use it! People say to start moisturizing now, for when you get older, but I guess I moisturize enough. Twice daily—is that alright? But wrinkles, when you’re older, I’m all about that. I’m not trying to fix it…or spend $275 fixing it. [Laughs]

When I’m at Bolshoi, someone does the makeup. I made the mistake of doing my own makeup for one of my first shows, and the makeup lady came at me—she was angry. She’s hired by Bolshoi theater to put on the men’s makeup, and she’s there every show, and she knows what looks best for the Bolshoi stage. With my company in Australia I’ll do my own makeup, and with other companies that don’t have makeup artists at the ready I’ll do my own. That’s been a bit of a process. I’ve learned from trial and error, as well as asking the advice of the ABT makeup artist who’s there all the time. I’ll go in and be like, ‘How should I do my lower eyeliner?’ And she’ll tell me some simple tips. I’ve been doing makeup for like 20 years now, you know? So I do know the face I have to do for stage, which is actually a pancake, which is probably a little dated by now. I use this dry cake foundation from Mehron. And then I’ll do a line, top and bottom, and if I’m feeling fancy I’ll shade the eye a little bit. I just use Revlon black eyeliner—it’s a wet kind of pencil. For brows I use typically a Revlon powder to paint them on. Sometimes I use waterproof products, because you’re sweating like crazy.

I use Fekkai shampoo, which I love. I used it once at a friend’s apartment and went and bought it when I got back. It’s easy to lather and rub away—it’s a quick shampoo, you don’t have to work it a lot. When I’m going out and have events and stuff, I use a Shu Uemura powder, almost like a dry shampoo with a brush. You release some powder and brush it in. I do the roots to give it some body. I blowdry it, typically because I’m running late and I’m not going to walk out with wet hair. And when I blowdry it, it looks better anyway. Stage hair is a whole thing. It depends on the character I’m portraying. Basically, it always requires an entire can of hairspray. I have really fine hair, so the hair will go everywhere. If I don’t plaster it down, it won’t hold. I have to bring a can of hairspray to the wings, because it will suddenly fall out, or go every which way. Hair takes as long as face. I usually like to have someone else do my hair, because I look at it in 2-D, and it’s 3-D. It can’t look like a helmet—it’s so sprayed and coiffed, that you have to find a balance between proper movement and keeping it in place. Minoru Obata cuts my hair, a Japanese guy, at Le Mino salon on 8th street. He’s cut my hair for over 15 years. I had been away for three months, and I came back and my hair was a full mullet—first thing I did was go to Mino. I’ve called him up in desperation before being like, ‘Who do you know in Tokyo?’ or ‘Do you know anyone in London?’ You gain such a trust in who cuts your hair. I’ve had to go to someone really random in Moscow, and it doesn’t always garner success. There is no one like Mino.

As I’ve gotten older, I eat less and less processed stuff. I try and keep it really clean. Of course, because I’m a dancer, not too much sugar and not too much alcohol. But I’m a whiskey guy—I can always drink a whiskey. I just try and keep it to a minimum, one or two a week. But I’m a person, so I have a sweet tooth—I especially like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I try and keep it to a minimum, but there’s an ebb and a flow. A lot of people say like, ‘Oh, do you eat as a ballet dancer?’ And yeah, I totally eat. First of all, I’m an athlete, so I have to eat. And second of all, yeah! I want cheese, and chocolate cake—I want all that stuff. And as far as supplements go, right now it’s a lot of electrolyte replenishers. When I’m sweating, I can really tell the difference between when I drink water, when I don’t drink enough water, and then when I have an electrolyte supplement that I sip on during rehearsal. I really feel a difference. I feel like it’s more beneficial—the electrolytes help your body to recover and hydrate more than just normal water. I mean, you’re hydrating with water, but electrolytes give you that extra boost. The way I can describe it is if I drink an electrolyte supplement, I’ll leave after rehearsal feeling satiated, in a way. If I don’t I feel crispy and fried—body, mind, energy. I walk home—it’s like a 15-minute walk—and if I ate properly and had electrolytes, walking home isn’t a big deal. If I haven’t, the same walk feels like trudging uphill. I have [taken protein] in the past, but I don’t now—I try to get my protein in fish and chicken. You know… from food.”

—as told to ITG

David Hallberg photographed by David Cortes in New York on November 7, 2018.