Book Review: ‘A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back’ by David Hallberg

In his stirring autobiography A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back, David Hallberg – a Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and the first American Principal Dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet – traces the trajectory of his life and career with heartfelt openness and soul-baring honesty. Using exquisite flourishes of expressive writing that evoke the style of Romantic ballet, he relays not just the facts and details of the momentous events that he experienced on his journey from suburban America to the stages of the world’s greatest theaters, but the profound emotional responses he had to them. His story is filled with passion and pain, and an indomitable spirit that will keep you turning the pages and rooting for him through all of his arduous challenges and soaring triumphs.

David Hallberg, A Body of Work. Photo by Bjorn Iooss. Design by Lauren Peters-Collaer.

David Hallberg, A Body of Work. Photo by Bjorn Iooss. Design by Lauren Peters-Collaer.

Hallberg’s insights are both educational and inspirational, in his professional expositions, personal revelations, and sincere self-reflection. For non-specialists, he clarifies the meanings of the largely French vocabulary of ballet, meticulously describing the specific movements and technical precision required; explores the feelings and motivations of the characters he’s performed (and, at his best, fully inhabited, as he grew and his understanding evolved), including such classic roles as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Siegfried in Swan Lake, Albrecht in Giselle, and Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty; and elucidates the differences between the unique styles of dance (the Apollonian versus the Dionysian) and the major companies with which he’s worked, from New York to Paris, Melbourne, St. Petersburg, and Moscow (among many others).

He recalls the bad times and reveals the toll they took on his body and psyche: the lingering effects of the virulent homophobic bullying to which he was subjected as a child, youth, and emerging artist; his loneliness and isolation as an American outsider as he studied, danced, and toured the globe; the nerves, insecurities, and self-doubt that plagued him throughout his steady rise to the top; and the painful and debilitating injuries he suffered, which interrupted his career at the height of his success and threatened to end it. But there are also the good times: the unconditional love and support he could always count on from his parents; the rigorous training and sage advice he received from his teachers, colleagues, and mentors; the elation he felt as he took the stage in historic houses where the icons of his genre had danced before him; and his ultimate acceptance by the troupes of which he became an integral part, and by the world, as one of its premiere dancers. Naming names, Hallberg is ever gracious in his appreciation and acknowledgment of those who inspired him and aided him along the way, including the team of doctors, physical therapists, and trainers from The Australian Ballet who helped him to heal and to return to his calling and the life that he loves.

A Body of Work is a compelling read, not just for dancers, aficionados of dance, and fans of David Hallberg, but for anyone who would like to get to an intimate view of the creative process and the challenges, dedication, and euphoria of being an artist, the long-term emotional devastation of being bullied and ostracized, and the necessity of love, support, friendship, and determination to make it through the toughest of times and to rise above them. It’s a book for everyone with a heart.

David Hallberg, A Body of Work (back cover). Photo by Henry Leutwyler. Design by Lauren Peters-Collaer.

David Hallberg, A Body of Work (back cover). Photo by Henry Leutwyler. Design by Lauren Peters-Collaer.

David Hallberg, A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back (New York: Simon & Schuster, Touchstone, November 7, 2017), 425 pages, ISBN:978-1-4767-7115-1.

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