Anatomy of a Bolshoi Ballet Star

Marty Sohl / Courtesy ABT

David Hallberg, the first American to be a principal dancer at Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, is a sculpted masterpiece, built to soar.

Applauded for performances as a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, David Hallberg is entering a whole new phase of his career. In November he became the first American invited to join the Bolshoi permanently. Tall, blond and blue-eyed with a preternaturally elegant bearing, the 29-year-old is known for classic danseur noble roles like Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and Albrecht in Giselle, which he danced for his debut this past fall, partnering with principal ballerina Natalia Osipova. “I feel comfortable as Albrecht,” he said on the eve of his first performance. (In the coming months he’ll also be dancing in Swan Lake and Balanchine’s Jewels.) “It’ll be a nice warm-up!” Hallberg took a moment to detail how he uses each element of his much-admired form.

Head: Ballet isn’t only about the body—it’s very much about the brain as well. “I’m always thinking. When the curtain is going up, I’m so in it, in the moment, and I make such a concentrated effort to be present and embody the role I’m dancing,” says Hallberg, who prizes how a coach teaches a role. “The more detailed, the better: the literal and theoretical descriptions of the steps, what they mean if they have meaning, if it’s purely dance or has a story behind it.”

Arms: Hallberg’s arms are quite long, so “it took extra time for me to find their strength. I don’t have short, stocky arms that lift girls easily. And my right arm is much stronger, so the heavier part of their body will be lifted by my right arm.” Hallberg also has particularly loose joints, which has meant problems with his shoulder dislocating. “I have to do mobilization strengthening, like planking, almost every day to keep the strength in the socket.”

Hands: A male dancer’s hands have a twofold function: as a means of his expressiveness and as his partner’s lifeline. “To me, the hands are one of the most important parts of a dancer. If I’m going to be self-critical, I have a hard time finding that finish in my fingers; I’ve gotten notes that they could be more alive.” When partnering and the choreography allows for it, Hallberg holds a ballerina by her hips, where he can “feel the sensitivity of her weight and where she really wants to be.”

Torso: This must be the strongest part of a dancer’s body, especially for Hallberg, due to his long, lanky build. “With strong abdominals, your body aligns better, your back doesn’t hurt as much,” he says. Though many dancers use Pilates to keep their cores strong, Hallberg does daily crunches.

Legs: “Thighs have to remain lean and svelte, but they also have to be incredibly strong,” says Hallberg, who has to maintain a balance between building thigh strength while sustaining a long tapering look down to his foot. The muscle around the knee plays a large role too. People always say in ballet, “Pull up the knee,” which really ends up drawing the entire line of the leg upward. A dancer’s “turning leg” is the one that supports a pirouette; Hallberg’s is his left. “So my calf is a bit bigger and the shape of the leg is a bit different.”

Feet: Dancers’ feet are very prone to injury. There’s constant care and upkeep. A few of Hallberg’s exercises: “doming” the foot (tensing the big toe inward to create a dome shape in the arch, then releasing); working the toes with a Thera-Band; and—brace yourself—occasionally pulling the ankle bones out. “There are separations in the foot’s bones, so we’ll hang our feet over a bar and readjust. It feels amazing, trust me.”

Hallberg’s complete schedule can be found at bolshoi.ru/en.