An American dancer's leap of faith

For an American ballet dancer to be applauded and honored in Russia requires an enormous LEAP OF FAITH by a performer - not to mention phenomenal talent. As Martha Teichner reports, David Hallberg also had some explaining to do for Steven Colbert:

He's been called by faux-conservative talk show host Stephen Colbert "Benedict Arnold with slightly tighter pants."

Ballet dancer David Hallberg returned home from Moscow earlier this month just in time to appear on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

"You're with the Russian Bolshoi and the American Ballet Theatre at the same time," Colbert said. "What are you, a double agent?"

It's been a wild three months for Hallberg . . . after the startling news that he had been asked to become a premier dancer with Russia's famous Bolshoi Ballet, the first American ever.

"It was such a bold offer because all of the premier dancers with the Bolshoi are Russian," Hallberg told Teichner. "So it was unbelievably historical, which I realized right away."

Until now, the traffic has mostly been the other way. There was Rudolph Nureyev, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1961, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who followed in 1974.

In the middle of the Cold War, their defections were a huge propaganda victory for the West.

The Cold War is over, but David Hallberg took on the Bolshoi position, only too aware of what was at stake ... still.

"I see myself as an ambassador," he said.

"Did you feel you had to hold up your end as 'The American'?" Teichner asked.

"Always. I always felt a responsibility."

We met Hallberg in October in his New York apartment, as he was packing for Russia..

On the day he left, his parents, Bruce and Colleen Hallberg, were there from Phoenix, where he grew up, to send him on his way - with a little moral support.

"We never imagined it," Colleen said. "He had two goldfish he named Fred and Ginger. I mean, we just thought it was cute, and it was. Then he asked for tap shoes for a birthday, and we said 'Sure, why not?'"

That's how it began for Hallberg at the age of eight.

"No one around me was obsessed with Fred Astaire, except for me," Hallberg said. "It just snowballed, really. I started with tap lessons. When I didn't have tap shoes, I taped nickels on the bottom of my penny loafers."

A local production of "The Nutcracker" led him to ballet. And then the bullying started . . .

"It was really hard," he said. "It was really kind of scarring couple of years."

"But it didn't stop you from dancing," said Teichner.

"Never."

He joined New York's American Ballet Theater at age 19. Five years later he was a principal dancer, one of his generation's best dancers in one of the world's best companies.

"Do you ever get out there onstage and think, 'If only I could see those kids who were mean to me now?'" asked Teichner.

"Yes, I do actually. If I can relay anything, it's that, if someone has a dream and it isn't the norm of what others are doing around you, it doesn't matter. Reach for it, go for it, because I'm a shining example of that."

Which answers the question: Why risk joining the Bolshoi?

The historic old Bolshoi Theater had just held its grand re-opening after a 6-year, approximately $700 million renovation, when David Hallberg arrived in Moscow.

Bolshoi means big, and everything about the reaction to his presence was outsized.

"I have never experienced expectation and pressure like that in my life," he said. "And I felt like I could handle it and really focus on the task at hand."

He would need focus. President Dmitry Medvedev took a special interest. The gala opening on November 18 of the first new production in the newly-refurbished theater - "Sleeping Beauty," with its American prince - was a very big deal in Russia.

And for David Hallberg, a triumph. The reviews were adoring. His parents were there to share the moment.

Then, two days later came the second performance, broadcast live around the world.

"I could still hear the trail of the entrance applause," recalled Hallberg, "and I twisted my ankle going into a jump and sprained it. It hurt so bad, but tens of thousands of people are watching. You go into this tunnel vision, you don't see anything else but to finish the performance and to finish it well."

No one knew, not until after the last curtain call.

"The pressure was over, and so I could be a human being again."

But the show must go on!

Two weeks later, he was fit enough to dance - with Stephen Colbert.

Ever the ambassador for American ballet, he put on his "Nutcracker" prince outfit and danced to the music: "It was a lot of fun!"

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