Renowned dancer David Hallberg on finding ballet, losing it and returning to the stage


David Hallberg is known as one of the world's foremost practitioners of classical ballet -- the formal, traditional style that dates back centuries. He's performed on stages around the globe, but a bad injury to his ankle almost led the international star to quit dancing altogether. He chronicles his life, finding dance and finding it again in his new memoir, "A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back."

"One day I was in my basement and this guy comes gliding across the TV screen. And his name was Fred Astaire," Hallberg told CBS News' Jamie Wax about the first time he was drawn to dance.
He was transfixed.

"I didn't know steps. I didn't know execution. I didn't know technique, I didn't even know what tap shoes looked like. But I knew I wanted to do that," he said.


The path wasn't easy for the tall, small-framed boy, growing up in Arizona, who struggled to fit in.

"I went to different schools, different groups of kids, different bullies, and it was always the same teasing, 'fag, girl,' all of the names in the books. ... And thank God I had dance," he said.  
It saved his adolescence and ultimately became his career. After studying in Paris and joining New York's American Ballet Theatre he made international headlines in 2011 as the first American to become a principal dancer with Russia's legendary Bolshoi Ballet. His success was thrilling – but also addictive.

"It drove me into the ground and the more opportunities I was given, the more performances I did, the more opera houses I danced around the world, I wanted more of. It was insatiable. I was never satisfied. And, listen, you can't go on forever….Reality puts you in check and for the better."

And that's what happened in 2014. At the peak of his career, Hallberg experienced a massive ankle injury which worsened over time and forced him to stop dancing.

David Hallberg CBS News

"When a large portion of your existence is reliant on your athletic ability. It's not everything but you know it's like an actor losing their vocal chords. You could still act probably but it's a big challenge," said Kevin McKenzie, a former principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre. He is now the company's artistic director and worked with Hallberg since 2001. 

"I had lost all control in my life. Artistically, emotionally, mentally, physically, everything. ... That was when I had hit complete rock bottom," Hallberg recalled.

After two major surgeries he said goodbye to New York and bought a one-way ticket to Australia and began working with a team of specialists.
"It was finally there that I made progress. And it was there that I made progress because I relinquished control," Hallberg said.

David Hallberg practices at the American Ballet Theatre studios in New York City.  CBS News

These days, the 35-year-old spends a lot of his time the American Ballet Theatre studios.

"It's like a new life. I remember what it was like before the injury but everything means so much more now," he said.

As meaningful as his New York return was, after nearly three years away from his company Hallberg says the most important and profound moment came the next day.
"It was that leap in class, the final, the final exercise in ballet class that I realized I was fully back. I had changed as a person and as an artist," he said. "It's that routine and that demand of what dance asks of you that I love the most."

In the time since our interview, Hallberg experienced another physical setback while dancing on a London stage. But he's handled the incident with his typical grace and resilience and will return to the stage this week in New York for the opening of the American Ballet Theatre's spring season.

"A Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back" is published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, a division of CBS.