This caps off, in one stunning announcement, twenty years, at a minimum, of Europe stealing the U.S.'s thunder as the global bastion of ballet vitality and, indeed, the motor of ballet's future. - Debra Levine, Artsmeme.com
David Hallberg has achieved rock star status within American ballet. He's often been compared to the great Nureyev, and starting this fall, the South Dakota native will be spending a big chunk of the years to come in Moscow, dancing for the Bolshoi Ballet, not as a guest, but as its first non-Russian company member. On the surface, this is only one man's career move -- even if it is the most head-turning jump in ballet since Mikhail Baryshnikov defected in 1974. But is this also the proverbial "canary in the coal mine," the outward symptom of a bigger and potentially more catastrophic problem for American ballet as a whole?
American dance companies are already struggling against an influx of international companies on local stages. As live performances from international companies become immediately accessible in cinemas and on digital platforms such as iTunes, domestic dance companies will face increasing competitive pressure. If Hallberg's move indicates a trend, they will also face more competition for talent. Are they ready? For too many, that answer is no. Globalization is happening in dance, and American companies are losing a battle many don't even realize they're fighting.
At the Bolshoi, Hallberg will partner young superstar Natalia Osipova -- a pairing that hints at greatness of the Rudolf Nureyev/ Margot Fonteyn variety. But there is more at stake here than artistic excellence. This year alone, the Bolshoi is broadcasting five live performances and two pre-recorded performances to cinemas worldwide -- more than any other ballet company. By virtue of these broadcasts (the next will be this weekend, although Hallberg's debut will come November 20 in Sleeping Beauty), the Bolshoi has, in a few short years, transformed its image from a dusty old relic of pre-Soviet imperialism to a youthful ensemble of vibrancy and strength. As head critic for the New York Times, Alastair Macaulay noted, "The Bolshoi has become the most eagerly anticipated of all of today's ballet companies." Combine the prestige of the Bolshoi name with this level of buzz and starpower, and you have a ballet company poised to be the first with a truly global brand. Make no mistake; the Bolshoi's swoop of David Hallberg was savvy on a level that much of the field has failed to recognize, or at least admit to publicly.
To appreciate the full impact of this move, the dance field should be asking two questions. First, how long until the Bolshoi's live cinema performances make them the most attended ballet company in the United States? The seating capacity is already there. If the Bolshoi is able to sell tickets at a rate close to the Metropolitan Opera's, it could claim that title. The second question should worry ballet executives -- who's next? We can expect Hallberg's international profile (as well as his fees for lucrative guest performances) to rise sharply, and other top dancers may want to make similar moves. While it is unlikely that the Bolshoi will sign another American soon, perhaps the Paris Opera Ballet will take home a souvenir after next year's US tour, or a guest performance at the Royal Ballet will result in a long-term contract.
The strength of a ballet company is, to a large extent, a proxy for the strength of the city or the country in which it resides -- a symbol of that place's desire and willingness to demonstrate its importance to the world as a cultural center. In the past, America, and more specifically New York, was a magnet for the world's great artistic talent. Now, we have to wonder -- is the future of American dance to be a farm system for companies overseas, and if this is the start of a trend, are we equipped to reverse it?