David Hallberg in the wings during the first act of The Sleeping Beauty at a dress rehearsal at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Photo: Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times.

Critic and poet Claudia La Rocco recently chatted with the celebrated American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet dancer David Hallberg in Chelsea. They talked about his dual lives in New York and Moscow, what it means to be an intellectually curious ballet dancer in 2013, and his long self-education in contemporary art, including a for-now shelved collaboration with the French choreographer Jérôme Bel.

Claudia La Rocco: When did you start seeing contemporary dance, and what got you interested?

David Hallberg: It started when I was at Paris Opera School in 2000. I saw the company perform whenever they were doing programs, which was almost every weekend. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know Mats Ek, I didn’t know Jiří Kylián. I only knew of William Forsythe because of his In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and the dancer Sylvie Guillem.

CLR: You were a baby then, right?

DH: I was seventeen, but I had this insatiable curiosity for what they were presenting. It’s not like I researched anything, even after I saw it. I didn’t know who they were or what they had created or where they were from. I just watched and watched and watched. And then I came to New York and I was very much engrossed in the ballet world.

CLR: You did the Intensive at ABT and then joined the Studio Company immediately after?

DH: Studio Company, and then the Main Company. At the same time, I began to go to the Joyce Theater and Dance Theater Workshop [now New York Live Arts], and then my tastes started to form. It was never a sense of, “I should see this; this will make me a more well-rounded artist.” As the years went on, I saw more contemporary stuff than ballet. It was a gradual process.

CLR: My background is in poetry and visual art; I got thrown into writing about dance. I remember seeing one of Ann Liv Young’s early pieces. They were inserting these poor turtles into their vaginal cavities—

DH: As one does.

CLR: As one does. It’s the counterpart to the gerbil, right?

DH: [laughs] Totally.

CL: And I thought, “I don’t know what to think of this. This is interesting.” I was really bored with ballet until I started seeing works like Agon and realized ballet can be just as conceptual and philosophical as anything else. I realized it was similar to my taste in literature.

DH: What’s your taste in literature?

CLR: Poetry is a big part of it. The non-narrative structure of poetry is similar to how dance resists linearity. It’s more about structure, about rhythm and pacing. When I began to watch dance and was told things like “Paul Taylor is the greatest living choreographer,” I figured I must not like dance. Once I started to see other things I realized, “Oh, I was just in the wrong theater.”

DH: That’s kind of how my taste evolved as well. There are choreographers that are not my taste. I look at work sometimes and think, how is this valid in my world?

Often, when others are creating works in a ballet idiom, it seems like they go on autopilot: “Give me some Forsythe, give me some Balanchine.” Where is your own voice—question it! That’s why I’m curious about people who have the freedom, apart from any idiom that they’ve been tied to since they were kids, to create what their inner self is trying to say. That’s why I’ve gravitated to all of these modern things—some are really great, some are total crap, some you leave at intermission, some you leave crying. It’s exhilarating.