A Matter of Respect
A former student reminisces about the favorite teacher she shared with David Hallberg,
principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet.
When David Hallberg and I were classmates at Ballet Arizona in Phoenix, there were no other boys at the studio to necessitate a men’s class. After taking daily class with the advanced girls, Hallberg would stay after class for private coaching from our teacher, “trudging away,” as Hallberg told me, “on my usual repertoire of exercises late into the evening, alone with Mr. Han in the studio. Sometimes my parents came early to pick me up and would watch quietly in the corner of the studio.” Hallberg says one night he fell out of his 11th coupé jeté manège and lay curled in pain and exhaustion. Mr. Han looked over at Hallberg’s parents, raised one eyebrow and asked, “How’s Mommy doing?”
Kee Juan Han’s searing wit never failed to make me laugh, even when I was the subject of it. Humor has always accompanied his demanding ballet training; he understands the need for levity along with humility in such a difficult artform. His uncompromising and holistic approach to teaching ballet has produced Hallberg, in addition to soloists and corps de ballet members across the world. Simply put, Han understands that it takes discipline, manners and respect to transform talented boys into princely men.
I can still picture Hallberg’s silhouette flying past the window, perfecting double tours or rehearsing a variation, as the rest of us were leaving for the night. I was too exhausted from the three hours I had just endured to be jealous of the special attention. Han volunteered to stay late in the evening to privately coach Hallberg, but only on the condition that he hold up his end of the bargain by working harder and longer than everyone else.
While some may consider Han’s strict approach to be old-school, he maintains that discipline is learning how to work hard. He explains that manners relate to the decorum inherent to the artform: asking to be excused from class, thanking the pianist and teacher, coming to class looking sharp and clean. He asks for haircuts when some stylishly messy hairdo persists, insisting, “I make myself presentable to you, that is the least you could do for me.” Respect is reinforced for the tradition of ballet and the role of the teacher. He believes that today, “this may be the only place kids are hearing these words.”
Han is one of seven kids from a poor family in Singapore, a country where two years of military service is mandatory. That service meant he had to turn down a full scholarship to The Royal Ballet School in 1973 because his parents could not afford the $50,000 fee required for deferment. But his time was not wasted; in the army he learned about teamwork, responsibility and respect for comrades. When he returned, his first teacher Florrie Sinclair secured him a scholarship and sponsor at The Australian Ballet School and, after a debilitating knee injury, Han recovered to dance with the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre before becoming a soloist with Boston Ballet. He left Boston to become the school director of Ballet Arizona. After 10 years in Phoenix, he joined the faculty of the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts. “It was a great time. I could concentrate solely on my teaching at NCSA, without the day-to-day responsibilities of running a school, and I was able to question how to bring more connection to barre, center work and jumps,” he says.
When Han was ready to implement all he had rethought at NCSA, he took his present post as director of The Washington School of Ballet. “Our school has more than tripled in size since Kee’s arrival, says artistic director Septime Webre, “and we’re attracting amazing talent from all over the globe, but also the kids are getting jobs.”
“Are you in love with yourself?” Han asks an adolescent boy at TWSB who can’t seem to stop looking at himself in the mirror. Han’s cackle echoes throughout the room, his quick laughter at his own quips indicating it is OK to smile in his men’s class. In the world of Han, hard work is fun, too.
Han’s class runs like a well-oiled machine. Combinations are given and received quickly, so time can be taken in between for him to dramatically roll up the leg of his pants to demonstrate the shape of the coupé and give in-depth corrections. A hand is not allowed to come off the barre in a balancé until the highest demi-pointe is achieved. A développé à la seconde is brought down to a tendu so a student can clarify his position and answer when Han asks, “Is that turnout good enough for you?” The learning in the room is constant and active. The combination of impeccable standards, technical rigor, repetition, interrogation and wit keep every student working to the highest potential.
Though extremely talented from day one, Hallberg was not an instant principal. He rose through the ranks from the ABT Studio Company. He remembers how Han “counseled me to ignore scholarship offers from so many different ballet summer programs and stay in Phoenix to be with my family while training. When I was mature enough to leave, he did everything he could to help me get in to the Paris Opéra Ballet School.” Now a famous principal, Hallberg still seeks out Han’s coaching whenever he can get it to help him make technical adjustments and prepare for big roles.
At TWSB, the next generation is being groomed. Albert Gordon, a Princess Grace Award winner and gold medal recipient at the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition who just joined Boston Ballet II, rehearses a variation for a gala with Han. After they have dissected the musicality of a particularly tricky phrase, he asks Gordon, “Where do you need to go from?”
“From the beginning,” Gordon replies. This is a familiar response for all of Han’s former students. Such persistence as modeled by and learned from Han has paved the way for Hallberg to become the first American premier to join the Bolshoi Ballet. “Ballet is a field where the sole driver in your career is yourself,” says Hallberg. “Yes, it is the director who might give you opportunities, but it comes partly from the work ethic that you display. Mr. Han always repeated to me that when I start company life, I must be the motivator. No one else can do it.”
“Dance is a lazy career,” cautions Han. “If you are not intellectual you will just be a carbon copy of the boy or girl next to you. You have to question—have to have ambition.” DT
Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow in Columbia University’s Graduate Literary Nonfiction Department.
Photo By Matthew Murphy
Photo courtesy of The Washington Ballet