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A full-circle moment for Bolshoi's American star

NEW YORK -- “Spasiba, Katya,” David Hallberg calls out, thanking a colleague in what sounds like a pretty convincing Russian accent. We're on our way upstairs to his dressing room at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, where his name is emblazoned on the door — in Cyrillic letters.

Talk about worlds colliding. For the past three years, since he made headlines by becoming the first American — and first foreigner — to be named a principal dancer at the storied Bolshoi Ballet, Hallberg, a blond, elegant dancer from the American heartland, has lived what he calls two separate lives — his American life, in New York, and his Russian life, in Moscow.

But this week, the two converge, as the Bolshoi performs in New York for the first time in nearly a decade. The theater is just a few steps from the Metropolitan Opera House, where Hallberg recently finished his spring season with American Ballet Theatre (he splits his year between the companies). But in a more spiritual way, Hallberg says, those few steps feel like a leap back to Russia. Certainly, it's a full-circle moment.

“I have to say, it's throwing me for a loop a little bit,” he says as he stretches out in his sparse dressing room, the floor strewn with a couple of crumpled ballet socks.

The Bolshoi engagement in New York, part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival, is a chance for Hallberg, who's dancing Prince Siegfried in “Swan Lake,” to reconnect with relatives. About 30 of them are flying in from Indiana and Arizona, where most of his family lives (Hallberg was born in South Dakota, then raised chiefly in Phoenix), to attend a weekend matinee.

But it's also a chance to reflect on the past three years — years in which he's become known as sort of a ballet diplomat: a dancer who took the reverse journey to the one Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov took many years earlier, when they defected. (“Stephen, the Cold War is over,” Hallberg quipped during an appearance with Stephen Colbert, who jestingly accused him of “giving away American ballet secrets.”) In a 2011 interview with this reporter, Hallberg mused about whether he'd need to change his privacy settings on social media. Now, he's hired a personal publicist, travels the world making guest appearances and has been a subject of artsy fashion magazine shoots.

The Bolshoi, too, has gotten its share of attention — not for similarly happy reasons, but for the shocking acid attack on its artistic director, Sergei Filin, in January 2013 that led to the partial loss of his eyesight (and nearly 30 surgeries to date). Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, now serving prison time, was found guilty of ordering the attack; the trial exposed bitter divisions within the Bolshoi.

Hallberg was in New York when it happened. “Of course it was alarming,” he says. “Sergei was attacked. You ask yourself, 'Am I exempt from that?'” But he never felt targeted himself, despite his alliance with Filin. “I decided it was important to go back to Moscow. For him — and for me personally. I was adamant about fulfilling my vision of where I wanted to go as a dancer.”

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This Tuesday, July 15 photo released by Lincoln Center Festival shows David Hallberg as Prince Siegfried in a scene from The Bolshoi Ballet's “Swan Lake” presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2014 at The David H. Koch Theater in New York. (AP)

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