Ballet dancer David Hallberg had just completed nearly three years of rehabilitation for an injured ankle when Nike asked him to spend a day dancing in a pool of shallow water. "I came in, and I was like, 'Okay, I need a couple minutes. I need to get used to this,'" he recalls. "But after hour three, I was thrashing and turning. I got used to it very quickly."
To be clear, the sportswear mega-brand wasn't trying to test the limits of Hallberg's recuperation, which had kept him from his position as a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater since 2015. Nike had actually tapped Hallberg to star in a short film by Swedish director Niclas Gillis designed to show off the company's new, weather-repellent NikeLab ACG Poncho (hence the pool of water). But the clip also serves as something of a metaphor for Hallberg's own journey toward recovery.
"The movement is all about struggle and what I weathered for so long," Hallberg says of the two-and-a-half-minute film's early moments. "Then at the end, it's the resurrection and the freedom of movement that I think I have actually found as a dancer, because I had to build everything from the ground up again. I had to completely rebirth myself."
Gillis and Hallberg filmed a series of one-take shots on a concrete and water set designed by the artist James Casebere, who also handled the accompanying still photography. It was a grueling experience for Hallberg — he describes being submerged underwater, barely able to breathe at certain points — but one that he welcomed as he prepared for his emotional return to the New York stage this past Saturday.
"It was really perfect timing with Nike and with the collaboration to be able to express those feelings — not just onstage but in an original kind of concept," he explains. "That's what Nike does so well: they have their eye on the ball, and they can represent [both] an athlete and an artist so honestly."
Fittingly, Hallberg's film will debut at Nike's 45 Grand event space in downtown Manhattan as part of a larger retrospective called "Objects of Desire" meant to showcase the brand's commitment to supporting creative talent in addition to athletic aptitude. The exhibition, curated in partnership with Out of Order Editor-in-Chief Dorian Grinspan, is open to the public until June 10th and includes highlights from Nike campaigns shot by the likes of Annie Liebowitz, Karl Lagerfeld and David Sims that date as far back as 1994. In addition, the ever-evolving 45 Grand has been temporarily remodeled to mimic the set — sans water — and is, for now, the only place to watch Hallberg's video in its entirety.
Hallberg admits the opportunity to have his physical prowess honored alongside previous Nike campaign stars like Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal is surreal, but says it's a distinction he feels that he's earned, particularly post-rehab. "Artistically, I'm a dancer, and I express myself as a dancer, but I train like an athlete," he explains. "I train differently, but just as hard as the athletes that Nike represents."
According to Hallberg, there are other benefits to partnering with one of the most recognizable brands in the world, too, aside from the recognition — namely, the swag. "I have a poncho," he confirms. "Absolutely."
Check out a preview of the Nike "Objects of Desire" exhibit below.