NEW YORK (AP) — Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in 1961 and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974 — both great dancers who fled the Soviet Union for freedom and better opportunities.

The world has changed much since then, of course. And now, in another major milestone for dance, a young American ballet star is making the reverse trip — heading for Moscow, to become a "premier" dancer with the famed Bolshoi Ballet.

David Hallberg, who will also remain a principal with the New York-based American Ballet Theater, is the first foreign dancer to be given that distinction in the Bolshoi’s modern history. Until now, foreign dancers were only invited for guest stints, the company said in a statement.

In an interview Wednesday, the South Dakota native made it clear he fully grasps the significance of his move.

"It’s a milestone," he said by telephone during a break in rehearsals for an upcoming tour.

"It’s historic. It’s a huge challenge, but I feel it’s important, not just for me as an artist, but for the dance world — and, in the bigger picture, maybe even for international relations."

Hallberg, at 29, is already regarded as one of the most talented male ballet dancers in the world. In six years as a principal with ABT, he has captivated audiences with his pure, elegant form, weightless jumps, regal bearing and tall, blond good looks. He performs in modern as well as classical pieces, but is especially suited to princely roles such as Siegfried in "Swan Lake," Albrecht in "Giselle" or Romeo.

First approached by the Bolshoi in April, while performing in Moscow, Hallberg said his decision took time and was extremely difficult.

"It was really hard," he said, "because the responsibility is really great; there’s a responsibility to really do this justice."

On the other hand, he said, "I by no means want to compare this to the weight of the defections of Misha (Baryshnikov) and Nureyev. I wasn’t even around yet. I can’t imagine what it was like for them." But, he added: "There is a correlation. This is about the globalization of the world, and the globalization of dance in particular."

Hallberg said he will split his time between the two companies, living both in New York and in Moscow.

In a statement, the Bolshoi hailed its newest "premier," or principal.

"Mr. Hallberg ... possesses all the best qualities of classical dancer — perfect technique, refined manners and outstanding acting abilities," said artistic director Sergei Fillin.

Hallberg’s first appearance with the Bolshoi is expected to be "Giselle," with the young Bolshoi sensation Natalia Osipova as his partner. The two won raves when they performed the ballet together at ABT. "We have a special connection," Hallberg said.

Hallberg was born in South Dakota, studied at the Arizona Ballet School and then the Paris Opera Ballet School. He joined ABT 2001, and four years later became a principal.