By Amanda Dunn
February 19, 2012
Barbara Langley couldn’t believe her eyes. It was the early 1980s and Langley, then assistant ballet mistress with the Australian Ballet, was on Mt Alexander Road in Moonee Ponds, waiting for a tram to take her to work. When the lights changed to allow people to cross the busy road, Langley was surprised to see a young man doing grand jetes (ballet’s version of the split-jump) across the intersection. She instantly recognised him as David McAllister, one of a particularly talented group of boys at the Australian Ballet School.
There were two remarkable aspects of this, she recalls: the first was that no one really seemed to notice; the second was that the boy did not appear to be showing off. Rather, it was ”sheer exuberance”, as though the dancing had taken charge of him, rather than the other way around.
McAllister chuckles when this story is related to him. ”I was a bit like that at the school,” he says. ”I was completely enchanted with ballet. I don’t know if it was a spell or a curse.”
That sense of ballet having an almost other-worldly hold over him followed McAllister into a long and successful career with Australian ballet’s flagship company, during which he rose to principal artist and danced some of ballet’s leading male roles. In 2001 he became its artistic director and now, 10 years into his tenure, he is preparing for a year of celebrations for the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary, a significant milestone for what is still a relatively young but highly regarded company.
The first of these celebrations (for the ballet-going public at least) kicks off on Friday [February 24] with the opening of Infinity, a new program of three ballets by some of the nation’s leading choreographers: the renowned Graeme Murphy, Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page, and former Chunky Move artistic director Gideon Obarzanek.
”It’s actually a coming of age,” McAllister says of the anniversary. ”For its first couple of decades the company was always up and coming, new, interesting. And we never sort of shook that adolescent tag.”
It is McAllister’s job not just to lead the company but also, of course, to sell it, and he won’t have many better opportunities than this anniversary year – the company has invested a lot in the year-long celebration, which includes a tour of New York in June.
This should come fairly easily to him. Despite being retired as a dancer for a decade, it is clear that the love of performing has never left him: his public appearances now – making an announcement on stage at the end of a ballet- demonstrate his considerable intelligence, charm and good humour. They also show his desire for people to like him, a quality that is something of a double-edged sword for a manager.
”I’m such a pleaser, it’s ridiculous,” he admits.
Being a ”pleaser” was probably a trait McAllister was born with, or at least developed early in his life. The middle of five children – he has three brothers and a sister – growing up in suburban Perth, McAllister was always an extrovert and a performer. Then, in 1970, at just seven, young David saw something that would change his life: a television documentary on the touring ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev.
He was instantly smitten with the dancing he had seen, and begged his parents to take him to classes. At first, they resisted, partly because they weren’t sure about a boy learning ballet. ”I think they thought it was a bit of a phase I was going to get over,” he recalls.
But he was so insistent that, after a year of his pleas, they yielded. In his excitement, McAllister made the tactical error of announcing to the class at his all-boys Catholic school that he was now learning ballet. The bullying followed soon after, and dogged him through his schooling. Worse still, the head nun called his parents to the school and tartly informed them that ”little boys don’t learn ballet”. Fortunately, the meeting had the opposite effect to the one the nun intended, galvanising his father’s support for his dancing.
”I don’t look back with fondness at my school years,” McAllister says. ”I had great friends and great support from various people … but it was a pretty tough time.”
He auditioned for and was accepted to the Australian Ballet School at 15, but his parents thought he was too young to make the move and insisted he finish school. He auditioned again at 17, and this time made the move across to Melbourne, where he joined two other talented Perth boys, Steven Heathcote and Paul Mercurio.
”I always joked that his teacher must have kept him in a box in Perth, because I didn’t really see him that much (before he arrived),” Heathcote says.
But there was no doubting his potential: ”Obviously a huge talent. That was the first thing that struck me.”
McAllister joined the company in 1983 and rose swiftly through the ranks, becoming a principal artist in 1989. He was a striking performer, technically sharp and charismatic on stage. ”He was a personality,” says Langley, who is now the company’s wardrobe mistress. ”He was a very good dancer, indeed.”
But there were blows. Ballet can be a cruel art form – not just for the physical demands it makes on dancers, but also for its rigid aesthetic. While it famously makes tough judgments about women and their bodies, it also does so with men, albeit in a different way.
McAllister was told early in his career that he wasn’t particularly suited to the ”prince” roles (of which there are many at the traditional end of the art form’s repertoire, such as Swan Lake, Giselle and Sleeping Beauty), being shorter and with a less strictly classical look than someone like Heathcote.
”It was a fairly recurrent theme until I actually did Giselle in 1987, which unlocked more of that sort of role. But I didn’t do the princes in Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake until the 1990s,” he says. ”It was something that made me determined to prove I could in fact do them.”
Under his leadership, the company has showcased a broader range of body types – particularly among the women – than in previous years.
Langley has noticed this too: she says that the women now have more shapely forms (that is, they have busts) than they once did. She and McAllister attribute this partly to the breadth of the dancers’ training – they do gym work and Pilates, for example – and the in-house medical and dietary attention, all of which has built strength.
McAllister says this has been a particular focus of his, to enable the dancers to cope with the rigorous demands the work places on them. ”Because we did have many years where we would have between 10 to 15 people injured at any one time and, having been a dancer who was injured (he suffered multiple injuries to his back and legs in the early part of his career), I felt really strongly that we had to look at the health and welfare of our company.”
One of the first things he did as artistic director was to gather the female dancers to talk about weight. ”I wasn’t comfortable with telling people, ‘you need to lose weight’, or ‘you need to put weight on'; I needed to come up with a protocol,” he says. ”It was really quite empowering, because I don’t think the girls had ever had an opportunity to ask what they felt about their bodies, and what they think they should look like.”
As a result, he says, he has had to speak to relatively few women about being overweight or even underweight.
The Age’s dance critic, Chloe Smethurst, says she has been impressed with the extent to which McAllister encourages the dancers to have a life outside ballet, and has made it easier for the women to have babies and return to dance – something that not long ago was unheard of in a ballet company. ”They’re very well-rounded and in that sense, quite an Australian company,” Smethurst says.
Graeme Murphy also agrees with McAllister’s approach: ”I don’t want people who don’t have lives trying to pretend they are people with lives in a ballet.”
Principal artist Lucinda Dunn is one of seven female dancers who have returned from maternity leave to their ballet careers under McAllister’s directorship. Her second daughter, Ava, was born at the end of last year. ”The fact that we can study, and have an interest outside of ballet has changed and evolved,” Dunn says.
In her view, McAllister is a ”fantastic” director who is warmly regarded not just within the company but by audiences too. And ”he’s developed a certain toughness that you need at the top”, she says.
McAllister readily admits that the necessary toughness does not always sit well with his desire to please. ”When I started being artistic director, I wanted to make this ballet nirvana where everyone was always going to be happy and all the ballets were going to be amazing,” he says. ”I quickly learnt that that was actually an ideal that was never going to be a reality.”
When asked to name the most difficult aspect of his job, he immediately throws back his head and replies, ”managing expectations”. By that he means that he has 69 highly talented, creative and ambitious young people under his stewardship, and his job necessarily means telling some of them that they can’t have what they want. ”There’s a big expectation that they want to be successful, they want to progress,” he says. ”And that’s always the trickiest thing.”
There have been rumblings within the company about the repertoire – there are dancers who feel that it isn’t broad enough and doesn’t give them enough opportunities to dance ballet’s big, famous roles. This is always a tricky task for an artistic director: to balance the traditional ”story” ballets such as Nutcracker or Swan Lake, which are also the ”bums-on-seats” ballets, with new works that challenge and progress the art form.
McAllister’s response is that this is partly the subscription model – Sydney and Melbourne offer five ballets each season – but also partly because of the demands of keeping more works fresh.
When he was a dancer, he points out, artistic director Marina Gielgud maintained a broader repertoire, but the dancers would be rehearsing until 5.30pm and then performing that night. ”People were exhausted,” he says.
It is also important to keep pushing ballet forward. ”If you just cycle through the same repertoire over and over, that’s when that whole idea of ballet dying and becoming a museum art form rings true.”
Nonetheless, he is listening to the dancers. ”I have been rethinking that a lot,” he says. ”Thinking, OK, I understand why they want that.”
He has a supporter in Murphy, who has created, among other works, two new versions of classic ballets, Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, under McAllister’s directorship. Murphy is a huge drawcard for the ballet-going public: his works sell about 90 per cent of available tickets, and last year’s debut of his Romeo and Juliet sold out in Melbourne. ”I think the Australian Ballet’s strength is that it doesn’t look like every other ballet company in the world,” Murphy says.
Smethurst would like to see the company take more risks: ”I would actually like to see them strike out more in terms of developing the art form,” she says.
McAllister’s current contract runs until 2014, and in that time he wants to engage more choreographers to tell Australian stories, expand the company’s education program, and broaden its reputation. He has also, perhaps, found his own work-life balance or at least come closer to it – something he says he did not have, or even want, when he was a dancer.
When asked what it is that he loves about ballet, he replies ”everything”, and it isn’t a glib answer. His love for the art form clearly runs very deep, in ways that perhaps even he doesn’t understand. But he’s also acutely aware that it is a short, demanding and difficult profession.
”It’s equally as hard as it is fantastic,” he says. ”But then, nothing worthwhile is easy.”
The Australian Ballet’s season of Infinity runs from this Friday until March 6, www.australianballet.com.au
Copyright © 2012 Fairfax Media