Steady as he goes
Karen van Ulzen talks to David McAllister about his decision to step down from The Australian Ballet in 2020.
It seems strange now, but when David McAllister was anointed the new director of the Australian Ballet IN 2001, it was seen as a bold choice. McAllister had had no experience as a director and little overseas career experience, except as a guest performer. Instead, he had spent his whole career, his whole life really, within the familiar embrace of the company. His work colleagues were his friends, his employees would probably be his friends. And he was amiable and popular – not necessarily good characteristics for a leader who may have to make unpopular decisions.
But he has proved to be a calm and steady hand – a welcome change from the turbulence of the Ross Stretton and Maina Gielgud years before. There have been no public controversies or financial problems under his purview, and the audience numbers have been steady (about 85% average paid capacity at mainstage theatres for the past 10 years). He has struck a sensible balance between the traditional and new, countering some ambitious projects with tried-and-true favourites, while also nurturing new choreography. The ballet ship has sailed steadily, with no sudden waves.
The newly renovated headquarters in South Melbourne, where I interview him for this article, reinforce this sense of calm – they are quiet, uncluttered, the impression is of efficiency. McAllister seems as youthful, quick and energetic as he was when he took the role nearly 20 years ago.
His departure is typically smoothly planned. In that way it is also remarkable - remarkable for his consideration of the wellbeing of the company as much as, perhaps more than, his own. He has no specific plans for his own future, but he does care for the future of the company. He decided it was time for a new director to take the Australian Ballet into the next decade of its existence. Having presided over the company’s 40th and 50th anniversaries, he was looking ahead to the 60th anniversary and planning what he could do that would “be new and different”, he explains. “And I just sort of went -- you know what? Maybe it's actually the time for a new person to have the opportunity – a new director, new vision.” His main concern is that his successor is as ambitious and as passionate about the company as he is.
He also liked the way the numbers stacked up: “It will be 50 years since I started dancing, 40 years since I went to the ballet school and . . . will be 20 years as director by 2020. So it just all felt like the right time.”
Despite surface appearances, McAllister has brought about some major changes, though they are not the sort that hit the headlines. He is particularly proud of his new maternity leave policy. Previously, women received just six weeks paid leave – now they stay on salary from early pregnancy to when they return to the stage, and can claim a travel allowance for the child to be brought with them on tour.“In my generation,” McAllister says, “the girls would have a baby and just stop dancing. This new policy has basically bought us another five years with those dancers because until the kids go to school they can actually manage to have them with them.”
Another of his legacies will be the increased emphasis on dancer health and welfare. Where previously there was a single physio on site, the company now boasts what is regarded to be the most sophisticated dance medical team in the world. “It has made the dancers better, the injury rate is much better, the strength and facility of dancers is so much better,” he adds.
McAllister also implemented Bodytorque, the season for new choreography. “Of course we've had choreographic workshops since Peggy van Prague, but they've never been a formal, structured part of what we do.”
I ask him what productions he commissioned that his is most proud of.
“I feel the luckiest person in the world to have had the Murphy Swan Lake as my first big commission,” he replies. This ballet, a reworking of a sacred classic, was considered a risk at the time, but has gone down as possibly Murphy's greatest masterpiece. Another coup in McAllister's first year was “getting Chris Wheeldon's Mercurial Manoeuvres”, which had been premiered just the year before by New York City Ballet - the first work by the then 27-year-old choreographer as artist-in-residence for that company. “This was the start of relationship which has developed over the whole time to us doing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” McAllister says. Another “incredible coup” was an original commission from Wayne McGregor – Dyad 1929 in 2009 – one half of dyptich which premiered in Australia and the UK simulantaneously. Both Wheeldon and McGregor are examples of McAllister fulfilling his wish to identify and commission rising choreographers before they become international names, and which have resulted in long-term fruitful relationships. Alexei Ratmansky is another. “He did an original work (Scuolo di ballo) and then he came back and did Cinderella and now we're doing Harlequinade” (a co—production with American Ballet Theatre). Then there was the acquisition of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, a quest which took McAllister 15 years to realise. “And I think it changed the company. I mean John is an extraordinary artist to work with. His impact on the company was lasting.”
On the whole McAllister has had a hands-off approach to new choreography, but he cautiously took the plunge into choreography himself when he staged his own Sleeping Beauty in 2015. “That for me was one of the great highlights of my time. I never thought that I would have that same excitement about being in the studio as I did as a dancer . . . as exciting as actually making something and being in charge and when the curtain goes up it's absolutely what you wanted it to be. I'm really proud that it was a success. It was just such a beautiful experience to have.”
As for other highlights, McAllister raves about the “extraordinary dancers who’ve come through” under his watch, the satisfaction of seeing them mature, recognising their talents, rewarding them with promotions, the “headiness” of witnessing them rise and fulfil their brilliance. Conversely, he is also disappointed at seeing good dancers leave or retire – sometimes earlier than he would have liked. It is a reminder that, as he emphasises, a company is the sum of many parts, and that his own success and pride are inextricably linked with the calibre and achievements of the dancers and the support and hard work of the administrative team.
Any other disappointments? “I guess it would be the ballets that never got made,” he laughs. “I’ve always wanted to do the great Australian narrative work.”
So where do artistic directors go when they retire, especially when they are leaving the top role in the country? McAllister is content to have a “gap year” -- to rest and take things as they come. “I started ballet when I was seven. Dancing was all I wanted to do. I'll be 57 when I retire and I think actually maybe I want to just broaden my horizons and take a year of doing bits and pieces but not another full time job. “
He does, however, have something secret on the boil that will premiere the February following his retirement. Apart from that, he’s looking forward to “going to the ballet” – perhaps ABT at the Met or the Royal Ballet in London. It is a constant problem that artistic directors seldom have the time to see their counterparts in action.
“There was that choice of just taking six months off and having a sabbatical,” he admits. “But no, that’s not why I’m going. Part of my reason is that I think it will be good for the company to have a new artistic director. Andy Killian and Amber Scott are the ony two dancers in the company at present who I didn’t hire. For the dancers it will be good to have a different direction and a new boss.
“I guess I’ve got a lot of skills I can offer somewhere else. But,” he adds, “I can’t imagine loving another company as much as I love The Australian Ballet.”
Pictured: David McAllister rehearsing his production of the Sleeping Beauty with principal artist Amber Scott.
hoto: KATE LONGLEY