Over the coming months Dance Australia will be talking to Australian dancers and companies to find out how they are handling the challenges that COVID-19 has presented.
In this first instalment, Denise Richardson talks to The Australian Ballet's Artistic Director, David McAllister, to find out how our national flagship company is faring in the face of the crisis.
To paraphrase Dickens, it may well be the worst of times, but for the arts, especially the performing arts, the best of times it is definitely not. The sector was the first to suffer following the Federal Government's decision in early March to ban public gatherings of more than 500 people to help slow the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. At the other end of this crisis, it will probably also be the last industry to recover as venues across the nation slowly reopen. For dance in particular, the sacrifice has been huge with revenue collapsing for many companies and no certainty about when operations may begin in the future. Independent dancers and those relying on the gig economy have also seen their job prospects for the rest of the year shrivel to nothing. It will be a case of survival of the fittest. And as dancers are nothing if not fit, but also enterprising and innovative, we’ll be catching up over coming weeks with those at the front line of this crisis – companies, independents and collectives – to see how they’re travelling.
The Australian Ballet is, perhaps, best poised to survive a crisis like this, with a massive funding base. However, overheads are also huge, and include a very large team of dancers, artistic, production and administrative staff. According to Artistic Director David McAllister, the company’s key priority is making sure its workforce is looked after.
“We’ve done some drastic internal savings, but we’ve prioritised our people,” he is keen to emphasise. “We have a certain ability to get our wages paid with our endowments, but of course not having revenue from ticket sales coming in is putting a huge pressure on the company.”
However, the response from audiences has been extraordinary with many either taking a credit or donating the cost of the ticket. “That’s been really helpful in the short term with our cash flow,” he adds. “For every arts company it’s a difficult time because a lot of us rely on revenue from box office to keep the wheels turning, especially the small to medium companies and independent dancers – not only dancers but all artists who rely on gigs. So, we’re just making sure that we’re being prudent.”
“The Australian Ballet has been extraordinarily sensible over many years, not living beyond its means,” continues McAllister. “I mean there have been times when I’ve been frustrated by that, but the rigour of our board has paid off, because we are now in a different situation to a lot of other companies. Having said that, much of our endowment is tied funding, not just sitting there waiting to be used, but tied to specific projects. However, we are being very attentive to our financials, making sure we will come through this and still be a viable company.”
Meanwhile everyone is working from home, including the dancers who still keep to a daily schedule. “The silver lining is that all those little jobs that no-one’s previously had time to do are now all going to get done,” laughs McAllister.
With no end-date for the shut-down in sight, the company is working on a rolling schedule, making decisions for this coming season of Anna Karenina beginning June 5 in Melbourne, but prepared to reschedule for the following year and adjusting accordingly.
In spite of the uncertainty McAllister remains positive. “I think we’re going to discover new ways in which we can interact, and also it’s going to build a real sense of community,” he declares, commenting on the innovative applications of web conferencing technology, from group classes to virtual group get-togethers. The take-up of the reins by David Hallberg in 2021, which is still on schedule, will also be a time of innovation. “It’ll be a very fertile time for looking at new ways of doing things,” he argues. “Our company is a flexible and talented organisation, so he’ll have a lot of support and enthusiasm for getting his ideas implemented.”
However, McAllister agrees that this wasn’t the end to his tenure as artistic director that he had envisaged.
“I knew this year was going to be one I wouldn’t forget,” he chuckles, “but I never dreamed it would be for these reasons!”
Pictured top: Kevin Jackson and Ako Kondo in 'Chroma', part of the company's triple bill, 'Volt', which had to be cancelled after only three performances. Photo: Jeff Busby.