Career confessions: The Australian Ballet's David McAllister
Perth-born David McAllister is one of Australia’s most accomplished dancers. His tenure with The Australian Ballet has spanned 32 years and there’s no sign of a final curtain call. He was the company’s principal artist for more than a decade and danced in productions including Romeo and Juliet, La Fille mal gardée, The Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote. He has also danced with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Kirov Ballet and the Georgian State Ballet. After completing a Graduate Diploma in Arts and Entertainment Management at Deakin University, he was promoted to the coveted position of artistic director and has since been awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for his contribution to the arts. Here, McAllister shares some of the challenges he faced on his rise to the helm.
His passion for ballet was a blessing and a curse
My parents had this rather strange child who wanted to dance around all the time. They had no interest in ballet whatsoever. I think they thought it was a phase that was going to pass, but it’s been a 40-something-year phase. It took me a year to convince them to send me to ballet classes. When they did, my Dad used to pick me up and say, ‘You don’t have to go back next week.’ But I was hooked. In grade two I told everyone that I was doing ballet because I thought they’d be as excited as I was, but that wasn’t the best decision, especially at an all boys Catholic school. It was tough, but it bred a grit into me. I knew all the way through school that I was going to be a ballet dancer and I was determined to be successful.
At 17, he moved from Perth to Melbourne
I remember seeing the movie Fame when I was still living in Perth and I thought that would be my nirvana – going to a place where everyone loves doing the same thing. It was like that when I moved to Melbourne to join the Australian Ballet School. I had two of the most fantastic years of my young life being surrounded by people who were equally passionate. While it was hard, I stayed with friends of the family, which softened that blow. I did get homesick and miss my family because we’re tight-knit, but I loved the work and blossomed through the experience.
He had to plan for life after dancing
I was The Australian Ballet’s principal artist for a long time. When I got to my 30s I knew I wasn’t going to be dancing for the next 10 years so I started to think about next steps. My goal was to be an artistic director, but the first part of that was going back and completing some text-based learning. I really wanted to use my brain, so I enrolled in the Graduate Diploma of Arts and Entertainment Management at Deakin University. I did it off-campus while I was still performing. The study opened my mind because I wasn’t obsessing about the perfect plié. I was a wild card when the artistic director job came up. I applied because I was just about to finish the course. It would give me an opportunity to put the skills I’d picked up into practice. Low and behold I was appointed. I don’t think I would have achieved this if I hadn’t done the study.
'The study opened my mind because I wasn’t obsessing about the perfect plié.'
The Australian Ballet
Keeping ballet relevant in 2016 has its challenges
Things that I want to achieve artistically are always governed by the questions: will people come and will we be able to resource it? One of my aims is to make ballet seem less elitist. I’ve done this with the support of the board and the people that work at The Australian Ballet. There are 450,000 kids around Australia having lessons in school halls and community centres. It’s a community dance form and at the apex of it you have The Australian Ballet. We’ve been particular about getting into new media to push the image of the ballet being physically, beautiful and relevant to today’s society. There was a point that we were the highest followed ballet company in the world on Instagram. We’ve invested in our imagery. We’ve broken down some of the myths about ballet while keeping the magic.
It’s hard to say what the future holds
It took me a couple of years to get an understanding of the scope of what I was doing. Now I can take some artistic risks and shake it up a bit. For me personally that was part of doing Sleeping Beauty last year. It was a brand new production. It opened up a whole lot of artistic outlets for me. Normally when I commission people they go off and do the fun stuff that I’m not involved in – this time I choreographed and staged the production from the ground up. It was a fantastic experience. There will be a time that there will be succession at the ballet, but my contract has just been extended so obviously the board has confidence in what I’m doing. While I’m still able to be a force for ballet in Australia I’m really committed to it. I do go on holidays and work life balance is important, but ballet is an extension of my life.
Are you interested in furthering your career in the arts? Enrol in arts and cultural management postgraduate study at Deakin University.
Main image: Lana Jones in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo Jeff Busby
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