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Flash Interview, 9-27: David McAllister in the House
...And Australian Ballet Becomes a Republic All Its Own

By Simone Clifford
Copyright 2000 Simone Clifford

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Challenging tradition, surprising prediction and teasing convention, the Australian Ballet begins a new epoch in July by bringing one of its own up into the ultimate of leadership positions. The day the board announced in August that principal dancer David McAllister would be the next artistic director of the ballet it heralded a coming of age. One could say that the Australian Ballet has manifested a republic all of its own.

McAllister has been with the Australian Ballet since 1983. His artistic relationship first began as a student in the Australian Ballet School before he joined the company and rose to principle artist. Having served the company unflinchingly his entire career as a dancer, McAllister, interviewed by The Dance Insider, said it is vitally important that the dancers understand that the company in a sense belongs to every one of them and that each member is highly prized and valued whether they be a principle dancer or a member of the corps de ballet. He wants the dancers to know that the company is a great one, and that their contributions make it so. Given the nature and structure of the classics, team spirit in the true sense of the word is necessary for artistic success. For the stories they tell so ethereal in spirit, portrayed through the physical, and transferred to an audience require absolute belief and commitment from every member on stage.

You may be wondering at this time why I have chosen to discuss the artistic rather than the business angle of McAllister's upcoming directorship of the company. Naturally, much of what I am writing here is quite possibly everything you already know about the artistic in a classical ballet. But you see, if we only ever talk about the business concerns a director faces, challenge him or her on specifics of programming, relationship with the board and the multiple questions one could ask regarding events of the past and future, where is the focus? I certainly do not wish to overlook these aspects and one shouldn't ever disregard them, but I thought that we could just this once try to discover who McAllister is and where the artistic in him is situated.

I discover through talking to McAllister that his love of the 19th century classics comes from his deep conviction that the stories they tell are still relevant to us today. He desires that the dancers of the company draw not only on their excellent technical capabilities, but balance this with their own artistic development to express those stories.

"The essence, the unrealism about ballet as opposed to other dance is what separates it from other forms of dance," says McAllister. "When Taglioni first rose up on her pointe shoes striving for that idealism that's quite unreal, that was the start of ballet's constant striving for perfection. The aim for perfection, what seems unattainable is what keeps me so wrapped up in it, so excited about it and passionate about it.

"One thing you could criticize ballet about is that with that striving for perfection, sometimes you lose sight of the fact that it's really about the soul -- it's about nourishing the soul, and it's also about giving to an audience. It's more than just presenting a beautifully pointed foot; it's about why you present that beautifully pointed foot. Perhaps something we forget about with the classics and aim more for in newer works is to try and define the soul or essence, because it's closer to us when you're being choreographed on. The essence and the meaning of why you are doing things is so much clearer.

"Sometimes with the classics we lose sight of that, because Petipa died more than a hundred years ago and we are removed from his choreographic experience. What we want to do is to try and re-find that original essence. I think there's room to make the classics a little more valid. Essentially, the works that survived, the really great works, deal with the human condition. Essentially, that's what you want to portray in those works. People look at 'The Sleeping Beauty' as a very long, very formal piece, but in fact it's actually about a young girl growing up, going from childhood into womanhood and the fears and the pressures that are put on her. And that's just as relevant today."

I asked McAllister about the technical brilliance of today's dancers versus the technical ability of the Petipa era, when the great classics were created. Can we somehow pare back the technical emphasis to arrive at a more essential portrayal of the much-loved older works?

"Oh yes," he answered. "Just having (guest artist) Sylvie Guillem around in the company the last few days, just looking at the way she works and the facility she has to dance is unbelievable and extraordinary. You know she has pushed what people see as an ideal of a ballerina into another level. But you know talking briefly to her over dinner about it and why she dances and what motivates her, that it's not about that physicality. It seems that what motivates her is the spirit, it's the creative person inside of her that actually makes that body transcend almost the technical ability that she has. Sylvie has that connection with the performance, and that's so exciting because there are possibly people who have that facility but who don't have that connection with the performance as well. I think that's probably why Sylvie is such a phenomenon, and such a great ballerina as other ballerinas have been in the past. You know that connection of body and mind is such an incredibly strong force."

So, in this approach by McAllister we may see a shift occur in performance from the dancers at the Australian Ballet. We may see the dancers reaching in to find the meaning within themselves and transfer their interpretation to the audience, so that the sublime ethereal magic that we all associate with classical ballet is seen more substantially on stage. Defying the gravity not just of the human form, but of the human condition has always been the guiding light of the classical form.

Now let's talk about the work of today's choreographers. Australian Ballet has an extensive repertoire of work from choreographers of the 20th century. These choreographers create from the foundations of the classical, but their works ask of the body in a very different way to that of the classic ballets. What sort of demands does this make on the dancers?

"We do have this vast repertoire which I think is fantastic," McAllister says, but the down side of that is that to swing from the more contemporary end of the ballet scale and into the real classics takes a lot of effort physically. "And while that is a fantastic thing for the dancers, I think if you are constantly streamed in one thing or another it can be very banal after awhile. On the other hand, to have that challenge constantly of being able to do both is wonderful, but it can really wear you out. I think that's something that all directors of this company have faced and it's something that I will face, how to balance that work load with time to actually be able to connect with that inner person."

I decide to ask David McAllister: How do we create an outreaching manifesto? How can we address an audience which cannot even remember Seinfield? How will David McAllister bring this company forward? Should the company find its own artistic references and create its own dreaming? Create its own manifesto and invest in its own choreography?

McAllister is fully aware of the long-standing criticism held in regards to the company consistently buying the work of big name choreographers to prop itself up. Certainly bringing in these choreographers does have its advantages and its correct placement within the company's repertoire. Great works of the type that the company buys have been arrived at due to the consistent efforts of creators and dancers grown over long periods of time working together. So for this type of greatness to be achieved within the studios of the Australian Ballet, investment from the company is required. McAllister wants to gain more ground for the choreographic within the company. We know that directors Maina Gielgud, first and later Ross Stretton have been injecting the company with collaborations in the choreographic from its resident choreographers, but still there is much work to be done in this area. Impotence in the creative charter of the company is an issue that McAllister will be addressing. He firmly recognizes the importance of fostering creativity not only because it as an issue of contention about the company's programming but also because of the positive life-affirming affect the creative has on the dancer.

McAllister makes reference to the Nugent report, which was the Federal Government's initiative undertaken in order to reveal the economic situation present, and the future of our arts companies. It is hoped that financial aid will come through soon as a result of this report.

"Help in funding this creative future may come from the recent Nugent report," says McAllister. "I hope possibly in the future with this injection of funding that we're hopefully going to be getting as a result of the Nugent report (it does unfortunately come down to the harsh reality of the economic) to actually give us a little buffer zone to make a space for the dancers to work with people on new works, creative time with people. Hopefully that will be a really positive thing in that quest to develop and nourish the dancers. But it's always going to be difficult. I don't expect that to be an easy road. A lot of classical companies are directed by people, myself included, who administrate artistically as opposed to create and that's why I feel its really important to be able to get people to work with the company who are creative people. Creators who will be able to challenge the dancers and to strip away sometimes what they see themselves as."

In terms of the classical ballet company taking itself forward into the future, David McAllister looks first to its past to discover its future.

I can then rest peacefully in the words of Camille Paglia, a most sensational critical commentator of the present who offers the ideal manifesto of ballet when she says: "Poetry began as music, and music began as dance.... Ballet ideologically defies gravity.... Ballet is the body rising.... Its disdain for the commonplace material world is the source of its authority and glamour."

May David McAllister always reach in and put up a good fight for the ethereal light within us all.

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