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David McAllister, Director, Australian Ballet

Choreographing the company for the new millenium

by Ana Abad-Carles

January 11, 2005 -- Australia House, London

David McAllister, Director of the Australian Ballet, gave Ballet-Dance Magazine an interview at Australia House in London, after attending the second Rural Retreats organised by Dance East. During the interview he talked about his company and their forthcoming tour in the UK with their new production of "Swan Lake" (2002).

McAllister studied at the School of the Australian Ballet, before joining the company founded in 1962 by Dame Peggy van Praagh, who was “a wonderful teacher, a wonderful coach and […] a visionary woman when it came to choreography and developing new choreographers”, in 1983. His career as a dancer developed during Maina Gielgud’s time as artistic director who gave the company “a lot of international touring and […] a wonderful repertoire.” After retiring as a dancer in 2001, and having completed a Graduate Diploma in Arts & Management, he applied for the post of Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet.

AA:  I read with amusement in a recent interview with Errol Pickford in Dance Europe that you once told him that when you applied for the post of director of the company, you never expected to get it.

DM:  No! [laughs]

So, why did you apply?

I guess I was 37, very much in love with dancing and, though, not old, I knew that in future years I was not going to go backwards. I was always going to get older. I had a bit of a plan about what I’d like to do when I actually stopped dancing and at the end of that plan there was always the thought of being director of a ballet company and the Australian Ballet was the company I had been most attached to. I had just finished an Arts and Entertainment Management course and I thought that this might be a very interesting experience for me to go through: to make an application, to make a strategic plan, to think about the future of the company. I’d never interviewed for a job, I’d never done any of that, and I thought that it would be a very good exercise in developing my potential for the future. I got more and more interested as the process went on and I probably could have been incredibly disappointed if I hadn’t been appointed! But I also had that wonderful freedom of knowing that if I wasn’t appointed, it probably just wasn’t the right time for me, that I could go and try other different things.

Once you took up the post, what was your vision for the company?

When I took up the post, I thought my “vision” for the company was just too ordinary. Because if I might, I would have a company which is unique, technically incredibly strong, artistically motivated and motivating; and I guess, if you ask any director, that’s exactly what they want for their company. A group of dancers who are technically wonderful and exciting and to create works that really have much more impact on the country we live in and also on the dance world. So, in a way, it’s a simplistic vision, but in another way it’s quite complex because that idea of excellence and quality is something that we do from a wonderful heritage set up by Dame Peggy and which was to present the grandest of the classics right to the 20th century repertoire and to create new Australian works. So, in some ways, the basis and the structure of the company were there and I felt it was my job to actually develop that.

What has been your greatest challenge as director in the past 4 years?

The greatest challenge for me is dealing with the art form and the dancers, 21st century dancers, who are so different to the dancers of the past. It’s a wonderful opportunity because young people today ask questions, they challenge authority, they talk and think for themselves, and that’s a wonderful thing. But in the realms of the ballet world it’s difficult, because in the past dancers did things because that’s the way they had always been done. Nowadays dancers ask why, and, as artistic directors, we need to learn how to work within that environment and to have that sort of stimulating conversation without losing the discipline and the structure of a ballet company. For me that’s one of the challenges. The other great challenge is to continue to create work which is relevant to our 21st century society. When you have high speed internet access to everything, sitting in a theatre for three hours is something that needs to be as stimulating, vibrant and immediate as accessing, for example, Paris from your own city. However, ballet has survived because we speak to an audience on an emotional level, and I think that is the way in which it can continue to be relevant.

It is interesting what you said about young dancers. There seems to be a lot of talk about the lack of motivation in young dancers nowadays -- their lack of interest in what they do; and yet, what you are saying presents a more positive picture.

I’ve heard that too, and I think dancers are motivated and stimulated today, but in a different way. It’s got to do with today’s “instant gratification” in that young dancers want something and they want it now, whereas previously there was this sort of patient progression. But in the old days you used to write a letter and post it and then expect a reply in maybe a week’s time, whereas today you write an e-mail and you expect an answer in 5 minutes. So I think it’s the time. Young dancers are being brought up in this mentality, and at times they get frustrated with the amount of time that it takes to build a career. And yet, I don’t think there’s that much difference to what I was as a dancer.

As you have just said, the fact that you were a dancer may be helpful in understanding how dancers feel.  In what other ways do you think your work as a dancer within the company has helped you as a director?

Most definitely. When I first got this job I said that I would never forget what it’s like to be a dancer. It’s one of the most fantastic things you can do, but it’s also one of the most difficult things you can do. You always have to remember that these are very complex artists and my job now is also complex in a lot of ways, but I never want to forget the way in which dancing consumes your life. It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing - you wake up every morning and just wonder if an injury will make you stop for a year … It’s a life style, it’s not just a career and I have to remember how profoundly dancers care about what they do. There are times when I do hate ballet and the dancers’ world, because I am director now and I can’t put up with anything which is not what I expect from them. So it’s a love and hate relationship.

Back in 1990, John Percival, when trying to foresee what the new millennium would bring along for dance, said something like if the Australian Ballet could manage to find and nurture a choreographer, there would be nothing that the company could not achieve. As the new millennium is already under way, what can you say about this prediction?

I must say we’ve been incredibly lucky in nurturing new choreography and new choreographers. We have 3 resident choreographers: first, Stanton Welch, who’s now director of Houston Ballet, but who also has a great association with the company so he’s doing a new full-length ballet for us this year. Stephen Baynes, who is our resident choreographer, he’s been for over ten years now, and who’s created some beautiful works for the company. And I’ve just appointed Adrian Burnett as the third resident choreographer for the company this year. So, in some ways, we’ve actually achieved a lot of choreographic work. Graeme Murphy has worked with the company as well and continues to create work for it and I think this "Swan Lake" is a combination of 25 years of association with the Australian Ballet. I feel that we see ourselves as a creative company and not just a wonderful interpretative company.

Which leads us onto AB’s new "Swan Lake" with new choreography by Graeme Murphy. You commissioned the piece in 2002 to celebrate the company’s anniversary, what made you commission what might have seemed as “another reworking of "Swan Lake”?

The company started in 1962 with a production of "Swan Lake", so that’s one of the reasons. Well before I became director, I had asked Graeme: “if you could do a new production for the company, what would you like to tackle?” And he said that "Swan Lake" was one of the ballets he thought you could really feel inspired if you wanted to create a great classical ballet. Graeme had always been known as a contemporary choreographer, though his whole background for 13 years had been in classical ballet. So, that is another reason. The ballet came out of this love that Graeme had for the music more than anything else.

It is interesting what you just said because I remember Mathew Bourne being asked at a conference in Roehampton why he had done his production of "Swan Lake", and he said that he had always wanted to choreograph that music because he loved it.

Isn’t that interesting? Graeme said that. He felt that it was the most inspiring music and also that there’s so much emotion in it that it almost dictates the action, and I felt exactly the same way. He actually wanted this production to revive the emotional depth of the story.

The ballet has been an overall triumph for the company and has collected many important prizes in Australia. What makes it such a unique piece?

For me, what makes it unique is that it gave the dancers a story that they can entirely relate to and that they feel inspired to dance. In previous productions I had always felt that we were like dressed up in other people’s clothes. It didn’t have a lot of resonance in our culture in Australia, because we don’t have a Royal Family.  We don’t have that sense of class, that culture and sort of perspective, I guess. So we always felt that we were play-acting in this European ballet. This production is still very classical and very European, but we catered it with our own perspective, so that it gave us the opportunity to rebuild our identity within this beautiful tragic story. I think that is one of the reasons why it made such an impact on our audience, but also, because it’s a universal story of love and betrayal.

Why have you chosen this production for your UK visit in the summer?

I’m really proud of this production. It’s a beautiful production and I think it really speaks to a wider audience. That’s what’s made me feel confident to bring it here. It shows the dancers in our company in a way that is unique. They are an extraordinary group of dancers and this production just highlights the depth of that talent in a lot of ways.

Has any of the original choreography been kept or has it been completely reworked?

It has been completely reworked. There’s not a single step in the production that had been done before. However, it’s very classical and it’s quite magical. In a way, it’s taking the production of "Swan Lake" as we know it a step forward.

Ballet audiences are used to seeing classical ballets performed by companies in different ways. Steps and choreographic patterns change according to various productions and we still talk of the variations as if they were the same, when actually they are different …

Yes, totally different! Somebody in Australia said “why don’t you do the original production?” Well, actually there have been so many productions of "Swan Lake" that I would actually challenge anyone to stage a production that was the original as it was. I don’t personally think that anyone could. I mean, it’s always an interpretation of it … It’s keeping the majesty of the production and the mystique. You can have so many different productions and each of them has so much to offer. I think that sometimes we get so entangled in the debate of the original production, that I’d personally see a good production.

Are there any plans to bring the company for a longer period of time and a wider repertoire in the near future?

Absolutely. We would like to return as soon as we can. I’d like us to be seen with a wider repertoire. However, this is such a difficult production that we wanted to do it well. With the time that we had available to us, to do another production would have compromised this. So it was a unanimous decision.  Let’s do our best production and then try to bring back a broad mix. There’s a great number of ballets that I would love the company to present here but we are bound to a very rigourous touring schedule in Australia. So I thought, better come quickly and hopefully set up an ongoing relationship and then come back again.

Finally, what would be your greatest ambition in regards to the present and future of your company, and of the ballet scene in general?

If I could leave the Australian Ballet with a group of creative artists, dancers, choreographers who could perform in a way that moves an audience, whether this is in the way they create the work or in the way they perform … If I could actually inspire people to be creative and to develop the art form and to do it in such a way that it can take an audience on an emotional journey … I would feel that I would have achieved my aim, my goal. And to have the Australian Ballet as it was certainly in the seventies, eighties and early nineties: an internationally recognised ballet company. The fact is that it’s still internationally recognised, it’s just that it’s not seen that much, so I’d like to have that: recognition and physical presence in the world of classical dance and Australia … I would be very happy with that.

Thank you very much, it was a real pleasure to talk to an artist who can instil so much passion and love for dance, for his company and for the work that is being created for them.


Edited by Jeff.

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