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David McAllister, Director, Australian Ballet

The Rural Retreats

by Ana Abad-Carles

January 11, 2005 -- Australia House, London

During his interview with Ballet-Dance Magazine (see main interview on his forthcoming tour to the UK with "Swan Lake" in July), David McAllister, Director of the Australian Ballet, explained the importance and relevance of Dance East's initiative, the Rural Retreats. The interview was held in Australia House, London, right after McAllister’s attendance at the Retreat.

AA:  You have just attended the second of the Rural Retreats. At the end of the first Rural Retreats in 2003, there was almost unanimous praise for the initiative coming from its participants and reviewers alike. It was seen as the first time ballet directors were practising an exercise in networking and bonding, an exercise in exchanging views and practices, a first attempt in making a unanimous stand for ballet. To what degree did that Rural Retreats influence the way in which you have directed the Australian Ballet in the past two years?

DM: Hugely. One of the things that came out of it was that when I came back to Australia, I started something that we now call Bodytorque, a choreographic development season which we had never had previously, and that aims at developing or giving young choreographers access to ballet dancers and to create works using the ballet technique. This was because one of the things that came out of the first Rural Retreats was that there’s a lot of people working in the choreographic contemporary language, but no one really had the opportunity to work with the ballet technique. So, that’s the first thing that happened which absolutely came out of that.

The other thing that affected me very profoundly was that in this job where you feel like that you are so alone, so the only person who understands what is going on, I can now pick up the phone and ring twenty six other people who are facing very similar situations, even though the context will be completely different. That’s an incredibly empowering thing to have happened, and effectively there is a couple of other directors that I’ve become very close to. Also it’s the information sharing, just finding out, just speaking “I’d like to do this, do you know how I could go about it?” It really was the most interesting and revolutionary thing to have happened. Interestingly, last time, you spent a lot of time just going around each other and it actually took a while to break down some of the barriers, whereas this time, we all sat down and basically we went back to where we’d ended the last time. It was very open and the dialogue was incredibly free and supportive, which is great.

How would you describe this second Rural Retreats? You have just mentioned that there was an obvious change in the way you related to each other.

Yes, very different. This time it was much more open. I think it was more effective from the beginning as a group because we were used to each other, even though there were new people there, there was very open dialogue. We focused more on the detail of the sort of things that we wanted to talk about. I think the issues that we all face are surprisingly common, given that our companies range from eighteen dancers to companies of two hundred and twenty dancers. So it was difficult to have that sort of complexity of context, but at the same time, we all face similar problems of developing new choreography, inspiring young dancers or developing them in a way which is good for them and good for us, and also keeping the heritage ballets alive and finding the relevance of what we do in our society.

So, have the issues been very similar to the previous Rural Retreats?

I think so. It’s funny to say that we talked about things which we constantly talk about… in one way you sort of realise that two days every two years is not going to change things. What we need to do is to constantly work in that spirit, via e-mail … I think, though, that we really moved on, and that there was a sense that a lot of the stuff we talked about last time, and that we had just gone through the surface, we really got much more in depth this time. And I think that, as a group, we’ve actually achieved quite a lot in the two years that we’ve been apart.

One of the key issues in both Rural Retreats has been the fostering of new classical choreographers. What is in your opinion the reason why there is a lack of choreographers working in ballet? Considering the number of great choreographers that were still at work well into the seventies, what do you think prompted the gradual slowing down in creativity in the ballet scene?

I think there are two things. First, there seemed to be more financial support in creating new work and secondly, I think the audience has become more conservative in the choice of what they want to see. I mean, there used to be a choice in the theatres in the forties. People used to go to mixed programmes constantly and mixed programmes are a very abundant source in creating new works, because you can take a risk for half an hour. If you take a risk for a full length ballet, there’s a great difference. So, you had a lot more of creativity happening with lots of new works that people got excited about.

When the full length ballet sort of took over, the canon of the repertoire was compressed. It was very hard to then invest in doing a new full length ballet, because it’s a much bigger investment and if it’s not successful you’ve got a lot of greater opportunity to get into a difficult time. So I think, that’s what slowed down that sort of creative process. I also think that financial times dictates a lot whether you can actually take the risk artistically or not, because of the box office. So certainly, now that the amount of subsidies has gone down, it affects the amount of risks that you can take in creating new work. I think we are at a point now where, as somebody said at the Rural Retreat, “the only risk that we are facing is not taking any risk”, and certainly that was something that resonated around the room.

I personally think that your Bodytorque initiative is absolutely fantastic.

Yes, and it means that we can start engaging on levels. Looking at another thing is that somebody has a success like, let’s say, Christopher Wheeldon, and you continually expect him to produce and you end up expiring the young choreographers. Maybe we’ll find another Christopher Wheeldon or another Jiri Kylian, but first you have to start to create new work. You know that you have to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find a prince, but it’s important work, even if it is a frog. I’m not saying you should encourage people if they don’t have the talent, but I think that more creativity inspires more creativity; and these young choreographers inspire one another. We had a recent choreography show in Australia, and it was wonderful to see the different choreographers interacting. This created a wonderful vibe and reflected in the works, that were fantastic, but to see them interact was one of the most inspiring parts. I think that the time is changing and it’s becoming more and more important, I mean the amount of choreography that Peter Martins is producing with his Diamond Project and here at the Linbury and Clore Studio … I think there is more emphasis on developing new choreographic talent.

Thank you and let’s hope that more initiatives of this kind grow within the ballet world.

Edited by Jeff.

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