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Dancing Down Under

David McAllister and The Australian Ballet

by Kate Snedeker

November 2006 -- Melbourne, Australia

Having returned earlier in the year from a successful tour to London, where they made a memorable impression with Graeme Murphy's "Swan Lake", The Australian Ballet is riding a high. The ballet world "up above" rarely has a chance to see this unique, world-class company from Down Under, though many balletomanes have an idea of the depth and diversity of The Australian Ballet, for Australian trained dancers have made a significant impact in the world ballet scene, from Denmark (Andrew Bowman) to Houston (Andrew Murphy, Mary McKendry Li) and San Francisco (Damian Smith).

The Australian Ballet is based in Melbourne's Art District, a cluster of unassuming concrete buildings along the banks of the Yarra River, just over the bridge from the Central Business District. The posters for the theatre adorn the river walk area, but the signs of the ballet's presence are more subtle – a long legged, bun-headed girl carrying a Bloch dancewear bag, then a Bloch store and finally a large sign for the Australian Ballet Centre painted on a building's side. The Australian Ballet Centre itself encompasses two whole floors of a modern, sunlit building, and provides space for the company, costume department and ballet school.

On one floor are the administrative offices, company studios and ballet school. Company members glide by, whilst young dancers hover between ballerina and schoolgirl, the classic Australian one-piece school dress pulled over leotard and tights. Above are the costume shops where the costume team has just finished costumes for “Raymonda” and is already hard at work on new costumes for "The Nutcracker". Branching off the main room are two smaller rooms, the size of large walk in closets. One is lined from floor to ceiling with shelves holding binders containing drawings, notes and fabric swatches for every ballet in the company's repertoire as well as measurements for all the dancers.  Next door is a Garden of Eden in fabrics – a room stacked high with bolts of fabric in every possible hue and material. From this near-overwhelming, wonderful collection are born all the company's costumes, from Nutcracker to Swan Lake to modern leotards.

Upstairs are the company offices, including that of Artistic Director David McAllister, who kindly took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me about his career and the company. McAllister became Artistic Director in 2001, taking over from the late Ross Stretton who had left to direct the Royal Ballet. A dancer with the company since 1983, McAllister continued to perform up until he was appointed director, concluding his on-stage career at the Sydney Opera House on March 24, 2001 in "Giselle". Just four months later, he went from leading dancer to leading the company.

Having to transition from dancer to director was not something McAllister had necessarily expected, but it was a direction he had been slowly moving towards. By the later years of his dancing career McAllister says that he had begun to start teaching the company and coaching dancers in various roles. Outside the ballet studios, he completed studies for a Graduate Diploma in Arts & Entertainment Management at nearby Deakin University. Although McAllister put his name forward after Stretton's departure was announced, the immensity of this action did not sink in until after he was named as Stretton's successor.

In the five years since McAllister took over the reins, the company has flourished. The company retains a very unique Australian persona, because, as McAllister explains, the 70-dancer strong company is comprised only of Australian citizens and residents. In addition to stringent immigration laws faced by other companies worldwide, because there are few professional positions available in the country, Australia’s performing artists union also guarantees that talented Australians have a fair chance to perform in their home country. This ensures that the company does not lose its Australian sensibility and charisma.

The few non-Australian born members of company enter via the Australian Ballet School where the years of study count towards the residency to be considered by the company. The school is also the training ground of nearly every native member of the company, with seven students joining the company in 2007, the result of which, says McAllister, is a very tight knit group of dancers.

When asked to describe what makes this tight knit group of dancers unique, he points to the casual approach they bring to the studio, which might seem to outsiders "slap dash". But this very Aussie way of doing things – very much in the vein of the "no worries" attitude I found during my Australian travels – masks a work ethic that rivals any company in the world. Thus McAllister feels that his specially crafted approach towards directing the company wouldn't work anywhere else.

The relative isolation of the company, however, does not come without problems. With few other performing opportunities within Australia and the great distance required to travel for any guesting stints, there is a great temptation for dancers to leave for positions in better-positioned – geographically speaking – American or European companies – two of the six dancers who departed after the 2006 season have left to pursue opportunities abroad.  McAllister himself has been a guest artist with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Bolshoi and Kirov companies as well as appearing with many other companies around the globe. In order to provide chances for his dancers to stretch their artistic horizons without having to sever ties with the company, he has been proactive in arranging exchanges with other companies as well as bursaries to fund overseas dance study. One very successful exchange series has been with Houston Ballet, now directed by a former Australian Ballet principal and current Australian Ballet resident choreographer, Stanton Welch. Also, last year the first recipient of the new Walter Bourke Award, Soloist Remi Wörtmeyer, benefited from dancing with the American Ballet Theatre during the 2006 Metropolitan Opera House season.

Back in Australia, the dancers and company staff balance careers based in two cities, for the company decamps from the Australian Ballet Centre each year to spend four months in residence in Sydney, as well as performing annually in Adelaide and Brisbane. Whilst in Sydney the dancers live in rented apartments, and perform in the famous, but not necessarily ideally designed Sydney Opera House (the space in the wings is so narrow that dancers must often be caught by stagehands upon exiting the stage so they do not crash into the walls). McAllister likes this arrangement because he believes it keeps the dancers fresh, but he admits that the long absence from Melbourne can get hard when dancers have school-aged children or non-dancing spouses.

Occasionally the company travels further afield in Australia, with last year's special tour to Darwin drawing audiences nearly as large as those at Australian Rules Football games. In most years the dancers also tour abroad; last year the company performed in China and New Zealand, and in 2005 they performed in the United Kingdom. This year the company will tour to Japan. Regional tours in Australia are undertaken by The Dancers Company, which is comprised of final year students at the ballet school supplemented as needed by Australian Ballet dancers.

Ticket sales in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and other tour cities, according to McAllister, account for approximately 60% of the company's budget. About a fifth comes from the government and the rest through private donation or corporate sponsorship. Ticket sales do vary he says, but in general lower sales in one city are usually balanced out by increased sales later on in the tour. However, sales can take a knock when a large foreign company visits – as happened the last time the Royal Ballet visited, and may happen when the Paris Opera Ballet visits this year. Fortunately The Australian Ballet is very proactive in managing and promoting themselves and have a substantial endowment (about 18 million Australian dollars) as a cushion for leaner times. 

Not surprisingly though, aside from giving bad news, dealing with budgets and finances is McAllister's least favorite part of the job. Ideally, he would much rather spend his time working with the dancers, but he feels lucky to have a great team to help him out with financial matters. Outside of the office, McAllister still finds time to teach company class – as on the morning of our interview – and this contact with dancers is vital to him, for he feels that communication with dancers is the most important part of an artistic director's job. He also, of course, spends much time planning schedules and selecting repertoire.

Contemplating the company's complete repertoire, McAllister selects "Swan Lake" as his favorite ballet. Of Graeme Murphy's more modern take on the classical tale, he says the ballet takes the story and gives the characters layers. When asked which ballet he dreams of adding to the repertoire if money, logistics and size were not an issue, he can't settle on just one. It would be nice, he muses, to add more Balanchine to the repertoire or acquire McMillan's "Mayerling" or perform one of John Neumeier's full-length story ballets.

In 2007, the company mixes old favourites with new additions to the repertoire. This year – the company runs on calendar year seasons – Nureyev's "Don Quixote" returns to the repertoire, and is followed by a program that includes works by Christopher Wheeldon, George Balanchine and Australian choreographer Stephen Baynes. After the 4th installment of Bodytorque, the company's "choreographic discovery program", it will be a feast of classical divertissements including selections from "Paquita", "Swan Lake" and "Le Corsaire", plus a new piece by company soloist Paul Knobloch. The year concludes with a tribute to Leonard Massine as part of the ongoing Ballet Russes celebration, and of course, "The Nutcracker".  It's a season that showcases the diverse range of ballets that make up the company's repertoire. With performances in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and a tour to Japan, the company, with McAllister at the head, look towards a busy and hopefully successful 2007.

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