Artistic Director David McAllister came into The Australian Ballet during his training at The Australian Ballet School, to swell the ranks of the male corps in a production of Spartacus. He never went back. His bouyant personality, bouncing-ball ballon and natural talent for comedy made him a perfect fit for character roles, but he eventually "broke through" to dance the prized princely roles of the classical canon - Romeo, Siegfried, Albrecht - and became renowned for his artistry and emotional impact. In 2001, he retired at the pinnacle of his career to become artistic director of The Australian Ballet, a role he's held ever since. During his tenure, he's commissioned smash hits like Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake and Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella, and nurtured generations of stars. In 2015, he created his own version of The Sleeping Beauty, a sell-out success now returning for its encore season.
As we celebrate the company's Ballet Men, we're proud to bring you this in-depth interview with one of our finest.
Did you know about McAllister in Conversation? David regularly holds fascinating heart-to-hearts with the company's stars and special guests. Grab yourself a ticket!
I remember reading something that Dame Margaret Scott [the founding director of The Australian Ballet School] said about me: “It looked like if he didn’t dance, he would explode.” I was always dancing. I never walked around the house, I was always jumping and carrying on. So when I found ballet, I felt as if I had found my meaning in life. My happiest childhood memories are either of dancing at home, putting on my own shows for my reflection in the glass doors or the television, or of being in ballet classes. My parents were a bit befuddled, because there was no one artistic in any part of the family. I was an aberration!
After my first ballet class, in Grade Two, I went into class and “came out” – I told everyone the news. I thought they would all be really excited, because I’d had the best time. That probably wasn’t the smartest move! I was at a Catholic school, and the nuns were very opposed to me doing ballet – they just didn’t know any little boys who did it, and they didn’t really understand what I was doing. My parents were called up to the school, and told that “little boys don’t do ballet”, and that they should stop sending me to classes. It was the best thing that could have happened, because my dad was not really that keen on me doing ballet, but the minute the nuns said that to him, he was all, “No one’s going to tell me what my son can and can’t do!” He was much more into me doing ballet after that, but he did use to say to me after every class, “You don’t have to go back next week if you don’t want to,” which I think was his way of saying, “Please don’t go back!” But after a year or so, he got a sense that ballet was pretty rigorous, and not just fluffing around and little girls with tutus on.
School was a nightmare. I only really enjoyed it in Years 11 and 12, when the girls came in. Before that I was an outcast. I was really bad at sport (I still have no eye-hand coordination) so I couldn’t redeem myself for being a ballet dancer. But I think it gave me the determination to succeed. A lot of the grit that you need to be a dancer was built up during that time, because I was not going to fail. I was going to prove to everyone that I was going to be the best (the best that I could be, at least). During those grim years I used to escape into ballet, it was my happy place.
I was the only boy at my ballet school right up until I went to The Australian Ballet School. That was like going from black-and-white to colour – all of this rich information!David with his sister Di, and at school
The first ballet I ever saw live was The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, with Lucette Aldous and Kelvin Coe, and from then on I idolised him and followed his career. The first time I saw him in the Ballet Centre I gasped “That’s Kelvin Coe!” and he turned around, and I was so embarrassed I ran into a studio and hid. Two years later we were dancing together in Graeme Murphy’s Beyond Twelve. He was also my coach when Elizabeth Toohey and I were preparing to go to Moscow to compete in the International Ballet CompetitionDavid in Beyond Twelve. Photography Branco Gaica
When I started out I was a terrrrible partner! The School gave me some good training, but when I joined the company, I was still absolutely paranoid about holding on to a girl and remaining upright. So much of partnering is coordination and counter-balance. It took me ages to work out that when the girl went one way, you had to oppose her with your weight. I used to dance in the School with Justine Miles, who later went into the company, and she would always say, “Rocks in your feet!” In my second year in the company, we did Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries, where you do presages for the first ten minutes. I was doing lots of push-ups, going to the gym, trying to get stronger; and I felt much more confident after that season. The next step was going to Moscow, and doing grand pas de deux with Elizabeth Toohey. She was much more experienced than I was, and we had Kelvin as our coach.
Kelvin pretty much taught me everything I know about partnering. I thought it was about strength, that you just had to hold the girl up all the time; but he said that you had to use your hands like sensors, so that you feel the weight of the girl by where she is in your hands. Because of that experience, I started getting better. By the end of my career, partnering was what I loved the most about dancing, and it’s what I now miss more than anything else. There’s this intense emotional connection, and for the period that you’re out there in stage, you do fall in love with that person. You have to – if you don’t believe it, the audience won’t believe it. So there is this wonderful intimacy that happens on stage. It's a very special experience – and then you get to go home, you don’t have to worry about doing the dishes and putting the toilet seat down!David with Vicki Attard in Stephen Baynes' El Tango (Photography Greg Barrett), Glen Tetley's Gemini and Graeme Murphy's The Nutcracker (Photography Jim McFarlane)
I really got the feeling when I was younger that if you were a boy and you walked past a ballet studio, you could kind of join in. Everyone was so excited that there was a boy! Even when I was in The Australian Ballet School, I felt that the standard of the boys was much lower than the girls’. But in my 30 years of being around this company, that has changed. It’s now just as competitive to get a job in the company for a male as it is for a female, and we expect the boys to have good feet and a good line, just as we do the girls (although you can always get away with imperfections if you have a whole lot of talent!) So I think the expectations of men are much higher now. I sometimes look at pictures of myself or early video and think “Would I have given that person a job? Hmmm, I don’t know!”
When I was a young boy I was told not to stretch. It was thought that boys didn’t need high extensions like girls, and that if you stretched too much you lost your strength. But I was quite flexible, and because I had trained for so long with women, I liked to make sure that my legs were as high as the ladies’. In my first year at the Ballet School, Lucette Aldous taught the girls, and I used to love doing her classes. And she’d say to us, “Boys! Do you really want those big thighs? Stretch them out!” But the boys’ training wasn’t about being flexible. That’s changed. Boys still have to be strong, but you have to have a nice line too.David in Don Quixote, photography Branco Gaica
When Elizabeth Toohey and I won bronze at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow! But I think my most memorable performance was probably my last one, as Albrecht in Giselle. I started off my career in 1982, doing the Peasant Pas de deux [from Giselle] in Geelong – that was my very first professional performance. And then almost 20 years later, there I was doing Albrecht, a role that I had been told, when I first joined the company, that I would never do. It felt like my whole career had been leading to that point. I was retiring not because I was being invalided out or because I was over the hill – I actually felt I could have danced a bit longer – but because I’d got this job [as artistic director of The Australian Ballet]. I had the best time in that performance, I loved it. I danced with Miranda Coney, and I could not have had a more perfect Giselle. My family were there. It was just a really special night.David in his last performance, photography Branco Gaica; with Elizabeth Toohey in the Peasant Pas de deux, photography The Australian Ballet; David with Miranda Coney after his last performance, photography Branco Gaica
advice for ballet boys
If you have the desire, and the ability, you will be found. I remember reading about Rudolf Nureyev growing up in Tashkent, in the wilds of Siberia, and he just always felt that if he worked really hard, someone, somehow would find him. And I sort of felt like that too, in the artistic wilds of Perth! I knew I wanted to get into The Australian Ballet, and I remember being in this little Scout Hall in Scarborough and thinking “How on earth are they going to find me?” But when I read that about Rudolf, I thought, “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to work really hard, every day, so that I’m ready when somebody finds me.” And that’s sort of what happened!David on tour in China, photography Jim McFarlane