As a small boy growing up in Perth, our Artistic Director David McAllister took inspiration from Rudolf Nureyev. After all, Nureyev had been born in Siberia, but he had managed to make it to the country's finest ballet school. If he just worked hard, David reasoned, surely his talent would find a way. And find a way it did. Despite being bullied as a kid and told he'd never dance the 'prince' roles, he forged ahead to become first a principal artist and then The Australian Ballet's longest-serving artistic director. In his new memoir, Soar: A Life Freed by Dance, David takes you inside the company and around the world as he dances for royalty, meets stars, and goes on his own stellar journey to artistic and emotional fulfilment.
23 Sep 2020
Dance School Daze
An abridged excerpt from Chapter Three of Soar.
At last, after what seemed like an eternity, my first day at The Australian Ballet School was here. In my excitement, I arrived at the Flemington studios ridiculously early and then was too nervous to go in, so I sat out the front on a pine-log seat, quietly fretting until some of the other boys got there. Steve Heathcote and Paul Mercurio appeared at the designated time with a group of other kids and, almost weak with relief to see some familiar faces, I followed them in.
There were eighteen first-year boys, and we were all in one class. The Ballet Centre housed the company and the school, which shared its four studios ... We often passed the company’s dancers in the hallways, but there was no fraternisation between us – we were very much the students and in awe of the professional dancers; they in turn had little time for the students in the school. We knew who they all were and aspired to be just like them.
After a brief orientation, we were welcomed by Margaret Scott, not only the school’s director but in many ways its heart and soul ... Maggie was formidable and straight-talking, but also kind and practical. She was fiercely intelligent and had no time for drama queens or whingers. Everyone was at least a little scared of her, and desperate to impress her. Always rail thin and balletic, she wore her long hair swept up at the sides and in a low bun, usually with some kind of adornment on top. When she was teaching, she wore pink T-bar teaching shoes and blue checked pants with a short-sleeved knitted top. Away from the classroom, she was usually in classic skirts and tops, and always immaculately groomed. While she was considerate, she was never effusive – I didn’t have any real sense of what Maggie thought of me or my talent at the time, but looking back, I can see she was extremely supportive and encouraging.
Though I had met her at my auditions, where she played a key role in my journey to The Australian Ballet School, Maggie was now a pivotal figure in determining my future, so on that first day I hung on every word as she gave us an introductory talk. One of the things she stressed was that no one was to smoke in the building: ‘I’ve seen a tutu go up in a flash!’ she said in her no-nonsense way. ‘And up in the roof, there’s all these tutus, so you just can’t smoke!’ And then she turned very serious indeed. ‘You are here to work,’ she instructed. ‘I don’t care what’s happening in your private life – you leave that at the door. When you walk into the Ballet Centre, it’s all about the training.’
With that somewhat sobering talk out of the way, we were sent into our first class with our main teacher, Paul Hammond. I walked in and saw a sea of unfamiliar faces – the only boys I recognised were Steve and Paul. Darren Spowart hadn’t arrived yet as he was working and had to give notice, so he was to start two weeks after the rest of us. I wondered, somewhat anxiously, how good the other boys were and if I would be able to keep up. My nervousness wasn’t helped by the sight of a boy called Alan Simmons, who was warming up on one side of the room. I didn’t even know that warming up was what you were supposed to do before a class – I was just sitting there waiting for something to happen. Alan was doing the splits up the wall with his legs threaded up behind the barre. A slight panic clutched my chest. Oh my god, there’s no way I can do that, I thought. I’m going to be the worst person in this class. But then the class started. Paul Hammond was lovely and very quietly spoken, and his class was not as difficult as I feared. Slowly, I started to relax.