Navigating the Covid-19 crisis and new projects following his 20-year tenure as artistic director of the Australian Ballet
2020 was to be David McAllister’s swan song with the Australian Ballet. After an epic 20 years at the helm, on March 3rd, McAllister announced that David Hallberg would take over as artistic director of the Australian Ballet in 2021. Within 10 days of the announcement, the Covid-19 pandemic forced theatres around the world to close, the Australian Ballet’s forthcoming seasons in Melbourne and Sydney were cancelled, and dancers were using kitchen benches as barres for daily class.
What follows is a condensed version of my recent phone conversation with David McAllister from his home in Melbourne, where, in his wonderfully positive and engaging way, he opens up about how he is coping, how the company is managing during the crisis, and for the first time, reveals his plans for the future.
CL: Firstly, how are you and where are you spending your isolation?
DM: I’m well actually. I’m very well. I’m spending most of my time at home [in Melbourne]. We still have access to the Ballet Centre [The Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre], and sometimes, just for some things, it’s easier to come in here. So, we’re teaching a class each day to the company who are all in their homes. We tend to do that from the Ballet Centre because the technology is better. But, I’m actually really enjoying my time at home. I’ve got to say I find it very hard to stay out of the kitchen. I’ve really rediscovered my love of cooking and especially baking. I think I’ve turned into my mother and I’ve been making cakes and pies and my fridge is full and my freezer is full of, you know, frozen goodies. It’s been a very interesting time.
CL: I just want to go back a little, because March had already been a huge month for the Australian Ballet. After two decades with you at the helm, in early March came the announcement that David Hallberg would to take over as artistic director from next year.
DM: Yes, which was very exciting.
CL: So very exciting. But within two weeks of that announcement, the Arts Centre in Melbourne was shut, the Melbourne “Volt” season was halted mid-season and then cancelled, and then the Australian Ballet’s first Sydney season of 2020 was also cancelled. How have you handled that?
DM: I think the thing was that it was so across the board. You know, it wasn’t just the fact that we couldn’t do what we were doing; I think everyone couldn’t do what they normally do, so it sort of felt like we were just part of the tidal wave of closure, I guess. And yeah, look, I think sometimes in those situations you go into solution mode. So, it wasn’t really until last week that I was like oh we’d be doing “Anna Karenina” this week in Sydney. And then over Easter it was sort of, oh I haven’t been in Melbourne for Easter for a long, long time. It was the gradual realisation of the new normal as being so unnormal.
CL: I think you’re right, I think many people had that moment of Covid-19 is happening now, how do we problem solve our way out of this. . .
DM: And I’ve got to say it was really full on. I mean the first three weeks of working from home was like I’ve never worked harder in my life. It was meetings and meetings and emergency arrangements and how are we going to do this and where are we going to do that and everyone went into that crisis mode. It was immediate full attention twenty-four-seven. I mean we got a digital season up in two weeks which was quite extraordinary—having to get all the agreements in place and just the logistics of all of that. And we had to film a whole lot of content.
CL: Yes, I’ve seen you doing retiré on Facebook. . .
DM: I know! Crazy. First of all that was really silly… I think I did that in about an hour!
CL: How are the dancers? And what is their routine now?
DM: It’s quite a structured day. One of the things that we worked out very early and were very keen to do was to give the dancers structure, because most of their days when they’re rehearsing and performing are very structured. So, to go into this abyss of just nothing to do would have been not great. We do a pre-class Pilates-type conditioning class and then we do an hour and a half class for the whole company. And they all log in.
CL: Via Zoom?
DM: Microsoft Teams, but it’s the same story.
DM: It’s a digital hub that everyone logs into and we do it altogether. It’s not just a link you can do at some time during the day. Everyone has to start at the same time, which we really wanted to do because we wanted to get that sense of community that happens with people doing things at the same time.
And then after class there’s a whole lot of activities that we’ve been doing—some one-on-one coaching with the dancers; for the boys they’ve had a strength class three times a week. With the help of Telstra, we’re doing a mentoring [program] for kids in regional areas, where they learn a solo that we send them on a link and then dancers from the company watch them three times over three weeks. And then they’re going to film themselves doing their solo. We’re pretty sure we’re not going to be able to do our regional tour, so we wanted to have some activities for kids in regional areas.
We’re also doing “Bodytorque Digital,” which is the choreographers who were going to be in “Bodytorque” making works specially for film but filmed in the dancer’s environment. Instead of just filming a range of people doing tendus and pliés in their loungeroom, we thought we’d try to be a bit more creative and actually create works. And we’re even thinking that we might see if we can film some of them in isolated places.
CL: So, that’s the dancers being filmed in their own homes?
DM: Either that, or going into an environment where they can film . . .
CL: In isolation?
DM: Yeah, in isolation. So, we’re still working on that. It’s going to take a bit of pre-production and post-production. We’re also working with Orchestra Victoria so there’s live music involved as well . . .
CL: I think one questions that many fans have, is of course, whether there is any scope to extend your tenure beyond the end of this year? I imagine not only the company and the dancers want to give you that send-off, but audiences too?
CL: Some incredible works were put together for your final season and there’s been an unexpected halt that no one could have ever envisaged . . . what will happen?
DM: Look, I feel, at the moment, for me the most important thing is that the company and society generally comes back from this in a really healthy and positive way. I mean, I’ve got to say I’ve had such a great time at the ballet. Having the experiences that I’ve had in the company has been celebration enough. And I think it’s really important for David [Hallberg] to be able to start his tenure at the beginning of next year and hit the ground running and have that moment to take the reins and do all the exciting things that he wants to do. So, I think this is just one of those things that’s happened.
But for me, I feel like I’ve already been blessed by having had the opportunity of these twenty years. And everyone is so incredibly, has been so incredibly generous and supportive. And so worried! I mean so many people are like, ‘oh, we feel so bad for you’ and I’m like no, no, no. We’re all in this together—it’s that hackneyed old phrase, but it’s true. I mean I feel the love and I think for me the best thing would be just to emerge out of this with everyone being well and healthy and looking forward to the next steps.
CL: You left the Australian Ballet as a principal dancer, and you transitioned straight into the role of artistic director. Both high profile, busy, physical jobs where you’re surrounded by people all the time. It’s nice to hear that it hasn’t been a jolt into the kitchen.
DM: Yeah, no no! Nowadays too, I mean we have so many different platforms that we can connect with and through. You know, I always joke that I’m a very lazy person with a busy job, I’m not one of these workaholics that absolutely thrives on twenty-four-seven. I mean I do it and I enjoy it because I love my job, but I’m not one of those people that you know goes, oh my God, I’ve got to work through my holidays. I love lying on the couch and read books. I think the hardest thing will be handing in my security pass and not coming into the Ballet Centre with an all-access pass!
CL: I’m thinking they might still let you in.
DM: I know. I’ve got some really exciting things to look forward to. And I know the company’s got some really exciting things to look forward to too. So getting through this year is the most important thing. And then whatever happens in relation to farewells and celebrations I mean that’s for down the track…
CL: I mean, of course we want to know what these exciting plans are?
DM: Well, I can actually talk about some of them now, because up until now I wasn’t allowed to, I was gagged. No, not really. But I’m doing a new production for the Finnish National Ballet of “Swan Lake.”
DM: So, that’s premiering in February next year. They’ve just announced their 2021 season and I wasn’t sure with all of this going on what was going to happen, but they feel very confident that they should be able to be back in the theatre by then.
CL: So, choreography…?
DM: Choreography, yeah. It’ll be very traditional. Much like what I did with “Sleeping Beauty,” I guess. And I’m working with Gabriela Tylesova who did design for my “Sleeping Beauty.” So, that’ll be really exciting. It’s part of their centenary. The Finnish National Ballet actually have their hundred year celebrations in 2022. The first ballet they performed was “Swan Lake.” So, they’ve commissioned this work to be a part of their centenary of the company’s history. So, it’s you know, no pressure!
CL: No pressure, no…
DM: I’m really looking forward to that. And that’ll be really something that’ll be lovely to focus on when I do leave the ballet because you know I won’t be sitting at home just watching Netflix which is good, and lots of other little nice creative projects that sort of are happening across the year. So yeah, I’m sort of looking forward to the break but I’m also looking forward to just you know keeping in the world so to speak.
CL: I guess that will be such a great opportunity for you post Australian Ballet, to pick and choose projects that you’d like to work personally?
DM: Yeah. I think when you leave a job like this… actually my Chairman [Craig Dunn] was fantastic, he sort of said, you need to think about what are the parts of your job that you really like doing the most and then find ways of doing that. Well, I love the creative work you know, that’s the thing that really excites me about my job. And so, if I can just keep a little hum of creative projects on the boil then that’ll be great.
CL: I’m sure Australian audiences will now want to see, if they can, this Finnish production?
DM: I keep saying to Madeleine [Madeleine Onne, artistic director of the Finnish National Ballet], you know it’s about time that the Finnish Ballet came down to Australia on a visit so . . . maybe you could bring “Swan Lake”?
CL: I’m sure there will be many Australians who would support that! So, are you and David Hallberg still working on the transition to 2021?
DM: Yes. So, he’ll take over in January 2021. He’s actually here at the moment which is really nice. He got on the last flight out of London before the borders were shut.
DM: We’ve been working over this lockdown time, which has been brilliant. And yeah he’ll come back to start work with us officially in January.
CL: You two are you working behind the scenes on that programme?
DM: Well, it was sort of interesting, because I’d actually set a programme that was up for him to decide whether he wanted to do or not, and so now that programme’s sort of all been a bit jettisoned because so many of the works that we were doing this year have sort of fallen into next year . . .
CL: Oh I see, of course . . .
DM: . . . and now that he’s been able to be here, we’ve also been able to get his take on what he would like the programme to look like. So, it’s been a bit of a two-handed exercise.
CL: So, it’s maybe a McAllister—Hallberg season in 2021?
DM: Yeah, sort of. Although, it’s going to very much have his signature on it now, which is great, because I think that’s the best outcome. The plus side of the lockdown has been that he was able to come and spend a bit more time with us. So, I think that’s going to be really, really positive.
CL: Finally, I wanted to hear how the “Studio at Home” is working for the Australian Ballet?
DM: So, obviously we’ve had the adult ballet classes that have been happening for a couple of years now at the Ballet Centre [in Melbourne]. And they’ve been really fantastic. It’s been such a great way of people being able to access the Ballet Centre but also reacquainting [with ballet], I guess. You know, a lot of people that did ballet when they were younger, but also some people that have never danced and thought as adults, ‘I wonder what this ballet thing’s all about?’
CL: They might have the confidence to do it in their loungeroom.
DM: It’s been so great. Even I’ve been doing classes with the company in my loungeroom. No one can see me, it’s brilliant! So yeah, we decided to put some classes out online, just for free. And that’s been really successful, and so now we’re looking at trying to extend that to offer more classes for people who want to continue doing work from home and maybe make it more of a subscription model so that people can log in and buy a few classes. So, that’s what we’re working on at the moment.
CL: Are the classes being taught by company members?
DM: The free classes online are by Justine Miles, who was one of our dancers and she’s also a dance teacher. She actually teaches in the programme when we do it in the studio. She’s set nine classes that you can access online.
CL: It may actually encourage more people to the ballet world?
DM: We think so, when we provide them in the studio it really is only for people in the Melbourne metropolitan area. But you can access these from anywhere in Australia. So, yeah, we could have people in far north Queensland doing a class with the Australian Ballet. And you know, it’s been the case with the digital season. I think “Sleeping Beauty” has 14,000 views.
CL: Right. Wow.
DM: And we’ve had “Cinderella” up now for just over a week with 9,000 views. So, it’s amazing how there is a great love for ballet out there. It’s actually one of those real positives that comes out of this. Now we’re even thinking about when we’re back in the studio if there’s a way that we can still provide opportunities for people to see the Australian Ballet—you know, when you’re in Western Australia or the Northern Territory or Tasmania, places that we don’t always get to physically, you might still be able to have a relationship with the Australian Ballet through digital. So, yeah, there are some really interesting things that have come out of this.
CL: I think in times of crisis the Arts are so important.
DM: Yeah, no, exactly. And I think to try things that you may have thought, oh I’d love to do ballet one day but busy lives, busy people, you know. When you have a bit of time, you go, oh there it is, and I can have a look at it in my loungeroom . . .