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David McAllister's Finnish Odyssey

This episode is sponsored by @ecodancers

David McAllister, former artistic director of the Australian Ballet joins us from Finland on episode one of Talking Pointes.

David McAllister is probably the most well-known face of dance in Australia. He was born in Perth and he was accepted into the Australian Ballet School as a 17-year-old. He graduated and joined the company directly, wowing crowds across the globe. His final performance was in “Giselle” in 2001. And then, three months later, he was named Artistic Director of that same company.

During his tenure, he led the company from strength to strength, staging brand new works, touring the company around the world and inspiring a new level of technical brilliance. But he also created a company with meaning—setting up groundbreaking maternity leave policies and health and wellness policies, so that dancers could have careers much longer than they could have ever have dreamed.

In 2020, after 20 years as artistic director and four decades with the company, he announced his retirement. It was going to be a year of celebrations, but then Covid—the company closed down last March and they only made it on stage for three performances. David is currently in Helsinki, Finland, where he called me, but he's on his next adventure, staging the Finnish National Ballet's 100th anniversary performance of “Swan Lake.” David speaks candidly about his retirement, what Covid meant for him and the Australian Ballet, and his big regret while he was at the Australian Ballet.

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David McAllister: Hi, so I am actually in a beautiful apartment in the midst of the Finnish National Opera House. It's the first time I've ever lived in an opera house, but I'm here because tonight actually was meant to be the opening night of the new production of “Swan Lake” that I'm doing for the Finnish National Ballet. But unfortunately, the government has shut down all performances in Helsinki. So, we did the final dress rehearsal last night, and today we do our final rehearsal and then we pack it all away until January next year.

Claudia Lawson: No. I'm so sorry.

DM: Well, actually it's been quite wonderful, because we have all the way through this time been able to create the production and we have been on stage, we've seen it with the orchestra, but unfortunately we just can't share it with the audience yet, but that's okay. I know it's going to happen in January 2022. And the exciting thing about that is it will kick off the centenary of the Finnish National Ballet. So yeah, it's going to be an exciting night when we get there.

CL: Okay, let's wind back. So, I actually really firstly want to ask about how you are, because as we all know, you recently ended your 40-year career with the Australian Ballet, but it wasn't the end of an era that we all expected?

DM: It's been a funny old time, 2020 and into 2021. But look, I really wanted to go out of the Australian Ballet with the same joy and love that I joined. And I started at the Australian Ballet School in 1981 and 40 years later at the end of 2020, I finished with the company. And while it was a very odd year and all of the things that we'd sort of decided to do to celebrate and to mark the time, I guess, were put on hold because of Covid.

Well, actually not all of them. We managed to premiere the beginning of the season in Brisbane in February last year and then we also did the first program in March. We did three shows of the Volt program, which was beautiful. And so, we did two world premieres in that time, which was pretty exciting, but it was a really important year, I think. I mean, apart from being a hard year for the dancers in the company, not being able to perform and being off the stage, for me, it was a really great opportunity to really connect with life beyond the ballet company and also to have incredibly important moments with the company, going through something that we never thought we would live through.

So, I actually had a fantastically wonderful year with the people who I'd worked with for all that time. So it wasn't a terrible time, I guess it was just disappointing that all of the plans that we made didn't come to fruition. But I still managed to have a very beautiful farewell at the Sydney Opera House on the Sydney Opera House stage over two nights and the company was so warm and generous and spent the whole year actually making unusual and interesting ways to do lovely things for me. So yeah, no, I had a wonderful time and a great exit from the ballet.

CL: It's funny. I actually thought about it a lot and wondered if that year of COVID actually allowed you to do some of the grieving, that maybe would have happened afterwards, because it gave you that chance to step back and step away and essentially have to pursue things outside of the company.

DM: You're absolutely right. I mean, because we had those two lockdowns in Melbourne, I had a lot of time just being at home and being separated physically from the Australian Ballet and all of the things that I'd done for the last four decades. And I actually got through that time and thought, "Well, I can do this." And it was sort of like the universe giving me the best long separation, I guess, and it did take away some of that anxiety of what am I going to do and how is it going to be? And so now it feels very natural and I also still feel an incredible bond with the organization, even though I'm no longer there. I think it's the sort of organization that you'd never leave, even though you're not physically there, they always make you feel such a part of it, which is lovely.

CL: And so, you released an autobiography late last year. Congratulations, I see it's on a lot of bestseller lists. I found it really interesting that you spoke in that about when you let the Australian Ballet chairman know that you were going to leave, that you regretted that as soon as you had that conversation, but you didn't say anything and that you just knew you had to process those feelings. Can you tell us about that?

DM: Yeah, look, I felt like it was a bit like the seven stages of grieving. The minute I'd sort of done it, I went, "What have I done?" And I think one of the reasons why I decided it was time to go, because I knew that it was time to go, and for myself, but also for the organization, but it was one of those jumping off the cliff moments. But actually, as we were talking before, I think the Covid time actually really helped me to get through that. And really honestly, by the time I started telling everyone, I'd gone through that sort of grieving process.

And I do think, and I still think it was the right time and the right thing to do, but it was hard because I guess the Australian Ballet had been my inspiration from as long as I can remember. It was the reason why I started dancing when I was a little seven-year-old. So, it was a huge emotional departure. I feel like in some ways it was my adulthood begun, I've stepped away from the family and I've become my own person, which, I owe so much to the company, but I am actually enjoying that thing of like, "Oh, I can do whatever I like."

CL: I think it's brilliant. But it's fascinating that you say that you had done your grieving perhaps before everybody else started to find out the news, because I often heard last year in interviews that you did, you seemed quite sort of upbeat and chipper about the decision. And I could hear sort of the grief coming from the company and the audiences and just from what you've spoken about then, you'd perhaps already gone through that process and they were only really just entering it.

DM:Yeah, no, you're absolutely right. And I think it was a really good thing, because if I had been making the announcement feeling that sort of sense of loss, it would have actually been really sad. Yeah, I think it was good to be able to process it and in big institutions like the Australian Ballet, you have to give the organization so much time to get through, and set up all of their processes to find the new person and set the programming and all that sort of stuff.

And I think the other thing that really helped too, was when the company decided that David Hallberg would be the next director. I was so happy, because I knew that he would be a wonderful successor because we were so different. And yet, we shared so many values. And so I think that also made the process so much easier, knowing that I was handing it on to someone who I really admired and who I think will really have the best for the company at heart. So, I think that also helped the process a lot.

CL: I just wanted to, it's just something personally, but when I read Soar, I just couldn't believe how many policies that you brought to the Australian Ballet that, I guess, that's the sort of stuff that, from the outside, you really don't see. Just those maternity leave policies and the diversity policies and the body image policies that you brought in. I just feel like that that was such sort of groundbreaking stuff in our industry, that to the outside world, no one would have really known about, but reading that previously dancers had six weeks maternity leave, for anybody who has had a child would just know that that is so unrealistic, even more so, if your career was a ballerina.

DM:Yeah, and I think we were losing our best dancers in their early thirties. And it was just like, there's got to be a better way, because you spend so much time getting to that point. And then just when... I can understand, people want to have families and especially for the women, but we were like, "Why aren't we helping a bit more?" Why are we making this...

CL:I feel like the Amber Scotts and the Lana Jones and Amy Harris, I just think we got to see them further into their careers than we ever would have. I just find that fascinating to think it would have been nipped in the bud and they would have had to leave and make that choice to have children or leave their careers.

DM: Exactly, I think of all of the people, I mean, Marilyn Jones did it, I guess, but it wasn't easy and she had no support. And they were, in my generation, I think of people like Vicky Attard and Miranda Coney, that all just left, because they couldn't have a child and keep dancing. Yeah, but I was really lucky, I got incredible support from Richard Evans who was our Executive Director and the board actually, because it was all a matter of money and as they say, money fixes everything. I think it was really worthwhile and valuable.

CL: Oh yeah. And I heard Amber Scott say that she actually in that sort of late stages of her pregnancy, when she was still in the company, but doing non dancing duties, she learnt so much about the behind the scenes in costumes and production and design that she would have never had any insight into.

DM: Well, I think it was a great experience for both sides too, because the management loved having the dancers around. I mean, all of a sudden they understood the rigors of what it took to get to the stage too and there was so much bonding that happened across the organization and all of the girls, I shouldn't say the girls, the women who had that experience. When it was time for them to go back to the studio, everyone in the office was like, "No, don't go."

CL: Stay.

DM: They just loved having that absolute expertise with them 24/7, because, I guess, the dancer's time is always so precious that they don't get a lot of time to sit around and chat and share their experience of what it's like to be a dancer.

CL: The other thing that I read in your book, which again, just a fascinating insight into you, was your regret at not producing a full length Australian work.

DM: Yeah, my one big sort of secret river the ballet. I never did it.

CL: But tell me, because did the dream come partway through the 20 years or it just creatively never came together?

DM: Look, I think for the first couple of years, to be quite honest, I was just kicking like hell to keep my head above the water. But I think it was sort of around the time of... Well, when we were preparing, I guess, the 50th anniversary, I was like, "Come on, this is something that we should do." And we did a big search. We did this sort of choreographic competition where we put it out there, pitch your best idea for an Australian work. And I mean, there were some nice ideas, but nothing that really had that wow factor. And Nicolette Fraillon, our Music Director and I were constantly on the look, we were reading books, seeing plays, doing the whole thing about, "Okay, what's that story." And I always thought it was going to be an immigration story.

I mean, we couldn't really touch the history of the first nations history of Australia, because that's not our story to tell really. And also as a European art form, I mean, we've done great work with Bangarra, but we sort of felt that was something that was a bit out of our remit. But from the European settlement and then on, the history of white Australia and well, all of Australia really, has been that immigration. And we tried lots of different ideas, but nothing quite landed. But anyway, I handed that mantle on to David, so I said to him, "Here's the one thing that I never quite got together." So I'll be seeing if he's a bit more successful than I was.

CL: I feel like there could be some sort of special artistic director role for you with that, because now that everybody knows there's this dream.

DM: Yeah, if there's something I will definitely be pitching the idea to David. I mean, not that I'd want to make it or anything. In fact, I did get a pitch from one of the boys in the company actually for a ballet, that I went, "Oh, that's a good idea." But it was sort of around the time that I was announcing my departure, but I did say to him, I think that's a really good idea and you should pitch it to David Hallberg. So, maybe that might happen.

CL: And so, you finished the year and how long before you jet off to Finland?

DM: So yeah, my last official day at the company was the 18th of December and then on the 6th of January, so it was about two weeks, I was on the plane and weirdly, I mean, going on an international flight, which with my job, it was quite sort of commonplace, but after 18 months of not going anywhere, it was quite exciting to get on a long haul flight, but such a different experience with going through all these airports that were basically shut. And I felt very privileged to be able to come to Helsinki and to come to the opera house, which was actually working.

Everyone was here. I mean, we've done the whole production with masks on, which I take my hat off to the dancers for dancing for sort of six hours a day with a mask on. But yeah, it was very exciting to get on the plane. I was a little, not apprehensive about Covid, but just thinking, "Gosh, am I going to be able to do this?" Everything I've ever done has always been, created at least, has been with the Australian Ballet. But the Finnish National Ballet have welcomed me with open arms and it's been such an honor and a pleasure and so exciting. I mean, I've had days where I felt like, "Oh, what am I doing?" But we've now finished the production and I'm really proud of the results. So yeah, it's been great.

CL: And so, was it strange to work with new dancers?

DM: Yeah, I've got to say, that first day I was a little bit nervous and trying to learn everyone's names. And the other thing that's so weird, because everyone is in masks, I sort of had to the top of a nose to get to know everyone. And there were times actually where I'd be in the cafeteria and I'd sort of see some of the dancers and I go, "Oh wow, that's how you look." Because they'd be eating and have their face mask off. I couldn't believe how quickly they made me feel at home.

And I think when you're all in a studio together creating something, that alchemy happens and you very quickly get sort of assumed into the new family, so to speak. And it has been really wonderful. This company has such a long history. I mean, almost double the Australian Ballet and it's a Scandinavian or Nordic country, they have a very different experience. They all live and work in the Opera House. Well, not live, but I mean, all of their time is spent in this house. And so, the whole organization knows each other, from the opera company to the technical area to the music and the orchestra.

CL: What do you mean so everybody lives in the Opera House?

DM: Well, they actually don't live here physically, but they work and perform and spend all their time in the Opera House. I'm actually staying here, because they have these two beautiful apartments for guests who come.

CL: Incredible.

DM: But it's a very different environment to what we're used of in Australia where we hire the theater and we go there and we perform all over Australia and we work at the Ballet Center. Everything that we normally do happens in this one building, it's quite amazing. All the props and sets and costumes and workshop and everything is in the opera house. So yeah, it's been really fascinating dipping into a different world of the way a ballet company operates.

CL: And was there language barriers?

DM: Luckily, all rehearsals here are done in English, because Finnish and Swedish are the two national languages of Finland, but because Finnish is not spoken that widely outside Finland and the company has many different nationalities, the working language is English. So it made it very easy. I felt like I wasn't the only one that couldn't speak it.

CL: And I also heard you say that you were trying to put aside your Australianness to recognize and celebrate their Nordic heritage?

DM: Yeah, exactly, because I really wanted this production, because it was for the centenary of the company, I wanted it to have a really strong feeling of Finland. And so, we actually set the white acts in sort of a Nordic snowy world. And in fact, in the end of act four, where there's this bit that we always call the storm, we actually have snow falling. And interestingly, swans are the national bird of Finland, so it's got a very close relationship to Finland.

CL: Wow, I feel like that won't be widely known.

DM: No. Well, I didn't know it until I started doing a bit of research and that swans stay on the water in Finland until the ice actually freezes over. When I first arrived, they still had swans on the lake at the Opera House. So, we've set it in this sort of environment and I've never had that experience of living in an environment like that, so it has been a learning experience for me. And I do feel as if I've had this experience of what this time of the year is. And so, I feel like I'm on a little sort of Nordic adventure myself, as well as taking “Swan Lake” down that path as well.

CL: And so, now that the rehearsing has finished, will you leave Finland? So you may actually be stuck there?

DM: I've got my original flight booked back to Australia and I've actually, it's been changed about three times, but one can't ever be 100% in these times. Yeah, it's back to my freelance world, but I will be coming back actually to Finland a couple of times, because they are doing Lucas Jervies' “Spartacus,” which the Australian Ballet premiered in 2018. And Lucas has asked me to help him stage it, so that'll be fun. And then I'll be back again in January '22 for the premiere of “Swan Lake,” so I've still got a little bit of my Finnish Odyssey to go.

CL: And what else for you now?

DM: Well, I've got some really lovely things. People keep asking me to do nice things, so I'm doing some teaching at the McDonald College when I get back to Sydney, I'm doing some things for Soar, the book, I'm doing a couple of talks and literary sort of events. And I'm also doing some things with the Australian Ballet School and the Australian Ballet regional tour. So yeah, so I'm still sort of in a studio here and there, being creative and it's going to be really a fun year, busier than I thought it was going to be.

CL: It actually sounds like a dream.

DM: Yeah, it's going to be lovely. I now get to do all the fun stuff without the big responsibilities.

CL: Yeah, completely. It's just so good to touch base and hear how you've emerged from the Australian Ballet and just to hear how well it's going.

DM: Yeah, look, I feel very blessed to have had my time at the Australian Ballet and to have experienced one of the most rewarding jobs that you could have, both as a dancer and then as the Artistic Director, leave the company still feeling as much joy as I had when I was there and now embarking on this life that is sort of like a beautiful tasting platter of lots of other experiences. So yeah, no, I feel very lucky.

CL: Yeah. And so, any other snippets into your life that we should know about before we sign off?

DM: No, I don't think so. No, I feel that if I haven't said it in the book, it's not worth saying.

CL: So we should all go and read Soar. What did you post on Instagram I saw a couple of days ago, you've been shortlisted for...

DM: Shortlisted for the Australian biography of the year.

CL: Australian biography of the year!

DM: Actually it's not shortlisted, it's long listed, so there's eight biographies, which will then get shortened down to a shortlist. But I was so amazed actually to be in that group of people that included Malcolm Turnbull and Nick Cave and a whole lot of really important Australians, so I was like, "Wow, that was an incredible honor."

CL: I bet you didn't think as a 12, 13-year-old boy, that you would be writing autobiographies and staging “Swan Lake” in Finland?

DM: I tell you, I thought the productions I did on the back veranda was the highlight, it was going to be the best it ever got, but it was just the beginning.

CL: Wow, thank you so much, David McAllister. It's been an absolute pleasure.

David is now back in Australia. To read more about his life, his autobiography is called Soar, a live freed by dance, and to continue to follow his adventures, he's also on Insta at @davidmcallisterdaisymc.

I called David from Sydney, the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, to which we pay our greatest respects. Talking Pointes is produced by Fjord Review. Remember to subscribe to get the latest episodes and if you like us, please leave a five-star review. On our next episode, you'll hear from former Principal Ballerina, Lana Jones.

Claudia Lawson

Claudia Lawson is a dance critic based in Sydney, Australia, writing regularly for ABC Radio National, ABC Arts, and Fjord Review. After graduating with degrees in Law and Forensic Science, Claudia worked as a media lawyer for the ABC, FOXTEL and the BBC in London, where she also co-founded Street Sessions dance company. Returning to Sydney, Claudia studied medicine and now works as a doctor. She is the host of the award-winning Talking Pointes Podcast.


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