Helen Garner talks to David McAllister, Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet
David McAllister has one of those faces that could only come from Planet Ballet. Is it the cheekbones? The wild-creature tilt they give to his eyes? Now forty-one, he stopped performing five years ago, and I have never seen him dance; but I’ve seen photos of him in flight—and I’ve seen him walk.
The morning after I’d watched Jiri, the Australian Ballet’s glorious performance of four pieces by the Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian, I went to the company’s headquarters intending to ask him about the part the mind plays in dance. There was something hopeless about this enterprise. We sat for an hour or so in his glass-walled office with the tape recorder between us, struggling doggedly to steer the conversation towards what each of us imagined was the cerebral; but it kept skidding away into something lighter and more fun, a kind of merry chattering, a comparing of notes about life, punctuated by bursts of laughter, growling sounds, self-mimicry, gasps, and periodic long pauses where the grinding of mental gears was almost audible.
Afterwards, transcribing the tape, I kept remembering what one of the principal dancers said to me on my first visit to the studio, when I asked her why the ballet mistress, in class, always spoke in such a low voice. ‘But you see,’ said the dancer, ‘we don’t talk‘.
Helen Garner: Sometimes I think I like watching rehearsal more than actual performances.
David McAllister: When you watch rehearsal you realise that much more goes into it than you see on stage. Even in the most abstract-looking ballets, there’s always pictures or ideas, even in some cases a text, that the choreographer gives you to think about as you’re doing the step. I remember Jiri Kylian trying to explain a certain movement and telling a dancer, ‘Imagine you’re a bird that’s just been shot mid-flight.’ It immediately gave her movement an emotional connection, and the audience would gasp—but they weren’t conscious of that idea.
HG: I suppose that in ballet, as in all art forms, you’re trying to get right down to the muck of things, the deep levels of the unconscious, where all the pain and joyfulness reside—the stuff that’s beyond words.
DMcA: Certain choreographers have a great ability to get things onto an elemental human level. Kylian is one. Stephen Baynes, an Australian, did a piece for us last year called Unspoken Dialogue. It was about the many facets of a very mature relationship—how the public face you show as a couple can be very different from what’s really happening between you—like when a couple will suddenly split up and people go, ‘My God! They’ve been together twenty-five years and they’ve always seemed so happy!’ It was a beautiful twenty-minute piece. The music was Schnittke—quite strident. There was nothing in the program saying what it was about, yet people came away going, ‘Oh wow—I felt I was watching my relationship on stage.’
HG: Do dancers have to be taught to draw on such things, or is that one of the qualities of a good dancer, that they know how to use what’s outside and bring it in?
DMcA: Both. The rare dancer is the one who at nineteen already understands that it’s about performance as well as just doing the steps. I used to get quite nervous about building up a character. Bobby Helpmann used to say, ‘You learn to dance for ten years, then you join a company and they say, “Okay, now you act!”‘ It all depends on whom you have rehearsing you and teaching you the ballet. I was lucky to have Anne Woolliams, who was a fantastic director.
A ballet I used to love doing was Romeo and Juliet. I did Mercutio from when I was eighteen till I was thirty-five. I never got sick of it because every time I came back to it, something would have happened to me that I could use—I’d have had an injury, or something in my personal life—and the character of Mercutio was so complex that you could keep adding to it and finding more there. Of course, the life experience of some dancers is quite narrow. You don’t go out and get pissed every Saturday night and have outrageous turmoil in your life—you’re always looking after your body …
HG: And you’re devoted to something larger, which most people aren’t when they’re young …
DMcA: It does have a certain insular quality. But some people act naturally. Madeleine Eastoe—ever since she joined the company, she’s been able to lose herself in a role, as opposed to imposing something on herself. It’s going to that very deep place within you where you don’t notice anyone else and you can be in the moment.
HG: What is that deep place?
DMcA: It’s where you don’t worry about what other people think of you. It’s easier to find it in performance than it ever is in real life. In real life you’re always putting on some sort of coat that protects you from people and emotions. It’s very rare that you can be naked. On stage, though, it’s a very controlled environment. You know what’s going to happen. The music’s there, the costumes and scenery are there, the steps are there. Everything’s there for you. So you can be vulnerable. Or you try to—it doesn’t always happen. But when you get there it’s the most extraordinary feeling. The curtain comes down, and you say to yourself (sounding amazed and slightly horrified), ‘I have no idea what I just did. I have no memory of it.’
HG: It sounds like a dissociated state, as they say in psychology.
DMcA: I found I could experience things on stage that I couldn’t in real life.
HG: Emotional things?
DMcA: Yes. Incredible anger. Or you can really fall in love. You work with a partner day in and day out for five weeks, getting the steps right. But then you can walk on stage, if you’re in that zone, and look at the person and it’s as if you’ve never seen them before. You’ve gone through the patterns so many times that your body goes into automatic—and out of it flows a relationship that can blossom in the three hours that you’re on stage. Let’s say it’s Manon, and you’re playing Des Grieux. He’s followed this woman his whole life, and finally she’s given in, and she’s just died of consumption. You’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, she’s died in my arms’—then in that weird moment when the curtain hits the deck, you look at her and you go, ‘Oh! Oh! It’s Vicki!’
HG: Are choreographers articulate? Are they verbal people?
DMcA: Yes, most of them are. They’re trying to put across a non-verbal concept, and the only way to do that is by explaining—or demonstrating.
HG: How is the whole thing transmitted? Does the choreographer come along and speak to the dancers?
DMcA: Usually the great choreographers have a right-hand person, someone who’s worked intimately with them for years, creating and dancing, and who goes around the world teaching their works. Then the choreographer flies in at the last minute and does a bit of magic, and off they go again. Those partnerships are amazing—Ros Anderson with Jiri Kylian, Janet Vernon with Graeme Murphy. Their minds are so much in sync that if he can’t explain what he wants, she can say, ‘What he means is this‘—and he’ll go, ‘Yes! That’s it!’
HG: So the associate might be more articulate than the choreographer?
DMcA: Ros probably knows the works better than Jiri, except that he comes in with the concepts. She says that in some ways it’s good that he’s not coming to us this time. He often can’t remember what the steps are, but he’ll know the image he’s going for—so he’ll start fiddling. He’ll say, ‘That’s beautiful! Why don’t you try it with the other leg?’ and Ros will be going (sound of extreme self-control), ‘It’s not right).’
HG: When I saw Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake I was sitting next to a journalist who’d never seen a ballet before. He said, ‘I like everything except when they act.’
DMcA (with a shout of laughter): There are some older works where you’d come on and dance, dance, dance, then everything stopped and you’d do a sort of shorthand, formatted mime that told the story—you here, why? I, sleep, down—then you’d start dancing again. Like recitative in opera. I found the twentieth-century narrative ballets much more satisfying. John Cranko was an English choreographer who created some of the most beautiful story ballets. There’s a solo for Lensky, in the second act of Yevgeny Onegin, just before he has to fight a duel with Onegin. On one level it’s just arabesques and pirouettes, but fiendishly difficult—I was going, ‘Oh, this is so hard, I can’t do this!’ And Anne Woolliams came into the rehearsal and said, ‘What are you doing? All I can see is arabesques and pirouettes! This is supposed to be all about the turmoil Lensky’s going through! That’s why he keeps turning! Because he doesn’t know which way he’s going to go!’ And all of a sudden I’m doing the arabesques and pirouettes, and not even thinking about them …
HG: But what are you thinking?
DMcA: You’re thinking in character: about not knowing whether you would ever see your fiancee again; the jealousy of seeing her flirt with Onegin, which is what the duel is about; a whole life before you that may never happen—the family, the children; not wanting to lose that, but also the pride of having challenged someone to a duel and knowing you had to go through with it. Knowing that Onegin, who was your friend, was a much better marksman—knowing you were about to be killed. All this stuff is there in the choreography, but if you don’t delve into it, if you don’t find it, it’s just a whole lot of steps.
HG: So that was intellectual, what Anne Woolliams did for you. She made you understand something with your intelligence.
DMcA: But it’s a physical intellectualism—finding a way to use your body to explore those ideas. To explore them—to go into them, rather than just demonstrate them.
HG: Do you like dancing to ‘great’ music more than to ordinary music?
DMcA: Music for the dance is often second-rate composers writing tunes that can be danced to—background to the dance—whereas opera was always all about music. There are some ballets where you go, ‘Oh God, this is rum-ti-tum.’ But when you’ve got a beautiful score, it’s much easier to find emotion in it.
HG: What about Cage or Webern or Bartok—I don’t know what the young dancers listen to in their outside life, but how do they come to know and handle this difficult, sophisticated music?
DMcA: There’s a lot of counting. You hear it so often that you can anticipate— it’s just rhythmic patterns. You get to be able to almost sing it. You go (sings on one note), ‘da da da da da boom—my turn!’ You don’t always love the music you have to dance to. We did a ballet called In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated with a completely electronic score. At first you think, ‘This is hideous, it’s only noise’, but by the end you’re going, ‘Remember the starburst, then you go five, six, seven, eight, then you go into that clingy bit’—it’s amazing what you come to hear in it. Often the works you find most satisfying are the ones you started off thinking, ‘Ugh, this is really awful!’
HG: If a ballet dancer wanted to go to a shrink, would they require a special sort?
DMcA: Not particularly. We do sometimes send someone to a sports psychologist, for performance anxiety—someone who’s fantastic in the studio, but on stage not so good. A lot of negative self-talk—you can’t do it, you’re not good enough—can be turned around with simple techniques from sports psychology. But one of the prime motivators in sport is winning. For dancers there’s no such thing. What is success, in dance? Is it giving an extraordinary performance? Is it being able to dance at all? What constitutes success? Sometimes we have the greatest success artistically, and three people and their dog come to see it. That can be upsetting.
HG: Do you find the State Theatre in the Victorian Arts Centre too big?
DMcA: For some ballets, yes, but I love the visual space—big enough for the dancers to be able to fly through the air without the fear that they’re going to bash into something. But contemporary ballets tend to work better in a small venue because they’re more intimate. Choreographers these days do fewer of those big works—they get daunted by the group. They love creating pas de deux. With two people you can do such wonderful things. But the minute you get twelve couples on stage, all trying to do that in time, in lines, with music—it’s so hard!
Dancers can do so much more now. When I joined the company, if you could do a double tour (where the boys jump in the air and spin twice and land) you were one of the better dancers. Now if you can’t do that you’re not in the company. So when you’re faced with a whole group of kids who can do everything the principals can do, and you’re trying to get them to skip round in a circle, it frustrates them.
HG: Do you think it’s just a fantasy that many people, of whatever age, have deep understandings of things?
DMcA: Dance involves music, visual art and drama. They all get stirred up, and out of that you get dance. Of course, you never really get a deep understanding of any of it, but it all informs what you do.
HG: We all feel that we don’t know enough about the things we’re interested in, and never will—and we feel this as a lack in ourselves.
DMcA: I feel like that constantly. That someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Listen, actually we know you’re faking it.’
HG: Every single artist I’ve ever spoken to has said the same thing. I wonder if bluffing—if not knowing enough but doing it anyway—is what makes an artist.
DMcA: Maybe—because when you go looking for something, what you find never answers the question. It only opens up a whole new avenue of questions. It’s five years since I stopped performing. I look now at videos of myself dancing, and part of me goes, ‘That’s really daggy! I wouldn’t do it like that now. If I did it now, I’d think about it differently.’
HG: You’d think about it differently?
DMcA: Yes. I’d conceive it differently, and I’d perform it differently. Because I know more now. Technically. Sometimes I wish I’d taught when I was dancing. It would have made me process things, think them through analytically. Now, when I teach classes, I think about things more deeply, because I’m trying to express an idea to the dancer. But when you’re dancing, you just do it.
HG: Wasn’t that a period of grace? There are things you can do thoughtlessly, when you’re young, that you only dare to do because you’re ignorant. And isn’t that the way it should be?
DMcA: Exactly. But I think there’s a point when you get back to that state again—when you’re really old. When you’ve had eighty years to formulate your opinions, when everything you say is backed by all that experience, and you don’t care if people agree with you or not. I look forward to that.