Book – Soar: A Life Freed by Dance – by David McAllister

Detail from the book cover of David McAllister's "Soar: A Life Freed by Dance".<br />© Thames & Hudson. (Click image for larger version)
Detail from the book cover of David McAllister’s “Soar: A Life Freed by Dance”.
© Thames & Hudson. (Click image for larger version)

Soar: A Life Freed by Dance
by David McAllister with Amanda Dunn
Thames & Hudson
ISBN: 9781760761042, hardcover, 1 October 2020, $39.99
Publishers page

Book cover of David McAllister's "Soar: A Life Freed by Dance".© Thames & Hudson. (Click image for larger version)
Book cover of David McAllister’s “Soar: A Life Freed by Dance”. © Thames & Hudson. (Click image for larger version)
After 20 years as the Australian Ballet’s artistic director David McAllister will soon pass the flame to David Hallberg.

Two Davids, one leaving and one arriving is a bit confusing. How should the staff and dancers refer to the Davids? They both found a solution. McAllister would now be known as ‘David 7’ and Hallberg ‘David 8’, in order of succession.

McAllister, the seventh artistic director of the company, had another cheeky plan to call himself ‘David 007’ during the transition. Of course, that never happened. McAllister’s nickname was, and always will be, “Daisy”. The feminine name seems strange but there was a good reason. McAllister’s mother never called her son ‘Dave’ but often called him Daze. Elizabeth Toohey, his former dance partner and lover gave him a new nickname, Daisy.

In his recently published memoir, Soar, A Life Freed by Dance, McAllister wrote that he loved his nickname, embracing it “wholeheartedly”. Unlike his two predecessors, Maina Gielgud and Ross Stretton, his personality, his sense of humour and what he describes as “my deep love of pleasing people” sums up his personality.

McAllister danced in the company when Gielgud, followed by Stretton, were artistic directors. In his book he praises both directors and also captures their personality, the way they managed the repertoire, how they connected with the dancers and what happened before their exit, Gielgud to Europe and Stretton to the Royal Ballet. Those memories are an important addition to the history of ballet in Australia.

The book covers his passion for ballet as a child, his physicality, his determination, his highlights and lowlights as a dancer and his personal life.

David McAllister with Fiona Tonkin in La Fille mal gardee (from 1989).© David Simmonds. (Click image for larger version)
David McAllister with Fiona Tonkin in La Fille mal gardee (from 1989).
© David Simmonds. (Click image for larger version)

The book’s prologue, titled Ballet Boy Lost, reveals both his struggles with his sexuality – was he straight or he gay? – and his love affair with Kelvin Coe, a principal dancer that began when McAllister, aged 19 and a third year student at the Australian Ballet School was cast in the ballet Beyond Twelve a coming-of-age story.

Coe, the star of Beyond Twelve and the company’s leading male dancer, became his McAllister’s idol. He knew Coe was gay but had no idea who he was, although he suspected “I might have been too”. Later, as a junior dancer in the Australian Ballet’s corps de ballet, his friendship with Coe turned into love but he wasn’t prepared for their relationship to become public. The prologue is both a surprise and a page-turner. Who would expect a dancer’s memoir to start with his first love affair?

The chronology of his life begins with McAllister’s childhood in Perth, his kind and helpful parents and his lightbulb moment when, aged 7, he watched Rudolf Nureyev’s dance excerpts from the ballet Don Quixote on TV. There was no going back. His livelong journey in ballet began.

At an all-boys, sports-mad Catholic school McAllister was bullied by boys who called him the ‘ballerina’, ‘pansy’ and ‘poofter’. He blocked out the bullying as best he could. This, he wrote, was a pattern throughout his life. “Adversity made me more determined. I’ll show them…one day I will be famous and that will be my revenge”.

From his time at the Australian Ballet School to his role as artistic director McAllister kept on keeping on, determined to fight for the next step.

He joined the Australian Ballet in 1983, the same year Maina Gielgud became the artistic director. She was kind to him throughout her 13 years as the director but their first encounter didn’t start well. At their first meeting she was very polite. “Oh, you’re one of the new boys. What’s your name? It’s nice to meet you”. But wait, the worst was ahead when she studied him and asked “maybe we should think about a nose job”.

David McAllister in Etudes.© David Parker, 1986. (Click image for larger version)
David McAllister in Etudes.
© David Parker, 1986. (Click image for larger version)

McAllister admits he was always self-conscious about the shape and size of his nose. He thought he might change it but never did. As well, he was always conscious of his height – not very tall – and, as he wrote, “had always been bottom heavy with wide hips”.

McAllister was crestfallen when later, Gielgud told him he had a good career ahead but “I don’t think you’re a prince”. If he wasn’t a ‘prince’ that meant she didn’t see him as a principal. McAllister never gave up. In 1989 he was promoted to the highest rank, a principal artist.

Gielgud’s early years went well but there were problems ahead. She made it clear that casting would be based on merit. That meant older dancers weren’t happy with her decision to give young dancers roles usually danced by principals.

As well, she was a perfectionist. As McAllister wrote, Gielgud’s work ethic mirrored her own extraordinary drive. “The women in the company were always under obvious pressure about their weight and shape and the men were not spared either. In the 1980s thin was in. Maina was keen on thinness. The girls she favoured were very slender with long legs. Some dancers were sent to a place in Queensland to lose weight”.

In the years before Gieglud left the company McAllister understood and accepted her style and to “always be there – probably too much”.

Things changed dramatically when Ross Stretton became the artistic director in 1997. While Gielgud was hands-on and always watching the dancers from her place in the stalls, Stretton wasn’t in the theatre. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, the staff and dancers had to seek him here, there and everywhere.

McAllister remembers Stretton was far more remote than Gielgud, “almost aloof. He was an excellent and supportive teacher and gave brilliant classes but there wasn’t going to be any unnecessary communication or generally ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling about Ross. When Ross took over it was like going from the sauna to the ice bath when he brought lots of avant-garde new works – inevitably alienated some in the audience”.

David McAllister and Elizabeth Toohey in Walter Bourke’s Grand Tarantella at the Palais Theatre, Melbourne, Australia, 1985.© Robert McFarlane, courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney. (Click image for larger version)
David McAllister and Elizabeth Toohey in Walter Bourke’s Grand Tarantella at the Palais Theatre, Melbourne, Australia, 1985.
© Robert McFarlane, courtesy of Josef Lebovic Gallery, Sydney. (Click image for larger version)

Woven between his life on stage and backstage McAllister’s memoir reveals his relationships with several women. The first was Elizabeth (Lizzie) Toohey who joined the Australian Ballet in 1980. They shared a strong musicality and brought out the best of each other on the stage. McAllister was about to turn 21 when they became lovers.

Gielgud sent the couple to Moscow to compete in the Fifth International Ballet Competition where they danced three pas de deux and a difficult, spectacular piece, Grand Tarantella. McAllister won a bronze medal and Lizzie won a special award for artistic merit. In 1991 he had “an exciting relationship” with the dancer, Jayne Beddoe. It made him feel “normal” but the affair didn’t last long.

Years later, his career turned a corner when he was severely injured while rehearsing La Bayadere and Madame Butterfly. He needed surgery that included stripping a piece of his hamstring, inserting it behind the kneecap where the anterior ligament was, and attaching it to both the tibia and femur with screws. It took a year to recover.

David McAllister on the Great Wall of China, 1993.© Jim McFarlane. (Click image for larger version)
David McAllister on the Great Wall of China, 1993.
© Jim McFarlane. (Click image for larger version)

By 1999 he worked on a plan for life after ballet. He remembered how Gielgud had told him she could imagine him as a ballet company director but that seemed a long way away for him. It wasn’t. When Stretton announced he was leaving to become the artistic director at The Royal Ballet McAllister took the next big step as he applied for the job of the Australian Ballet’s artistic director. After interviews with the company’s recruiting company and a smaller group from the Australian Ballet’s board he was offered the role in August 2001.

In the early days as the boss McAllister found it difficult to manage people, something he’d never done before. As well, he found his plan to create a kind of ballet utopia where everyone’s dreams could come true would be impossible.

With three months before he departs and his memoir published this month he acknowledges his regrets. He wished he’d commissioned a full-length Australian ballet to forever hold in the repertoire and he wished he didn’t push back on the organisation and board in the name of taking a few risks. He hopes his successor is “willing to push hard for the projects they really believe in”.

David McAllister with Wesley Enoch.© Julie Dyson. (Click image for larger version)
David McAllister with Wesley Enoch.
© Julie Dyson. (Click image for larger version)

As for his personal life McAlister fell deeply in love with Wesley Enoch, a theatre director he describes as intelligent, thoughtful, handsome. With Wesley by his side and their relationship now in its second decade McAllister writes that they’re both “Looking forward to become old men together”.

His life based on ballet will continue. He’s been commissioned to choreograph a new Swan Lake for the Finnish National Ballet and hopes there will be more opportunities to work with ballet companies.

2020 was supposed to be a year to celebrate his life with the Australian Ballet. Instead, his 2020 repertoire was cancelled and so were the parties, dinners and a gala in both Melbourne and Sydney. McAllister’s friends and colleagues hope there will be a farewell party in December but whether that happens or not he’s written…

“I can honestly say I think I might finally have found peace with myself”.

About the author

Valerie Lawson

Valerie Lawson is an author and journalist who lives in Sydney, Australia. She is a former arts editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and, from 1990 to 2009, the Herald’s dance writer. Valerie was dance critic for The Australian Financial Review, 1994-2002, and has edited many sections of the Herald including the weekend colour magazine. As a freelance writer, she is a contributor to balletco, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Dance Australia. She holds a Teaching Diploma from the Royal Academy of Dance and graduated B. Phil. (Hons.) in Ballet and Contextual Studies, from the University of Durham, 2002.
Valerie is the author of three books, has recently launched her own website, www.dancelines.com.au and is now writing a history of dance in Australia.

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