‘It will be strange’: David McAllister on leaving the Australian Ballet

He may have had three years to prepare for it, but David McAllister has no firm plans for what he will do when he retires from the Australian Ballet next year.

McAllister is the company’s longest serving artistic director and announced last week that he would step down from the role at the conclusion of the 2020 season.

David McAllister will leave the Australian Ballet at the end of the 2020 season.Credit:Simon Schluter

He first mooted the idea with the Australian Ballet’s chair, Craig Dunn, when negotiating for his current contract in 2016.

“I said then that I thought it would be my last contract,” McAllister told The Herald and The Age.

“I inherited the company in the 40th anniversary year and I was very pleased to program the 50th anniversary program, but with the 60th anniversary coming up I thought it was someone else’s turn.”

When he eventually walks out the Australian Ballet Centre’s doors he will have spent most of the past four decades – most of his life – working inside its walls.

He trained at the Australian Ballet School before joining the company upon graduating and eventually becoming a principal dancer. He danced with the company for the final time in March 2001 and became artistic director in June of the same year.

“I have to admit it will be strange waking up for the first time and not pulling out my Australian Ballet pass,” he said.

“Dancers, notoriously, have short careers and artistic directors can have sticky ends. I am proud of the fact I have had such an opportunity for such a long time and that I am leaving in a happy place with people saying they would like me to stay longer.”

While his time with The Australian Ballet officially will draw to a close when the curtain falls on the final production of the 2020 season, McAllister said he won’t be leaving the ballet world, and potentially may not stray too far from the company either.

Dancers, notoriously, have short careers and artistic directors can have sticky ends.

“I remember going to my first ballet class aged seven thinking ‘these are my people’, so I think I will still keep close ties to the ballet world,” he said.

That could mean he works with other ballet companies around the world, although he has no desire at this stage to take on the artistic directorship of another company.

And, after the success of 2015’s The Sleeping Beauty, McAllister’s debut choreographic work, he also hopes to be more creative in his post-Australian Ballet life.

“I loved that, it was one of the most exciting creative things I have done in my life,” he said. “(Choreographing more) would be my first port of call of what to tout about.”

If the company tracks in 2020 as it has this year, McAllister will be leaving it in a strong financial and artistic position, ready for someone new to take the helm. But the search for his replacement is not something he will participate in.

“The board have got an incredibly rigorous and well thought through strategy and I am here to help in any way, but I am definitely not going to be part of it,” he said.

Ty Wall-King and Amber Scott in Sleeping Beauty.Credit:Kate Longley / Australian Ballet

A significant part of the artistic director’s role at the company is ensuring the relationship with the government of the day runs smoothly.

McAllister's two decades in the role has seen multiple governments and eight different arts ministers. He describes the current Morrison government as “easy as she goes” when it comes to the arts.

What would be great to see from this government is for them to get the funding back to the Australia Council.

“The major companies maintain a status quo, but what would be great to see from this government is for them to get the funding back to the Australia Council and back to the small-to-medium organisations so they can be as vibrant as they can be.

“The major organisations and the small-to-medium organisations really do facilitate the building of Australian identity and culture and, over the years, various governments have understood that.

“I don’t think the current government is on a negative path with that.”

McAllister’s final season for the company will be launched later this year and will include “lots of new, beautiful works”.

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