Behind the Scenes – David McAlister

By Danielle Pope

David McAlister of the Australian Ballet - Photo by James Braund
David McAlister of the Australian Ballet - Photo by James Braund
The Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet speaks with MiNDFOOD about his incredible journey and his upcoming production of Sleeping Beauty

In summing up his 30 plus years with the Australian Ballet, former dancer now Artistic Director David McAlister considers himself to be very blessed. “I always say to people that I have had my two dream jobs so far in my career,” he laughs, “So anything I do from now on is going to be a bonus.”

As a Principal Dancer for the Australian Ballet, McAlister first performed as part of the National Ballet in Canada in Romeo and Juliet in 1988. Despite being aware of the added pressure of the “Principal” label, McAlister says that his tenacity carried him through, “That fantastic ignorance of youth meant that I felt like ‘yes I can do this’ and so I was fine.” That dogged belief in his abilities has followed McAlister his entire dancing life, where from age 7, he knew that this is what he was meant to be doing. “I was really lucky that I had that single-minded ambition,” he reflects, “I didn’t have a plan B. If I hadn’t been a dancer I really didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Thankfully, he did not have to decide. McAlister joined the Australian Ballet School as a dancer in 1981, after having started dancing several years previously at age 7 in Perth. After two years with the School, he joined the Australian Ballet Company and so embarked on an extraordinary career which would see him perform around the world. “You know I think back to when I was a little boy in Perth and getting all sorts of drama from my fellow school compatriots about being a ballet dancer,” says McAlister, “I think, if only I knew then what I do now, I would be saying ‘Well this is going to lead me to a world of excitement and opportunity.”

A career highlight for McAlister was being invited to perform as a young dancer in a ballet competition in Moscow in 1985. Having won a bronze medal in the competition, McAlister was then invited back to dance in the then USSR for four more years. During that time, McAlister was able to witness first-hand the Soviet Union under the leadership of new President Mikhail Gorbachev and how the geo-political context was being played out on the ground. “We saw that whole transition of Perestroika and Glasnost and the real freeing of Russian society during that time, so it was a really incredible time to be there.”

McAlister was also one of the first Australian dancers to perform at Russia’s acclaimed Mariinsky Theatre (then known as the Kirov), and would return with the Australian Ballet Company in 1988 for the Bicentennial Celebrations.

Touring with the Australian Ballet Company, McAlister performed on some of the world’s most lauded stages, including the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and Convent Garden in London in front of the Queen. He also performed for Lady Diana Princess of Wales, the Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, and met US President Barak Obama when he was in Australia for the recent APEC Summit. McAlister is the first to count the blessings his career has brought him, and the opportunities to meet these extraordinary people “just for doing what you love.”

For McAlister, the stage was home. “I loved being on stage. I’ve always felt like the stage is an incredibly warm and happy place,” he reflects, “I always felt that, even in those performances where you are a bit tire or sore, there is this magic that happens when the curtain goes up and that sort of just disappears when you are just in the moment.”

David in rehearsals for Sleeping Beauty - Photo Kate Longley
David in rehearsals for Sleeping Beauty – Photo Kate Longley

As serene as it sounds, things were not always so smooth-sailing. McAlister suffered with three quite serious injuries, two of which almost cost him his career. The first was a prolapsed disc, which McAlister suffered just after being promoted to Principal. “There was a real question of whether I would get back from that,” he says, “That was my first big challenge, but luckily I got fantastic medical advice and great care.” With the support of the team from Australian Ballet, McAlister would dance on for eleven years injury free.

Then in 1995, McAlister tore a ligament in his left knee, which again required the support and intervention from the Australian Ballet medical team. McAlister considers himself extremely lucky, “I am a testament to the medical intervention of science and the wonderful research that is being done at the Australian Ballet to keep dancers dancing,” he laughs.

However, a silver lining to these challenges meant that McAlister was exposed to the greater workings of the Australian Ballet, a move which he now credits as his motivation to apply to be the company’s Artistic Director, “I got to really understand the business of the ballet as well as the artistic side, and in some way I believe that led me down this path.”

McAlister was made Artistic Director in 2001, an appointment which he describes as “an incredible honour”. The role is the perfect complement to his previous career as a dancer, and provides an interesting balance to a career where previously there had to be so much focus on himself as an individual. “As a principal dancer, you are focused on yourself because you have to be. Your body is your instrument. Stepping off the stage and being Artistic Director is the exact opposite.”

Just as dancers have to give over to the performance and trust that the hours of training and perfecting will come through, McAlister has to give over to the dancers. “Everything that I do in my day is to facilitate everyone else to be at their very best,” he says. “I guess I have to do as much as I can to ensure those dancers are in the absolute perfect place, but at the end of the day when the curtain goes up, I hand over all control to them.”

Sleeping Beauty

Cast of 2015 Sleeping Beauty - Photo Kate Longley
Cast of 2015 Sleeping Beauty – Photo Kate Longley

The Sleeping Beauty ballet is one that McAlister holds quite close to his heart. It was in his second year of training as a young boy that he danced in a Perth production of Sleeping Beauty, but it was not to be, “I was a child extra for like half a day, and then I got sacked from it because I was too short!” he laughs.

Later he would join another production, and came to develop a close affinity to the story of Sleeping Beauty. “I feel like I grew up in that production, because I did all of the roles right through to the Prince, so it was a production that featured quite heavily in my career.” Accordingly it is of little surprise then that when it came to staging his first production as Artistic Director for Australian Ballet, that Sleeping Beauty was McAlister’s first choice.

The story of Sleeping Beauty continues to resonate with audiences around the world, both young and old. When asked what it is about Sleeping Beauty that audiences love McAlister draws parallels to the modern day, “I think it is about that power of good versus evil,” he muses, “I think we are always grappling with a world that seems to be binary at times, but there are many shades of grey, and I think that is why it still resonates in a contemporary setting.”

McAlister hopes the current production will give audiences the chance to escape into a world of fantasy and mystery, “It is a beautiful, beautiful work – the most beautiful score for ballet ever written,” he lauds, “It is a great escape from those pressures of the day to day, following the journey of this young princess as she has the tragedy of pricking her finger, and then the joy of falling in love.”


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