Australian Dance Reviews

Book review: ‘Ballet Confidential’ by David McAllister

Cover of book 'Ballet Confidential' by David McAllister.

Book: Ballet Confidential
Author: David McAllister, Thames & Hudson Australia, July 2023.

David McAllister is the former artistic director and principal dancer of The Australian Ballet. During his time with the company, he danced principal roles in The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Coppélia, Manon, La Sylphide, Onegin, Romeo and Juliet, and more. McAllister made international guest appearances with Bolshoi Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, the State Ballet of Georgia and numerous others. In 2001, he became Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet. He was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in the 2004 Australia Day Honours List and was invited to become a Vice President of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). In 2021, he was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday’s Honours list. He has also received the Queen’s Coronation Medal from the RAD and the J.C. Williamson Award from Live Performance Australia. McAllister has recently returned to The Australian Ballet for performances of Identity and is currently acting Artistic Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. In 2021, he choreographed a Swan Lake for the Finnish National Ballet.

This latest book by the ex-Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet is of medium size and thickness. It is divided into 13 chapters, with acknowledgements at the end – but no index! There are some very few black and white photos included in one section.

It is written in a chatty, informal style, and McAllister muses on various topics to do with the ballet. He begins by admitting how useless he was at sport, but captivated by ballet and questions why ballet is regarded as ‘elitist’. We are then given a potted history of ballet, mentioning famous names and companies and how it has become global.

He then looks at the logistics and difficulties of partnering, from both a male and female point of view, the women lifted, the men headed for the gym, and rehearsing a pas de deux – how the style and expectation has changed over the years, used as a plot device or quite abstract. Rehearsing ‘the kiss’ is also discussed, both as a performer and as an artistic director. Also ballet hygiene and sometimes dramatic accidents.

'Ballet Confidential' by David McAllister cover.
‘Ballet Confidential’ by David McAllister cover.

In the third chapter, the psycho thriller that uses ballet as a setting – Black Swan – is discussed and various perceptions about ballet, how dancers are thought to live on coffee and cigarettes, how costumes have changed to make dancers look sleeker with a longer ‘line’. How do dancers manage through pain? Dieting, various exercises and the work of the physio team, mean dancers now strive to ‘dance smart‘ with surgery only as a last option. Mention is made of dance as a vocation — how, yes, it can be a cutthroat business, but mostly it is a work of ‘competitive symbiosis‘. But what if you are not chosen for a role you absolutely long for? From an artistic director’s point of view, did he make the right decision and develop flourishing talent? There is also mention of transitioning after performing — what do dancers do next?

All this is followed by a discussion about pointe work – its history and development (e.g. Marie Taglioni and Marius Petipa ), when it is best to start pointe work, building up muscle strength and training before starting pointe work, how pointe shoes are made, and how dancers adjust the shoes so they are ‘just right’. Also the damage they can do to your feet. There are very few roles for men en pointe, but McAllister confirms that yes it does hurt…really badly. (He likens it to a cheese grater.)

This is complemented by a look in the next chapter at an essential part of male dancewear – the jockstrap — and how male dancewear has changed over the years.

McAllister then considers – are the arts, and ballet, ‘elitist’? And how people feel intimidated before attending their first performance. He recommends several possible works to see perhaps, what to wear, audience etiquette and then in chapter seven there is a section on mime, with Benedicte Bemet, as photographed by Kate Longley, showing various mime phrases and McAllister explains the context.

Several of the major ‘traditional‘ ballets are then deliberated – La Sylphide, Giselle, and the Tchaikovsky ‘big three‘, Sleeping BeautyThe Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Their history and assorted different versions are analysed, from the premiere to contemporary, and how does this make them relevant to today?

McAllister then covers the various roles in a ballet company and how it is a huge team behind the scenes to get a performance on – not just the Artistic Director (what does an AD do?) but admin, the ballet mistress/master, the physio team, publicity, wardrobe, wigs, lighting, the composer, musical directors, répétiteurs, the pianist, stage crews and how touring a show can be quite different to one at home base.

In chapter 10, entitled :The Show Must Go on,” McAllister surveys what might perhaps go wrong during a performance – tripping, onstage falls, technical and costume issues, possible illness affecting the whole company, and then the effect of Covid and the weather if it is an outdoor performance.

McAllister then ruminates on training, pay and how one rises through a company and some of the VIPS he has met.

Next comes a look at why ‘men don’t dance’, and the historical decline of the male dancer until Nijinsky , Nureyev and Baryshnikov. There is also the issue of being a ‘gay’ male in the ballet, intimate relationships and also a working, dancing father. The topic of sport vs ballet and athleticism arises, as does what do you call a male Principal? (Answer: Premier Danseur.)

The final chapter, entitled “Best Bits,” sees McAllister talk more about how ballet has grown and expanded, his love of the art form, audiences and dance parents, and how attending a performance can be transforming. So it is a very intriguing future ahead.

There will be a special launch for the Ballet Society on Monday 21 August.

You can purchase David McAllister’s Ballet Confidential through Thames & Hudson Australia here.

By Lynne Lancaster of Dance Informa.

To Top