by David McAllister
Publisher: Thames & Hudson Australia, 2023
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
This recently published book by David McAllister, Ballet Confidential, is a "personal behind the scenes guide" to what goes into a ballet performance -- from the training of dancers, then through their careers in a professional company and beyond, with all the highs and lows encountered along the way.
Intertwined with that is discussion about the processes within direction and management of a ballet company, from commissioning a choreographer, a composer, a designer, rehearsing the dancers and an orchestra, finding patronage, dodging Covid, through to curtain-up of the performance on the night, then the all-night-wait for the first reviews to appear. David danced with Australian Ballet for many years -- then became its artistic director for 20years -- so he has many a first-hand (= first-foot?) tale to tell of all that goes on behind the scenes.
The book's tone is that of welcoming the reluctant theatre-goer who is unsure of the full picture, the protocol, what's good and what's bad, and generally what to expect in going to the ballet, perhaps for the first time. Despite that, the seasoned audience member will still learn a lot from the book -- through updates on the prevention and management of dance injuries for example, and how that ties in to progress in the parallel field of elite sports medicine today.
There's revelation of secrets from the studio, the dressing room, the stage -- of what can go wrong with tricky costume attachments, a clumsy prop, a stuck curtain, a wonky jock strap -- through to whether Romeo and Juliet actually kiss during their pas de deux, or just learn how to fake it -- as they say "all you ever wanted to know about the ballet but were afraid to ask".
The writing style is friendly, fun and highly accessible as McAllister wants to debunk the pretension or esoteric air that some might believe the ballet adopts. They don't go to a performance because they don' know what to look for. By way of encouragement David confesses that he has not understood the various codes of sport that get such a hefty attention and following from participants, followers and media, domestically and internationally -- (in our country as in yours, Bro' ) but admits that his friends have helped to break down perceived barriers in particular sports, letting the uninitiated into the circle once a newcomer is willing to give it a go.
David's title might be a witty reference to the substantial tome, Bolshoi Confidential - secrets of the Russian ballet from the rule of the tsars to today, by Simon Morrison, published by 4th Estate, London in 2016. That is a weighty work, as you'd expect from Morrison, Professor of Music at Princeton University (who also wrote an insightful biography of Ukrainian composer, titled - Sergey Prokofiev and his world). Bolshoi Confidential references the disreputable beginnings of the Russian company in 1776, its varying fortunes under Stalin through to Putin, up to the acid attack on the artistic director in 2013 - and more besides.
You need much stamina to get through Morrison's book -- though it is surely worth the effort. McAllister's book by contrast is a humorous and entertaining read -- but don't think he doesn't also refer to the big topics -- dancers at and after retirement, communication breakdowns within the artistic staff, challenges of finances and patronage -- through to what a given ballet might really be about -- how to "read" la Sylphide, Giselle, Nutcracker, Swan Lake (this is my favourite chapter in the book) -- along with the insights into the astonishing choreographies by Graeme Murphy -- his Swan Lake, and Nutcracker, the story of Clara, for Australian Ballet.
In the ballet history section there is reference to the tragedy of the young French ballet dancer, Emma Livry, protégé of Marie Taglioni. In 1863 (160 years ago) Emma died from complications following the burning of her tulle skirt from a gas light on side stage. Emma's grave in a Paris cemetery has since become a shrine in her memory and is often visited by ballet afficionados.
100 yrs ago, on Thursday 23 May, 1923, a young dancer, Phylis Porter, was performing in Wellington's Opera House. Her tulle skirt caught on the gas light in the wings -- she rushed out the side stage door into the alleyway alongside the theatre, so's not to set her fellow dancers alight. Phylis was taken by ambulance to Wellington Hospital but was horribly burned and died from the complications 4 days later. (If you want the full account by Peter Averi, see Music in New Zealand Autumn 1992, pp.40 - 41.) Someone needs to set a little plinth and a plaque for flowers for Phylis Porter in the foyer of Wellington's Opera House.
David's book will touch you in a number of ways -- as also will his memoir Soar - Freed to Dance, published by Thames & Hudson, in 2021.
During 2023 David has been Acting Director at The Royal New Zealand Ballet. The recently announced appointment of Ty King-Wall (a New Zealander who has trained in Australia and performed for many years with Australian Ballet) is most welcome, and offers hope that links within ballet in Australia and New Zealand can only be to everyone's mutual advantage.