David McAllister: Soar book review

Bright and brisk, David McAllister’s autobiography Soar: A Life Freed by Dance nimbly chronicles the sacrifices, setbacks and successes of a life devoted to dance.

Supportively co-authored by journalist Amanda Dunn, Soar is told in the warm tone of McAllister’s voice, giving the reader the sense of being humbly regaled on decades of dance as well as being taken into highly personal confidences of life beyond the footlights.

Anyone who has ever heard McAllister speak, whether at a press conference, opening night or one of the very popular In Conversation With sessions, will be well acquainted with his encyclopaedic knowledge of The Australian Ballet. It is one thing to have pre-prepared notes, but to see McAllister give a detailed and insightful answer to an impromptu question without a moment’s pause is a wondrous sight indeed. This depth of knowledge runs through Soar, and while there was surely a good deal of fact checking involved, McAllister’s memory for intricate details and entertaining anecdotes shines through.

While McAllister has been an approachable, community-spirited public figure during his twenty-year tenure as Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet, a sense of demure privacy has shrouded his personal life, a privacy that has been respected by the press and public alike. Setting the tone for the personal revelations to come, McAllister opens Soar with a tight, candid prologue that reveals a significant early sexual encounter.

Soar then continues its ten chapters in chronological order, taking McAllister from bullied Perth schoolboy to burgeoning young man, thriving amongst his own kind at The Australian Ballet School, Melbourne. It becomes clear that a degree of the privacy around McAllister’s has been his own journey of realisation and acceptance of his sexuality, coloured in early years by his Catholic upbringing. Sharing a non-typical personal life takes a healthy dose of courage, making McAllister’s memoir all the more involving.

McAllister covers significant stage partnerships and brings life to the off-stage camaraderie of the dancers. If dancing for Diana, Princess of Wales were not enough of a career highlight, the success of McAllister and Elizabeth Toohey in Moscow deservedly earns a full chapter of its own. McAllister’s bronze medal saw the pair invited back to perform with the Bolshoi Ballet, a triumph outlined in characteristically humble, yet inspiring, terms.

Serving as something of a sequel to Edward Pasks’ Ballet in Australia: The Second Act 1940-1980, Soar is informed by McAllister’s unique degree of involvement in the history of The Australian Ballet, having moved directly from The Australian Ballet School to dancing with the company for some 19 years, then being its Artistic Director for an unprecedented twenty-year term. Soar is McAllister’s story and does not set out to be a history book, yet lovers of Australian dance will be fascinated by the behind the scenes details about the running of the company.

McAllister’s career runs from a time when Artistic Directors could routinely and candidly comment on a dancer’s personal appearance through to the present, when mental health and wellbeing are rightly valued. While such corporate transformations are somewhat dictated by changes in society, it is clear that McAllister’s pro-active approach to mental health, physical recuperation and even the scaffolding of more extensive maternity leave have reaped dividends for all involved.

In line with McAllister’s authentic spirit of good will, Soar avoids the tendency of many an autobiography to try to shock with salacious details or, worse, exist for the writer to grind axes over long held grudges. Affectionately known to colleagues as Daisy, a moniker that is explained in the book, McAllister seamlessly transfers his sunny world outlook to text, relying on the fascination of the story itself to drive readers to keep turning the page.

It is most unfortunate that this final year of McAllister’s reign as The Australian Ballet’s Artistic Director has been nothing like what was originally planned. The narrative of Soar continues right into the global COVID-19 pandemic, when new mixed program Volt had to be closed after only three performances. McAllister’s practical optimism served to quickly transition dance classes online, with filmed performances being generously shared with the public digitally.

Soar is generously illustrated with 40 photographs over 16 glossy pages, sharing family memories, stage triumphs and the odd fashion disaster.

While Soar primarily tells of the impact of dance in McAllister’s life, the book is a reminder of the joy that his devotion to dance has brought to countless grateful audience members. Lovers of ballet will find much to ponder, savour and enjoy in Soar.

Soar: A Life Freed by Dance is now available for sale.

Photos: #2 David Parker; #3 Branco Gaica; #4 David Simmonds; #5 Julie Dyson

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