Silent Bodies

24 October 2018


Luke Macaronas talks with David McAllister about the gay histories in ballet.
Art by Ayonti Mahreen Huq.

The floors of the rehearsal studios of the Australian Ballet company have just been renovated. Dancers bustle through the labyrinth of frosted glass, slipping in and out of doorways that conceal change rooms, physios, studios and gyms. Although austere teachers and hardwood floors have given way to plasma screens and angular furniture, this place is still brimming with self-importance. Students from the Australian Ballet School queue at a canteen. Leotards and tights in bizarre purples and pinks cling to their bodies asymmetrically, exacerbating the hollow spaces in their shoulders and legs where muscle is yet to show.

The studio into which I am led is huge, repeating the creams and greys of the hallways in the tarquette, and curtains that reach into the vaulted ceiling. A set of bifold doors have been swept back so that the room is doubled. The mirrors at each end of the parallel studios now reflect a green infinity into each other. At the front of the room the company’s artistic director, David McAllister, sits in silence, legs crossed, with a single finger wrapped up the side of his cheek.

Every time we meet, McAllister wears black. A counter to the porcelain hues that surround him, he is a clash of sporty nylon and woolen turtlenecks. The ballet world has always maintained an aura of detachment, built around the myth of the athlete-artist, and McAllister is no exception. He only speaks twice during the whole rehearsal. Once to offer a technical note to a dancer and a second time to explain to me a joke among the dancers—something about the difference between effacé and croisé, and keeping your legs closed.

I used to learn ballet as a teenager in a dusty hall behind a church. Now, in this studio, I can feel my chest tighten with a familiar discomfort. I straighten my posture and unfold my hands.

The relationship between dance and my identity is something I have never fully understood, and it has always frustrated me that I unknowingly fell into a gay cliché. This is what has brought me here—I want to know why so many gay people are drawn to ballet.

I am uncertain how this question will be received, and worried that McAllister will misunderstand me or simply disagree. Joining Australian Ballet in 1983, and taking on the role of artistic director in 2001, he has only occasionally talked publicly about his sexuality.

We are left alone in another white room, and I launch into my preamble—a primer to brace McAllister for how gay I want to get.

“Ballet does have a kind of unique relationship to queer—”

“It’s sort of weird,” he says, before I can finish, “because I guess for my whole upbringing as a kid I was always called a poof, even before I knew what a poof was … For a long part of my career at the ballet company I sort of fought against that stereotype because I thought, ‘I don’t want to be one of those ballet-dancer poofters.’ And eventually I went, ‘Well, actually,you can’t fight nature. That’s what you are, so get over it.’”

McAllister is overflowing with stories and memories—gossip about gays in the company. I begin to understand his place within a history shaped around the traces of subversive sexuality, which stretches across names like Nijinsky, Nureyev and Murphy. We talk about his coming out late in life, and even reach back to the company’s reaction to the AIDS epidemic.

“I actually think if I hadn’t have been a ballet dancer and so disciplined I could have way gone down that path, ‘cause I was right in the middle of it. I turned 18 in 1981 which was just when it was all rolling out, so if I hadn’t have been… There was a lot of fear and a lot of people trying to hide the fact they were HIV positive. I mean, it really did happen.”

The cliché of the “ballet poofter” who grew up in a turgid town is one into which McAllister fits neatly—and one he seems uninterested by. Part of the company since the 80s, McAllister’s story is nothing special, because to him the mythology of the gay dancer is commonplace. “I’m post-gay,” he jokes, referencing a phrase used by his partner, Wesley Enoch. “It’s not an issue. It’s just as normal as being straight.”

It is easy for this palatable progressivism to overtake our conversation—before long, McAllister is explaining the Australian Ballet’s social outreach programs, and that the AusBallet Instagram account has the largest following of any ballet company in the world. He begins to regurgitate phrases I have seen in other articles and interviews; he plays the role of brand ambassador with ease.

I ask again: “I studied ballet as a child and it was exactly the same for me. Because I was straight—or I felt straight when I started doing ballet—so did the ballet make me gay?” This makes him laugh.

“I think there’s an aesthetic to ballet that’s quite appealing—I mean it was to me—because of that thing of dressing up. It’s a non-verbal art form, so you don’t have to say anything. You can completely live out this fantasy without exposing anything of yourself.”

“And that was never dislocating?” I ask. “That to me is the paradox of the male body in ballet—this total fantasy.”

“I think that’s what drew me to performing. That opportunity to live a whole lot of different lives that you may not choose to live in your own life, but you can. You can be anything you want to be. You can be aggressive and nasty, you can be romantic and poetic, you can fall in love with women,you can fall in love with men, you can fall in love with nobody, you can be a fantasy character that has actually no sexual orientation—it is the ultimate opportunity.”

The body of a ballet dancer is a site of contradiction. Trained in rigid and meticulous detail to unlock an unbounded expressiveness, the lightest movements spring from the deepest strength. Identity becomes flexible, but often within a paradigm of strength, beauty and straightness.

McAllister’s reflections on his own performing career are filled with similar knots and contradictions. “I used to love being in love on stage. Being Romeo in Romeo and Juliet was one of my great joys, because it was living out that fantasy of a straight couple.” We laugh, but the image feels hollow. “When you are in a ballet environment you can have it all—you can be going home to your boyfriend but dancing with your girlfriend on stage.”

Inhabiting straight fantasies through dance seems counterproductive. It is a paradox of simultaneous disguise and legibility, cloaking effeminacy in heterosexuality.

It is only recently that McAllister returned to perform, for the first time since becoming artistic director, in the Australian Ballet’s production of The Merry Widow in Melbourne. On a stage saturated by diamond-studded dresses and scarlet curtains, McAllister appears as Njegus, the bumbling secretary to the ambassador. Pantomimic and slapstick, the fantasy is in full swing—and McAllister knows how to play the game. The audience drinks deeply from his perfectly timed winks and silly walks, revelling in the comedy.

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