Facing the pandemic: the Australian Ballet

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Over the next few months, Dance Australia will be speaking with Australian dancers and companies to find out how they are dealing with the challenges COVID-19 has presented.

In this first installment, Denise Richardson speaks with the artistic director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, to find out how our flagship national company is coping with the crisis.

To paraphrase Dickens, this might be the worst of times, but for the arts, especially the performing arts, the best of times it certainly isn’t. The sector was the first to suffer following the federal government’s decision in early March to ban public gatherings of more than 500 people to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. At the other end of this crisis, it will also likely be the last industry to rebound as sites across the country slowly reopen. For dance in particular, the sacrifice has been huge with the revenue collapse for many companies and no certainty as to when operations will begin in the future. Freelance dancers and those reliant on the concert economy also saw their employment prospects for the rest of the year wiped out. It will be a case of survival of the fittest. And since the dancers are anything but fit, but also enterprising and innovative, in the coming weeks we will catch up with those on the front lines of this crisis – businesses, freelancers and collectives – to see how they travel.

The Australian Ballet is perhaps best positioned to survive a crisis like this, with a massive funding base. However, the overhead is also huge and includes a very large team of dancers, artistic, production and administrative staff. According to artistic director David McAllister, the number one priority for the company is to ensure that its workforce is neat.

David McAllister. Photo: Justin Ridler

“We have achieved drastic internal savings, but we have given priority to our employees,” he emphasizes. “We have some ability to charge our salaries with our endowments, but of course not having income from ticket sales puts enormous pressure on the business.”

However, the response from the public has been overwhelming, with many taking credit or donating the cost of the ticket. “It’s been very helpful in the short term with our cash flow,” he adds. “For every performing arts company, it’s a tough time as many of us depend on box office income to keep the wheels spinning, especially small and medium-sized companies and independent dancers – not just dancers but all of us. artists who depend on concerts. So, we just make sure that we are careful. “

“The Australian Ballet has been extraordinarily wise for many years, not living beyond its means,” continues McAllister. “I mean there have been times where I’ve been frustrated with this, but the thoroughness of our board has paid off because we’re in a different situation now than a lot of other companies. That said, a large portion of our endowment is tied funding, which is not just waiting to be used, but tied to specific projects. However, we are very mindful of our finances, making sure that we will overcome this and remain a viable business. “

During this time, everyone is working from home, including the dancers who still follow a daily schedule. “On the plus side, all those little jobs that nobody had time to do before are now all going to be done,” laughs McAllister.

With no close end date in sight, the company is working on a sliding schedule, making decisions for Anna Karenina’s upcoming season starting June 5 in Melbourne, but ready to reschedule for the following year and adjust. Consequently.

Despite the uncertainty, McAllister remains positive. “I think we’re going to discover new ways to interact, and that will also create a real sense of community,” he said, commenting on the innovative applications of web conferencing technology, from group classes to virtual groups. . -together. The taking over of the reins by David Hallberg in 2021, still on schedule, will also be a period of innovation. “This will be a very fertile time to explore new ways of doing things,” he says. “Our company is a flexible and talented organization, so he will have a lot of support and enthusiasm to put his ideas into action. “

However, McAllister agrees it wasn’t the end of his tenure as art director that he envisioned.

“I knew this was going to be a year that I won’t forget,” he laughs, “but I never imagined it would be for those reasons!

Top pictured: Kevin Jackson and Ako Kondo in “Chroma,” which is part of the company’s triple bill, “Volt,” which had to be canceled after just three performances. Photo: Jeff Busby.


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