In 2017, Elizabeth Toohey accepted David McAllister’s invitation to become a Ballet Mistress and Repetiteur of The Australian Ballet, a vocation near and dear to heart. Earlier this year Elizabeth joined The Friends Chairperson Greg Khoury, to talk about her role in nurturing the company’s dancers, as well as details on her long standing friendship with former Artistic Director David McAllister AC.
Click below to listen.
Over the last two years The Australian Ballet has worked with ABC TV on an exciting series that charts the Company’s history. And We Danced reveals the key moments that shaped The Australian Ballet, and tells the story of the people whose passion and dedication continue to drive the Company forward today. Featuring rarely seen footage from The Australian Ballet’s archive, the series also delves into what has made The Ballet so uniquely Australian.
Australia’s fever for ballet began in the early 20th century with the arrival of the Ballet Russes, who inspired the establishment of Australia’s first professional ballet company – the Borovansky Ballet. Despite outstanding success with audiences, the life of the company was short lived. It wasn’t until the arrival and foresight of British dancer Peggy van Praagh – who took over the sinking company – that the future of ballet in the country looked up.
A successful campaign to government in 1964 led to the establishment of Australia’s first professional dance company: The Australian Ballet. The company’s debut of adored classic Swan Lake was a resounding success, but the early decades were far from smooth sailing. A failed tour to New Zealand, over-worked dancers and industrial action threatened the fledgling company as it tried to carve out its own unique cultural identity.
The early seventies saw the celebrated arrival of a new mode of contemporary dance and the company’s iconic production of Rudolph Nureyev’s Don Quixote, an extravaganza that would herald the greatest ballet film of all time.
Episode 2, Act 2 1980 – 1999
In the 1980s, The Australian Ballet’s audience was broader than ever before. But the long simmering tensions between belt-tightening and creative risk were about to come to a head. In 1981 the dancers staged an iconic strike, demanding to be paid according to skill and rank.
Shortly after, the artistic appointment of British dancer Maina Gielgud finally brought together the creative and business sides of the company. What followed was a harmonious period of rebuilding and a focus on cultivating the company’s many young dancers, such as David McAllister, Steven Heathcote, Elizabeth Toohey and Fiona Tonkin.
Inspired by the company’s youth, the early nineties saw daring, sexy and provocative ballets that pushed the limits of physicality and tradition. Spartacus, and Stanton Welch’s Divergence showed a new edge and revolutionised the ballet’s public image.
The period also saw the arrival of Australia’s most highly regarded choreographer Graeme Murphy and the company’s first collaboration with choreographer Stephen Page of Bangarra Dance Company.
Ross Stretton took over the artistic direction in 1997. Remote and reclusive, his approach was not endeared by some, though no one could deny his artistic strengths. By the end of the decade, the repertoire was becoming increasingly contemporary, increasingly Australian and increasingly risky.
Episode 3, Act 1 2000 – 2020
In the third and final episode of And We Danced, The Australian Ballet enters the new millennium with a bold creative appointment. Fresh from the dancer’s ranks and with no prior leadership experience, David McAllister became artistic director of The Australian Ballet in 2001.
His daring first commission was Graeme Murphy’s adaptation of Swan Lake, inspired by the love triangle between Princess Diana, Prince Charles and Camilla. It was an unprecedented success, becoming a signature piece for the company and securing the future of the company in McAllister’s hands.
Further collaborations with Stephen Page and Bangarra Dance Company, and the recruitment of Ella Halvelka, The Australian Ballet’s first Indigenous dancer, cemented the company’s commitment to represent a diversity of stories and cultures that reflect Australian society more widely.
With success of large-scale crowd-pleasers such as Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty alongside more experimental works it appeared that the balance between financial viability and creative risk had been struck.
After twenty years at the helm of the company, McAllister propelled The Australian Ballet into the 21st century on and off the stage. In 2021, ballet’s popularity is as great as ever. With the recent appointment of international superstar David Hallberg as the eighth Artistic Director the ballet looks forward to a new future as one of our preeminent cultural institutions.
We recently asked unstoppable arts and theatre publicist Bruce Pollack to answer five fun facts for FAB. Enjoy reading about his involvement in The Friends and the hold ballet has on his heart.
What is your name and role at FAB? Bruce Pollack Deputy Chair, Friends of the Australian Ballet
How long have you been involved with FAB? I joined in 2006
What is your earliest ballet memory? I grew up in a house that we used an old wind up gramophone to listen to records. We used that machine until we got an electric. My favourite recordings, old 78rpm’s, was a set of 8 records of highlights from Swan Lake. I can still sing this music as I knew it so well. The Australian Ballet did not exist when I was a child, but I do remember being taken to see a ballet, no idea which one. My greatest ballet memory is seeing Fonteyn and Nureyev perform Swan Lake in Melbourne
Bruce Pollack preparing for COVID-19 and stocking up
Why is FAB important to you? I have worked in the theatre from the age of 10 and I am happy that I have received a pay packet from the arts ever since. Working in the theatre I see as much on stage as I possibly can, and I see many ballet performances. In the 1970’s for 4 years I was the Drama Teacher at the Australian Ballet School. I love being a part of a Committee for not for profit arts organisations. They are essential for our way of life and imperative for maintaining a level of “culture” in our community. This is the 4th arts board that I have been on.
What are you doing to stay connected to ballet & dance at this time? I look at every possible ballet link that I can get my hands on!
Header image Bruce Pollack and other members of The Friend’s council presenting David McAllister with an oversized cheque in 2008
As audience members, we usually gawk at a dancer’s consecutive turns and flying leaps, but from the perspective of sculptor Linda Klarfeld, it is the intricate and fast-moving positions of a dancer that she wishes to immortalise in bronze. Before our Sylvia Dress Rehearsal performance, we were honoured to have Linda Klarfield, a celebrated Australian sculptor to talk about how she intertwined her artistic gifts and her admiration of ballet in her 6 dance-inspired bronze sculptures. In this talk, her sculptures were brought to life by two talented young students from Allegria Dance Studio.
Her talk detailed her tedious process of sculpting and modelling, of her obsessive observation with the placing of an index finger, or the positioning of a hip bone. Her artworks capture positions that are impossible to hold, as Linda described that her bronze sculptures will stay ‘en pointe’ for 2000 years. As she was never a professional dancer, she leaned on the technical eye of David McAllister and Robert Albert to critique and examine her plasticine sculptures before casting them in rubber/plaster moulds. Using these moulds, she would cast the sculptures in wax and detail any imperfections. At one point, she recalled she had been so obsessive in perfecting the detailing of the hands and materials, she had overlooked that she had cast a dancer with (literally) two left feet. After creating a ceramic mould with the wax sculptures, she would melt out the wax and pour in the bronze.
Bronze is characterized by permanence and strength; hence, Linda relies on it to hold impossible poses with impeccable balance. In her statue of the pas de deux from Giselle, she highlights how her greatest challenge was locating the position’s centre of gravity. In this statue, the ballerina is not yet at the top of her lift, and Linda explains that she located the centre of gravity as being slightly off-centre, as the two dancers pull up and away from each other to maintain balance. We have all seen these lifts in arabesque, with the risen leg stretching through a 90-degree angle, however, the eye always misses the moments before the picture. Linda’s sculptures make that moment tangible to help incite a feeling of excitement about what is about to happen, to bring the sculptures to life in what feels like a real-life pas de deux.
This whole process would take around 6 months for every sculpture, however, in every finished result, you can clearly see the admiration and dedication Linda has for her dancers and her art. We thank her for sharing her unique insight into the world of sculpting and ballet with our members, and commend her on her beautiful artworks.