David McAllister got the surprise of his life yesterday when he attended a gala lunch to celebrate his career at The Australian Ballet and was presented with the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award – the highest award from the Royal Academy of Dance.

Elizabeth Toohey, David McAllister and David Hallberg. Photograph © Chris Pavlich

The award, which had been kept a closely guarded secret, was presented to him by RAD President Dame Darcey Bussell – the British prima ballerina and a longtime friend of McAllister’s – who appeared via a video link.

“The RAD believes that David McAllister’s contribution to the international world of ballet is outstanding and that he is most definitely worthy of this prestigious award,” said Bussell from her UK home.

“His brave decision to step down and leave the company he loved triggered tears from his colleagues, teachers and dancers as they said goodbye to their leader in the worst of times.”

“Instead of a glorious farewell to celebrate his years at the company, 2020 became a year of lockdowns. Today, however, we can celebrate David and his legacy knowing that his connection with ballet will continue.”

Previous recipients of the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award include Frederick Ashton, Marie Rambert, Rudolf Nureyev, Maina Gielgud, Gillian Lynne, Peter Wright, Matthew Bourne and Carlos Acosta.

McAllister was clearly overwhelmed at the news that he had been added to their ranks.

“This award has been given to such extraordinary people, and to join them is mind-blowing,” he said. “You don’t expect to receive such an award or recognition when you are lucky enough to do a job you love, with such incredibly talented people. I am incredibly touched and moved.”

David McAllister on hearing Darcy Bussell announce that he had won the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award. Photograph © Chris Pavlich

The gala lunch was organised by the Friends of the Australian Ballet (NSW) and was held at Doltone House at Sydney’s Jones Bay Wharf. Hundreds of ballet lovers attended the event, which was planned as a fundraiser for The David McAllister Fund, established to recognise McAllister’s extraordinary career and give future artistic directors the chance to undertake special projects. Yesterday’s event raised $150,000 for the Fund, while it was revealed that during his time as Artistic Director McAllister himself has donated half a million dollars.

The lunch took a surprise turn when it segued into David McAllister: This is Your Life, hosted by Elizabeth Toohey, the Ballet Mistress at The Australian Ballet, and a long-term dance partner and close personal friend of McAllister’s. As she took to the stage, Toohey revealed that the dress she was wearing was knitted for her many years ago by McAllister. Guests appeared live or on video to share stories from McAllister’s life, among them his father Don McAllister, his sister Dianne Morris, his partner Wesley Enoch, Darren Spowart, a former TAB dancer and childhood friend of McAllister’s, Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, Maina Gielgud, and past TAB General Managers Ian McRae and Richard Evans.

Born in Perth, McAllister trained at The Australian Ballet School then joined The Australian Ballet in 1983 when he was 19. Rising through the ranks, he was promoted to Principal Artist in 1989. During a 20-year career as a dancer, he performed many principal roles, and made numerous guest appearances with companies including the Bolshoi Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, the Georgian State Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Singapore Dance Theatre. In 1992, as part of a Royal Gala performance of Coppélia in London, he performed in the presence of Diana, Princess of Wales.

After hanging up his ballet shoes, McAllister spent 20 years as Artistic Director of TAB, from 2001 – 2020.

He wrote about his long career in his 2020 memoir Soar: A Life Freed by Dance, which he discussed with Limelight when it was published.

Speaking yesterday, he said: “It has been a huge privilege to be part of The Australian Ballet for these past almost four decades and I owe you all such heartfelt gratitude for being with me along that journey.”

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