In Conversation With Allister Madin

Principal dancer with the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Born in the Basque country of France, Allister joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) in 2019 as a Principal Dancer.

Before joining the RNZB, Allister enjoyed an extensive performing career with the Paris Opera Ballet from 2005-2019, first studying at their prestigious School, and then joining the company at 19.

Allister was promoted to Soloist with the Paris Opéra Ballet in 2011. He has danced a wealth of classical and contemporary roles, including working with noted living choreographers such as Wayne McGregor, Crystal Pite, Alexander Ekman, and Benjamin Millepied. His classical repertoire includes Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote, Swan Lake, and La Bayadère, as well as works by Maurice Béjart, Roland Petit, Jiří Kylián, Kenneth MacMillan, and Pierre Lacotte.

With the Paris Opéra Ballet, Allister has performed in leading venues worldwide, including the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Novosibirsk, Beijing, Singapore, and Tokyo. As a guest artist, he has performed leading roles with Saitama Dance Arts Theatre (Japan), the Estonian National Opera, 3me étage / 3rd Floor (Canada and Argentina), at Jacob’s Pillow in the USA and with Incidence Chorégraphique in Greece and Russia.

Allister has created works for young choreographers’ evenings at the Opéra Bastille and the Opéra Garnier, and for the International Dance Festival at Andros in Greece. He has also appeared in several short films. In 2016 he completed his degree in ballet teaching and has subsequently taught in many intensive ballet programs.

We asked Allister about his journey.

Photo by Lydie Vareilhes

Coming from one of the industry's most prestigious institutions, the Paris Opera Ballet School (POBS) and company, was it all smooth sailing from the start? 

Allister Madin: Has anything ever been smooth sailing in life?

So I come from the Basque Country of France and moved to Paris after I was accepted into POBS after a second auditioning attempt. The first time I auditioned I didn't even pass the first day as I was too small and not fit for their criteria! The school did a physical exam the first day based on your body's aptitude, and if you were lucky enough to pass through to the second day, it gets more technical with a ballet class. The second time around I was still 10cm smaller than what they expected for my age, but I got lucky. I guess when something is meant to happen, life finds its way.

I grew quite late, around 16/17 years old, so I remained the smallest boy in my class for some time, and after my first year at POBS, the school made me repeat the year because of my height, even though I came top of the class. It was the first time I had experienced this type of absurdity in ballet. Then a year later the school made me jump a level, to the one that I should've been in only to make me repeat that same class, for the same reason of being too small.

Photo by Deyan Parouchev

After years of being bullied for being a young boy who danced ballet, I felt very happy that first year at POBS. I finally felt included and was surrounded by others who also shared my passion. However, the second-year was different as I got injured, but managed to keep dancing nonetheless. As my body never matched the high aesthetic expectations of classical ballet in France: long legs, turnout, and beautiful feet, I had to work hard to shape my body to make it fit into their criteria. It all started with the POBS teachers complaining about my feet not being good enough, and they encouraged me to put a sofa on top of them to soften the articulation, and to enhance the curved shape they liked. That's why I got injured: the heavyweight was too much for my body as a growing teenager, and I ended up having to manage a cyst in my ankle for two years because of that. I also had a stress fracture on my second metatarsal at 16 and remember all the negative whispers "too bad he's always injured, he will never make it as a professional dancer"not helpful to add that to anyone's plate. However, injuries are part of the process, and the sooner you learn how to deal with them, the better. I do think there is room for improvement in how artistic staff handle dancers who get injured. Most of the time they have a tendency to place judgment and pressure, whether it be unconsciously, affect the steps to recovery.

In my final years of training, the press called out the POBS about its bullying and harassment. I had actually gone through this, suffering from to the extent that I almost quit dancing altogether (prior to graduation). My passion was harming me and I questioned whether dancing was the right path for me as I was also doing well in my academic studies. But then things changed. The teacher who bullied me left the school and I started to feel alive again. I got my passion back and I was able to breathe again. Things took a quick turn as I got all the leading roles in the annual shows in my graduating year, and it was a wonderful experience. One of them was for the creation of "Scaramouche" by Jose Carlos Martinez (at that time a principal dancer in the company), and I even got to speak on stage which was very funny and unusual (I looked like Tom Cruise for the people seated far far away after mimicking a chicken!).

During my time at the school, I had two different directors, Claude Bessy and then Elisabeth Platel in my final year. It was a nice change as she brought more freedom to the very strict POBS environment we knew, plus I adored our teacher who was in charge of our last year at the school.

Your journey into the company took a few attempts. Can you describe the process that landed you in the contract?

Photo by Sébastien Mathé

Allister: When you come from the POBS you have an internal exam on the stage of the Palais Garnier to get hired into the company. One needs to demonstrate one's accomplished partnering skills, technique, and artistry, along with a solo from the repertoire. If unsuccessful, you were granted a second attempt the next day but with candidates from around the world (which still happens today) in a 3-stage audition process that consists of barre, center, and variations. You can get kicked out after any phase. At the end of the audition, the POB ranks the top 12 dancers and offers them seasonal or lifetime contracts, depending on the needs of the company. As I was known for being one of the younger dancers who had spoken up

about the bullying at the school, I was unsuccessful the first time aroundpeople didn't want to see me get into the company because of that. On the first day, the company offered 2-lifetime contracts when I ranked 3rd, and 5 seasonal contracts the next day when I ranked 6th. This led me to audition for the San Franciso Ballet because they were in Paris performing that summer. I remember waiting in the hall of the theatre with my resume in hand until I could find someone that would help me. Unfortunately, they wanted someone with professional experience so I decided to audition for the Royal Danish Ballet (not tall enough), Royal Swedish Ballet, and Staatsballett Berlin. I found out Daniil Simkin and another soloist had declined their seasonal contracts with POB, and so I was offered a 3-month contract with the company. I declined a contract in Sweden and also an invitation to audition in Berlin when my 3-month contract with POB got extended.

At the end of the season, I auditioned again and ranked 2nd. This time they gave the only one-lifetime contract to a dancer who had been waiting 6 years and offered me a one-year contract. I worked hard that first year and people started to take notice in the company. Sadly, I didn't get many opportunities to perform that first year as is often the case in a big institution like the Paris Opera, so I decided to do the Varna IBC and ended up as a finalist as well as the youngest dancer in the Senior Category. I think after that people started to look at me differently.

The next season started with a creation by Benjamin Millepied. All the dancers in the company auditioned and I was very lucky to be chosen: at the time he was unaware that I wasn't a permanent dancer in the company and picked me over some permanent ones. The artistic staff also failed to mention this to him, and when he finally realized the situation it was already too close to opening night to change the casting. Brigitte Lefèvre, the artistic director at the time also started to notice me more because of that.

Photo by Isabelle Aubert.

At the end of the year, Ashton's "La Fille Mal Gardée" was premiered at the Paris Opera for the first time. I was pretty much an understudy for most parts except the role of the Cockerel where I was the first cast. When Alexander Grant (who owned the rights of the ballet and as the creator of "Alain") first came to the theatre for rehearsals, Brigitte Lefèvre introduced me to him as the Cockerel and so he stayed to watch a bit of class. After that rumors started to circulate that I was to be cast as the understudy for "Alain". Apparently, Mr. Grant thought I was a good match for the role, and later when Brigitte Lefèvre saw me rehearsing the role she gave me two shows with a guest principal dancer Svetlana Lunkina from the Bolshoi. I was so honored.

Photo by Julien Benhamou

The two shows were a few days before the annual audition. It was an incredible experience. I was 20 at the time and I remember soloists commenting on how it was the first time a seasonal dancer had gotten the chance to dance a lead rolewith as much success as the principals. Dance Magazine even mentioned me among others in their column of Best Male Interpretation of the Year.

I received a lifetime contract after that and was promoted to Coryphée a few months later.

You've lived through the change of 3 artistic directors at the Paris Opera Ballet. Looking back, how do you think the different styles in leadership has affected your career?

Allister: Brigitte Lefèvre embodied all the traditions I was used to and had trained for but with modernity as well. Though her last years got a bit controversial, I still appreciated her leadership. She never hesitated to promote dancers: young or mature, and that sent a great message to the entire company. As long as you worked hard, you had a still had chance to be recognized. For example, she promoted Wilfried Romoli, a principal dancer at 41 years old one, a year before he retired, and also Isabelle Ciaravola at 37. It would also happen in the group as well. She really liked me as a dancer and respected me as a person as well. She trusted me and gave me wonderful roles and opportunities. I loved interacting with her even if she could be stubborn (as we all are sometimes) because she would eventually change her mind if you made a point. Under her direction, I danced principal roles and was encouraged to choreograph for young choreographer events.

When Benjamin Millepied took the lead after her, it was as if the entire institution flipped upside down. Everything we had known changed. Don't take me wrong, the company needed to change so it was somewhat positive. Benjamin put a real medical team in place (and not just physios like we had), changing our entire mindset about how to deal with an injury, which was much needed. He also changed the floors and brought in sponsors and donors, developed social media, and so on. Before him, it was kind of like the middle ages!

But he also was very American in his taste and wasn't a big fan of our repertoire. For me, after 10 years in the company dancing all Nureyev productions, Béjart, Roland Petit, and so on, it was a nice change to discover more Balanchine and Robbins works as well as other choreographers. Everything should be about finding the balance and I think all of it happened very fast and all of a sudden. It wasn't always the right match for the company, especially in the long-term.

As with every new artistic director, Benjamin wanted to put his "print" on the company and was more focused on the younger generation. In this case, dancers under the age of 25. He didn't really care much about the ranking, disrespecting the order quite often. Though I realized that I wouldn't get more exciting opportunities as I did before, I was still lucky that he would cast me at 27. His promotion of younger dancers was at the expense of my generation, even though under Brigitte's direction it would have been our prime years. Timing is key and a cruel reality in our profession.

But thanks to Benjamin I got the wonderful opportunity to create 2 short choreographies for a special event mixing musicians and dancers at the Palais Garnier. He also questioned diversity and inclusion a lot while he was at the POB. I don't think people were as ready to listen as they would be now, but it definitely brought much-needed conversation and awareness on these issues. At the time, I felt that I wouldn't be able to thrive as a dancer under his direction, so I decided to study and get my teaching degree in Classical Ballet. It helped me to reconnect with my passion. I also started to think about looking elsewhere to keep growing as an artist and challenge myself.

Then all of a sudden Benjamin left, and Aurélie Dupont was appointed Artistic Director within a week. We thought we would all get back to something more normal, traditional, and familiar after his direction. This was because Aurélie had spent her entire career at the Paris Opera, and was aware of all aspects of the institution and knowing most of the dancers. I knew her quite well from the studios and had previously worked with her when I did Varna. The truth is that she kind of kept Benjamin's vision for the company in her own way which actually turned out to be quite unsettling for some of us. We all found it difficult to communicate with her, and she made it pretty clear that my generation (the soloists around 30 years old) would not necessarily get the same opportunities we did in the past for roles in classical ballets. She wanted to push the younger generation. So she would encourage us to throw ourselves more into contemporary to enjoy more of what was left of our careers. The younger dancers got the opportunities for classical productions and the talented movers from the group, contemporary productions. It meant that the ranking didn't help or protect the dancers.

When you get a lifetime contract and then you realize that the second half of your career is probably not going to get any betteron the contrary, less and less interesting, it's no doubt frustrating. I remember that I said to her that it was great she was pushing younger dancers, but audiences still liked to identify with people on stage with life experiences and maturityit's not something you find in your twenties.

So after a while, I decided that I didn't want to make any compromises anymore. I was lucky enough to have been invited to dance Swan Lake in Japan with two beautiful and inspiring principal dancers at the National Theatre of Japan. Mixing our different backgrounds and dancing one of my dream roles triggered something inside of me, and I decided this was what I wanted for my careerto work with new people, grow from new experiences, and push my boundaries.

You formed an artistic committee representing dancers in the company, and in 2018 took collective action to tackle the complaints and issues that had arisen in the company leading to the leak of an internal survey to the French media. Given ballet's notorious authoritarian-style of leadership, what prompted you to drive this initiative, knowing that there could've been severe consequences and apprehension down the line?

Allister: From what I described in the change in artistic directors, you can get a glimpse of the frustration that a certain category of dancers felt at the POB.

At the end of Brigitte Lefèvre's 20 years of direction, people were ready for a change. Hoping for the best and hoping for improvement. We thought that Benjamin Millepied would be thatand in some retrospect, he was for a minority of dancers. He created a new generation of principal dancers and gave them opportunities that shaped them. However, a lot of other dancers felt pushed aside, ignored, and threatened by the uprising of a younger generation. Most of the principal dancers didn't even get to dance under his direction. The institution was shaken by that, and I think it started to highlight the flaws of our system. Benjamin wanted to challenge us. I think he could see what was missing for the dancers (perhaps what dancers have in America) instead of appreciating the French qualities. So when he left, it was a relief for most of the company until the dancers realized that Aurélie wasn't going to match their expectations either. I could see and feel people becoming more and more unhappy, upset, and angryand I was also one of them.

Some dancers had asked me to be the candidate for the annual artistic committee, which comprised of 4 dancers that represented the company and addressed issues to the artistic staff. I was elected along with 3 others, and we met to discuss problems and solutions. Our committee had the beginnings of an idea that would later result in the form of a survey sent to all the dancers. We wanted to make a difference because up until then, the artistic committee wasn't an entity that the staff would listen to or even consider when making decisions. Even when the committee had tackled complaints in the past, nothing was done. We thought in order to make our voices heard we'd need numbers to back these issues and complaints. So we started to build a survey.

It was the first time it had ever been done in the company, so we tried to cover as many areas as possible. This led to over a hundred questions! We focused on creating a significant and positive change for dancers in the company, not the consequences as a result. I could no longer stand the idea of seeing so many dancers lost, sad, and not living up to their potential. It should always be about the passion and enjoyment of the art form especially with a company that has such a rich history. So I didn't think twice about creating the survey, I believed we would be protected as the elected artistic committee.

Yes, even though ballet is known for its authoritarian-style leadership, the world is changing and we are a new generation of dancers. The industry has to adapt to that. I remember hearing a lot of, "Well, I suffered so they have to go through that too, it's part of the process" when I was at the POBS. Why does it have to be this way? Why do we recreate unnecessary pain and suffering? We have to stand up for what is right, not just for us, but for the next generation. We owe them that. We were all once a younger generation of dancers who were eager to succeed. Having been a young dancer, I know I would have appreciated seeing more professionals speak up to improve the ballet world. I guess that was why I was a part of the survey making process, even if it would get complicated. It wasn't about criticizing the system: there are always problems in a large institution, but the question we need to ask is, how do we create change? How can we improve our system, and be a part of making it better?

As a soloist (with a life contract) at the Paris Opera Ballet, why did you continue to search beyond POB?

Allister: I needed a fresh start. I didn't feel the need to change the company until quite late because having 3 different artistic directors meant the dynamics of the Paris Opera also changed, and in turn, a new company each time. However, because of politics and how I felt after a guesting opportunity in Japan, I felt that I needed a change. I wanted the happiness brought on by new challenges, opportunities, adventures, discoveries, and to face the unknown. I was too young to settle and make compromises with my life, and so I started the auditioning process.

At the Paris Opera, we have the opportunity to take a leave of absence/sabbatical year so it wasn't a big deal to try something different and to broaden my perspective. You could always come back if the opportunity didn't make you happy or work out the way you had expected. Most POB dancers don't explore the possibility as the majority of us have been trained specifically for (and fought to get into) the Paris Opera. It was the dream. In a way, we were all brainwashed to think POB was the only possible option for you.

Photo by Rhiannon Fairless

I wasn't aiming for RNZB. I wanted to find a place where I felt a calling, good energy, and positive vibes—and I found all of that in New Zealand. I was honestly surprised by the talent of all the dancers. They were so passionate, and I could feel the essence of our art form there, more so than in big and famous companies where you sometimes lose track of who you are, why you dance, or why you belong to the institution in the first place. I also love living in a foreign country and being surrounded by dancers of different backgrounds, that plus discovering new traditions. I love the Maori culture and one of the first experiences in NZ was working with a Maori choreographer. I got to do a Haka on stage—it was so unique and visceral, and such a powerful moment to experience as a European dancer. Being a principal dancer and leader of a ballet company has also been something new for me. That being said, I appreciate and value all the learning and new aspects of my job.

My dream has always been to become a principal dancer, and it happened here in New Zealand. Then, to discover a new country, it's truly been a gift. It really is the land of the Gods.

How has being in a smaller sized company changed your perception of the dance world altogether?

Allister: It showed me how important everyone is, but at the same time how replaceable they are, and mostly how hard it is on dancers (psychologically and physically) to depend on annual contracts.

Most ballet companies offer only one-year contracts that can or cannot be renewed, which I find really hard coming from a different background. I think it impacts the dancers a lot in how they behave, where they feel constant judgment—as a dancer but a person too. There is a real paradox between asking dancers to be experienced, outgoing, and mature on stage when the rules set forth by the ballet industry demand and pressure you to feel like a child in school: trying to appease to the authority and scared to get punished if you disappoint in any way. We often miss a genuine connection and authenticity in our work relationships. In a big company when one gets injured, other dancers can jump in quickly, and it creates new opportunities without jeopardizing the shows. Whereas a smaller sized company doesn't have that luxury: they need everyone, and it's probably one of the reasons why dancers feel more pressure in case of an injury.

Paris Opera didn't depend on donors or sponsors for a long time, and it wasn't a reality I was aware of in our industry until I joined RNZB. Smaller sized companies depend on that system in order to sustain the company. It helped me learn about all the roles of a dancer—not just on stage, but also on how to help promote the organization in other ways. I don't think many dancers realize how helpful it is to develop valuable skills in other areas such as communication, politics, sometimes marketing, and so on. By being a principal dancer (no matter the size of the company), you learn the responsibility of representing your organization, and about being a role model for other dancers.

Photo by Jeremy Brick

Can you share more about how you were able to negotiate a choreographic debut into your contract with RNZB, and the importance of adding choreography to your resume? And, details about the new piece!

Allister: When I was offered the contract at RNZB, choreographing was one of the things I spoke to the artistic director Patricia Barker about. I had mentioned that I was also a teacher and a choreographer and that I would love the opportunity to use these skills in New Zealand—as I was doing so in Paris. I had read before auditioning about a choreographic competition held within the company, and I was very interested in this opportunity to work with dancers, especially ones with different backgrounds than I was used to working with. When I joined the company we spoke about it again, and Patricia asked me to send her my previous works. She said that I had a nice choreographic voice and that they would make sure to find me a spot to develop it in the future.

The 2020 season was dedicated exclusively to female choreographers, but because of

Covid-19 the project was put on hold. Facing the unknown reality around whether to perform live in theatres or not, Patricia talked about the possibility of creating new works with our resident choreographers and house choreographers—like me. When we finally returned back to the studios after lockdown, our live performances had been pushed to the end of August, 4 months later. To keep everyone busy, and to take advantage of the situation, Patricia granted 5 of us the opportunity to choreograph on the company for a "RAW" program to be showcased 4 times at the beginning of July with an intimate audience of 72 people at our Dance Center.

Adding choreography to my resume was not the point. It was to grasp any opportunity to express myself through the art form, my ability, and to get out of my comfort zone. I hate it when people put you in a box. Too often, I get the feeling that we need to label people to understand them. It means you can't be a dancer, a musician, a singer, a comedian, and a choreographer all at once. Society wants us to be only one of those things or two max, regardless if you can do them all.

I have always enjoyed choreographing but was not sure whether I had found my voice and style. I have always created by following my ideas with a sense of aesthetics, musicality, and theatricality as of late. The opportunity to create a new piece for RNZB came up suddenly after lockdown. I received a text on a Monday evening asking me if I could create something, and to start the process by the end of the week. I had to come up with all the ideas that night and share my plan the next morning.

My piece is titled "Intersection" because for me it is the reflection of the crossroad we are currently at, not just globally but also on a personal level. Our generation is facing a new kind of trauma with the pandemic, and the lockdown forced us into some loneliness and introspection. It awakened some activism I already had within me, and a strong will to try to make a change with every opportunity I was going to be given. I have 10 dancers in my piece: 2 men and 8 women evolving in a neoclassical/contemporary style of dance to Schubert's beautiful "Death and The Maiden", the "Andante con moto". I started the process inspired by some energy work (yoga/Reiki-universal life energy) and created a duet for my main couple that I taught to the group to make gender-neutral duets. It is used slowly at the beginning of the piece and then faster later with social distancing for the main couple at the end, matched with some repetitive patterns in the music.

I recently completed a Reiki course online and decided to transform 5 of the healing symbols into dance material for the ensemble sections. I also have a solo echoing the incapacity of voicing opinions, and I made breathing and screams part of the work as an emotional release, but to also bring a bit of discomfort similar to what I felt when I spoke up about diversity and inclusion recently. We are so lucky to be able to dance together and perform in front of an audience while the pandemic is still very active. I wanted my piece to be human and about how special it is to connect and dance together. I included a Maori reference at the end with the traditional "Hongi" where the "ha" (breath of life) is exchanged in a symbolic show of unity. My time in New Zealand continues to change many things for me on a personal level, and having a respectful reference in this piece seemed like the right thing to do.

As a pioneering figure in the industry, what are the changes you hope to see from the dance community in paving the way for more Allister Madins to come?

Photo Rünno Lahesoo

Allister: I would like the dance community to be a true reflection of our society. Not just by being more diverse and inclusive, but in the process of dance-making. We need to show universal love on stage, same-gender love, and transgender love. We need to push the boundaries of what we think ballet should be about, and make it lead the way to help change mindsets while still preserving tradition. A balance needs to found between the preservation of classical ballet, like that when you go to a museum, but we also need to grow apart from it to never settle on what dance should mean. Life is constantly changing around us, generations are evolving, and our art has to reflect that. We have to reflect all the ethnicities, all the genders, non-genders, transgenders, and all forms of love.

Matthew Bourne did a Swanlake where the lead is a man. In most classical traditional ballets the savior is the male dancer and there is a heterosexual love story. We need females to be the saviors too to rescue men or women. Why not create a ballet where children are the heroes that help improve the deficient mindset of grown-ups? If we want the next generation to be more diverse, inclusive, open-minded, better, and respectful, then we have to familiarize them with those topics. We need to normalize everything. "Love is love" on stage is a big part of that. We need to speak up through our art.

We also have to improve the process of career transition and how we treat and support injured dancers. I would love ballet to be (at times) less of a superficial trend for social media, and more of a wonderful resource to lead the way in bringing comfort and support to people's lives. I hope for a more connected ballet world that is more respectful and caring on every level. A world where having opinions is valued, where speaking up for the right things is not misinterpreted or met with judgment.

Q: Can you describe a pivotal point in your career?

Connect with Allister via

Instagram: @allmadin

YouTube: Allister Madin

LinkedIn: Allister Madin