Two recent books

  • David McAllister (with Amanda Dunn), Soar. A life freed by dance (Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2020)
  • Mary Li, Mary’s last dance (Penguin Australia, 2020)

When faced with two dance books recently published in Australia, one by David McAllister and one by Mary Li, my first reaction was, are they memoirs or autobiographies and what is the difference? I didn’t really know the difference until a bit of online searching suggested that a memoir is generally focused on a particular aspect of the author’s life, whereas an autobiography covers an entire life: ‘Although it’s subjective, [an autobiography] primarily focuses on facts – the who-what-when-where-why-how of [an author’s] entire timeline.’ Both books, I concluded are memoirs. Soar focuses on McAllister’s sexuality, Mary’s last dance on Li’s first daughter, Sophie, and how Li managed Sophie’s profound deafness. Both of course, also give us other information about the life and career of two significant figures in the Australian dance world, but a particular focus is definitely there.

The writing in Mary’s last dance is forthright. We are left in no doubt about Li’s stand on pretty much everything she writes about. The early part, in which we learn of her family background as Mary McKendry, is both entertaining and informative, as are the stories about her professional career, her meeting with her husband Li Cunxin, and their subsequent life together. But it is the focus on managing Sophie’s deafness that is compelling, giving an insight into the concerns that plagued Li as she and her husband sought to make life for Sophie a comfortable and fruitful one. How the situation developed as Sophie took control of her own life is great reading. This book speeds along and constantly touches the heart.

Soar has a quite different quality. There are some lovely anecdotes and some interesting comments by McAllister about his various engagements around the world. The Prologue, ‘Ballet boy lost’, comes with a jolt and sets the scene for McAllister’s search to understand his sexual identity and find peace with himself, which he says in the final chapter he thinks he has achieved. And the image of McAllister on the back cover by Lisa Tomasetti is brilliant. But the tone of the book is somewhat shy and retiring and there seems to be an overriding concern to speak kindly of those who have crossed his path. McAllister has been a popular artistic director, as much as anything for his kind and generous nature.

Two memoirs. Both easy reads. Two very different personalities revealed.

Michelle Potter, 26 November 2020

Here is where I enjoyed a discussion of memoir versus autobiography.