In Conversation With Alice Topp


A highly talented choreographer with The Australian Ballet Company, Bendigo-born Alice started dancing at the age of four. In 2007 after two years with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Alice joined The Australian Ballet dancing in a wide range of classical and contemporary repertoire. A passion for choreography saw her create four critically acclaimed works for the company’s Bodytorque seasons. In 2018 her work Aurum had its world premiere as part of the company’s Verve program and later that year she was appointed one of The Australian Ballet’s resident choreographers. She embodies equal parts strength and vulnerability and is undoubtedly a creative force to be reckoned with.  

 

You became a choreographer after dancing with The Australian Ballet for many years and have since been awarded the Helpmann Award for your work, Aurum. How did your move into choreography come about? It was actually a very chance moment where an opportunity presented itself and I took a risk not knowing exactly what I was doing! We have a program at The Australian Ballet fostering new choreographers and we hadn’t had many females participate in a long time. The one female in the program pulled out and our Musical Director Nicolette Fraillon suggested I replace her. Even though I’d never had any previous urge or “lightning bolt” moments of grand vision or desire to choreograph, I thought it was an incredible opportunity that I should just take a risk on. I was a wildcard with no expectations and there was nothing to lose! It turned out to be the most rewarding process and experience of my career and quickly became a journey I wanted to continue pursuing.

In 2018 you became The Australian Ballet Company’s first female choreographer in 15 years, how significant is that for you and for the ballet? It was a mammoth moment for me personally but also a significant moment for the company. It has been well documented in recent years that there are too few female choreographers in the world and having this opportunity was an important step the company took on the road to creating gender balance and making sure the voices being heard will become equal.

Personally, it had been a dream of mine to create a main-stage work for the company since premiering my first. I have never had the opportunity to work with a female choreographer in my 13 years as a dancer in the company, so to be the first female to create a piece in 15 years was a huge moment for me.

As a choreographer, how do you record your ideas when you are creating a new work? Sometimes I jot down stick figures and little written notes about ideas I want to explore when I hit the studio. But nowadays most of my work is documented on film. I like to record what we have created at the end of a rehearsal so that I can review the material at night. It informs me as we go along... I can see adjustments I might want to make and it helps me piece a bigger picture together like a jigsaw puzzle. 

Your work is both physical and mental, how do you balance being a dancer as well as a choreographer? It’s a juggling act. I have to be very disciplined with my time management. When I’m on stage, I need to be very present, focussed and in my body and not be distracted by ideas and my creation process. Similarly, when I’m choreographing I need to be very clear and focussed about the work we are creating and bring my whole mind and body into the studio.

What has been your career highlight so far? I’ve had the privilege of performing in a number of bucket-list dance pieces by world renowned choreographers. But my absolute career highlight has been having the opportunity to create my first one-act work “Aurum” and to have it performed at The Joyce Theater in New York. That was very much a big “pinch me” moment.

Do you ever get nervous before a performance? Absolutely. Nerves are totally natural and I’ve actually found it more nerve-wracking being on the other side of the curtain waiting for my work to premiere than when I’m out on stage! It’s all a healthy part of loving and caring deeply about what you do. It’s about harnessing that energy and using it and the breath so you can return to your body.

The ballet requires such incredible discipline, how do you let your hair down? I really enjoy spending time with family and friends and appreciating other interests. I love going to the theatre, to art galleries, the botanical gardens, riding my bike, travelling, going on day trips, seeing live music and watching films. Balance is so important for wellbeing and we get such little time away from work - just Sundays off during a season! So it’s crucial for me to create some mental space.

What would be your ultimate indulgence? A weekend where I don’t have to sew pointe shoes!!!! But quite honestly, a weekend getaway is magic. Quite often we head off on tour but it’s always a demanding touring schedule so when I get to travel leisurely, I love just pottering around and discovering little towns, eating at the local pub, long bushwalks, a bath and fluffy hotel robes.

Tell us something about being a ballet dancer, that would surprise us? Just because we can do ballet doesn’t always make us the best on a dance floor outside of work hours! I only know how best to daggy dance.  

If you could have dinner with any four people who would they be? I would choose Patti Smith, Bill Murray, David Sedaris and Wes Anderson.