With the goal of becoming a dancer clear in her mind from a very young age, Alice Topp stepped into her first pair of ballet shoes at just four, beginning lessons at the local school in home town Bendigo. Fast forward a decade and, with her talent obvious and drive unwavering, Topp farewelled central Victoria for the bright lights of Melbourne and a year at Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, before being accepted into four years of rigorous classical training at the Ballet Theatre of Victoria. Her first professional stint was across the ditch with the Royal New Zealand Ballet at only 19, before a dream appointment to The Australian Ballet, where she has spent the past 13 years as part of the company. Following her passion for dance-making, Topp was named the Ballet’s newest resident choreographer in late 2018. Her second main-stage work for the company, the acclaimed Aurum, is currently being performed at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Verve program.
INSTYLE: “Becoming a ballerina” is the stuff of many a little girl’s fantasy. How did it feel to actually make it?
ALICE TOPP: It was a mixture of thrill and wonder. Thinking about it now, it seems quite surreal. When I received my first contract, it was a short three-month trial and I never knew if I’d make it beyond that time. It’s a competitive industry and there are factors like injuries that impact your career. I remember feeling so grateful to have the opportunity to be able to do what I love every day, and I still very much feel that way.
Was there ever a backup plan?
There were times where I wondered whether I had the skill and tenacity to make it as a dancer, but my passion never wavered or diminished. Even when it looked uncertain, I never gave up on the dream.
What does a regular day look like for you?
[It] starts with Pilates from 9 to 10.30am. We then start daily class which runs for an hour and a half before commencing rehearsals for the upcoming season. We rehearse all day—with a lunch break [at] 2.30pm—until 6.30pm. If we’re in a performance period, the hours shift somewhat and we finish [earlier], so we can have a break before heading into the theatre to prepare for the evening show that kicks off around 5.30pm. It’s usually [after] 10 when we leave the theatre at night to head home for some much-needed R & R. Then it all begins again the next day.
And aside from your crazy schedule as a dancer, you’re also a choreographer, which is hugely competitive to break into...
My break came about by chance, and with great encouragement from The Australian Ballet’s musical director and chief conductor of Orchestra Victoria, Nicolette Fraillon. I hadn’t previously considered choreographing until the opportunity presented itself after a colleague pulled out of Bodytorque, The Australian Ballet’s choreographic platform for emerging artists. The company was looking for a female replacement, so Nicolette suggested I take up the opportunity and after some consideration, I decided to throw myself at the new experience.
How did it feel to become the Ballet’s first female choreographer in so long?
Exhilarating! Since falling in love with the creative process of choreographing, I allowed myself to dwell on the possibility I may continue to get further opportunities to develop my voice and dance vocabulary. I felt so fortunate to be given the chance to create my first one-act work with the company and hoped it might light a path for other females to step up and take the chance, too.
In your opinion, why is choreography so male-dominated?
There are many contributing factors. I think women in ballet are generally busier. Most productions require [them] to be on stage every night until the final curtain drops. When you think about the content of many works—24 “swans” in Swan Lake; a corps of “shades” in La Bayadère and Giselle—a lot of those demanding scenes require the women to be identical and uniform. There’s not a lot of room for interpretation, if any. In a way, we are generally not trained to cultivate our own ideas, opinions and vision. I also think men are granted more leeway when it comes to the spirit they bring to the job. A man’s attitude can be passed off as “charismatic” whereas a strong woman can be seen as having a “bad attitude” if they display [the same] behaviour.
Your latest work, Aurum, is being performed at Australia’s most famous venue. How does that feel?
It’s an absolute thrill and honour. I’ve had the great privilege of dancing on stage at the Sydney Opera House for 13 years and its incredible to now have my work showcased at such an iconic theatre
Any self-care secrets?
Get enough sleep, be kind to yourself and keep breathing; learning to treat myself with the same level of care and respect I would show another. It sounds silly, but it’s hard to do— we are always our own worst critics.
Finally, what are your words to live by?
Dare greatly and demand the impossible.