A day in the life: The Australian Ballet’s Alice Topp
It's a windy spring day when I sit down for "coffee" (Ok, sparkling water and tea) with ballet dancer/choreographer Alice Topp. Petite, graceful and impressively articulate, Alice's eyes light up at the mere mention of anything related to dance, choreography, music or art. Because despite everything we know about ballet; its en pointe physicality and toll on the body, we forget that it's one of the most expressive and creative art forms around. (For those that can master its many techniques, at least.) And, as you'd expect from a dancer who has been with The Australian Ballet for over a decade, Alice Topp's lives and breathess dance.
In the midst of a life changing and creatively bold career transition, read on as Yeong Sassall chats to Alice about moving from dance to choreography, hanging up her ballet slippers and what's next for 2018.
So I know the 2018 Australian Ballet program was just launched, but you've got some very exciting news to share with that...
Yeah. Well, I've done four Bodytorque works for the company, and then one main stage, which is a 10 minute piece, but next year will be my first proper main stage piece with the company [Verve]. lt will be a 20-25 minute work, which I'm really excited about.
Is choreography something you've always wanted to move into? Or did it just evolve?
It has just evolved. I've been dancing with the company for 11 years. And it was about my third year in the company when I got asked to do Bodytorque and since then, I've discovered that it's my passion and definitely something I want to pursue.
You've been dancing since you were four? Is dancing in your family or anything like that?
Yeah it's crazy. It's funny because it's not unusual. Most of the dancers in the company started at a really young age. My mum did a spot of dancing when she was younger so it was something I was around. I guess as a kid I was pretty hyperactive and it was a way for me to express myself. I was always quite creative and loved painting and writing. So I think that was something I could really pour myself into.
Did you ever have this moment of, 'I don't know if that's what I want to do'?
I did have a couple of moments, actually. I went full-time when I was 13, which is a huge thing but it's not uncommon, again. It's something that we all do. I'm from country and regional Victoria and I moved to Melbourne and lived away from home in a hotel. I found it really challenging but I think that was the point where it could've gone either way. As much as I was really homesick and found it really difficult, it made me realise it was something that I really wanted, so I was willing to endure that. I ended up commuting for four years from Bendigo - four hours a day, two there and two back. Dedication!
There were two other points that I thought I might not continue doing this. Initially I didn't get a contract with the Australian Ballet and I went to New Zealand Ballet. I was really really fortunate to get a job, but then when I was in New Zealand, I broke my foot and so I found myself in a position of being unemployed. [Ballet] is one of those things that throws a lot at you but the passion has always been there. It's always been the driving force; the thing that's fuelled me every time I've had an obstacle or a hurdle and I've always come back to what it I love about it.
It's nice that you continue have passion for what you do, because I think for some people, it can sometimes run out?
For me, [my career] has only ever really amplified my love of [ballet], which is something that's really special. It's something that's grown with me. I see different things than I would've seen 15 years ago when I started my professional career. You go through life and things shift and change, but the depth and what I get out of my dancing, it's almost more fulfilling and more rewarding, especially knowing I got my first job when I was 19 and I'm 33 now. You sort of don't know how long you're going do it for, so every moment is so precious. But I've seen all my friends go through different experiences.
But choreography is something new. It's a whole other branch of the art form that I can dive into and explore. In saying that, it's a different way of expressing myself than when I'm a dancer so it's got this whole other leg. I look at the art form in many different ways: through music, design, costuming, choreographic movement and through other people. So I'm really excited about that new avenue.
You sort of don't know how long you're going do it for, so every moment is so precious
You've also done some choreography work for musicians like Megan Washington and Ben Folds [for their music videos]. Has that been an interesting experience as well?
Absolutely. Usually when I've choreographed, I've chosen the music and the concept and done that but to be able to try and capture someone else's vision and their lyrics and translate that into the body, and into movement and physicality has been something that's been such a challenge and so exciting for me and to try. To tap into what they were feeling and thinking when they wrote a song or what they felt - to try and realise that in a different format has been a really beautiful and rewarding exchange.
As you're transitioning from dancing to choreography, has your daily routine changed?
It's really hard because at the moment, I'm sort of walking both lines, if you will. My job is still a dancer in the company so I'm still doing 180 shows a year but the choreographic endeavours that I'm taking on and the projects and the seasons have definitely divided my time a little. It's been quite a juggle up until now.
How long are your days? What time do they start and what time do they finish?
They vary at the moment. We're doing Alice in Wonderland and last week we had an 8-show week so it was basically 10 in the morning to 10 at night, but we have a couple of hours in the afternoon. My brain is always ticking over creatively. I'm looking at things differently now, but as a dancer everything is really quite physical. Next year will be a mix of the two but hopefully if I can get the balance right, then both things will be invested equally. It is a juggle but there will be a point where I won't be able to dance any longer...
How old is that usually for a dancer?
It can vary. Sometime injury has an impact and for women, sometimes you want to start families and that kind of thing, but it really depends. It's an individual journey. For me, being in the corps means you're pretty much on for every show. I feel like I'm looking at a couple more years and that will probably be it.
Do you feel like you'd be satisfied, or would it be really hard to sort of just hang up everything?
Everybody gets to that point where they have to hang up their passions and I think it's never going to be easy. It's something you've done your whole life, so your identity really intertwines with that and I'm sure I'll get to the point where I find it difficult to match the adrenaline and satisfaction reward from doing something emotionally and physically. For me, choreography is something that is just my absolute passion and if I can invest those feelings and energies into that, I don't think I will miss the dancing as much.
I'm always really intrigued to know how much you guys train. How many hours a day would you train?
It's funny when I think about it because it sounds mad, but when were in performance mode we will have class from 11 and rehearse until 3. We'll start getting ready for the show at about 5-5:30 and then finish at 10:30 at night. But then also we do things to supplement that so we'll do Pilates or gym work in the morning, so it could be up to roughly 8, 10, 12 hours.
That's a long time being on your feet and being physical.
Yeah and the thing is, it can vary depending on the repertoire. Some seasons I've done, it's a three hour ballet and I might be involved for three minutes at the end of the night but some ballets I'm on for three hours nonstop. But when you're not that busy, you have to supplement it to keep your fitness up and you've got to keep up your injury prevention.
How do you keep your energy up? What does your diet consist of?
It takes a lot of preparation and it's more about finding time to look after yourself because there's not a lot of recovery time. There's not much time to get home and cook a meal and you just want to have a shower and get to bed, so if you can cook meals on a Sunday or pre-plan then it's a lot better. Quite often I'm pretty lazy and it's just whatever meal I can get... Uber Eats has been very popular [laughs].
Alice Topp will choreograph one part of the 2018 Melbourne show Verve in June next year. For the full rundown of the 2018 season (which includes highlights like Spartacus, The Merry Widow, Murphy, Cinderella and Giselle), head to australianballet.com.au
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