Set in mo­tion

A long-time lead dancer in the Aus­tralian Bal­let, Alice Topp’s tal­ent as a chore­og­ra­pher and cos­tume de­signer is now tak­ing stage cen­tre. By Jane Al­bert.


You wouldn’t know it to watch her on stage at the Syd­ney Opera House, in her pale pink pointe shoes, tights and tutu, but bal­le­rina Alice Topp has a tat­too of a tiny blue­bird on her right foot. Many years ago, a frac­ture in that foot re­sulted in her los­ing her con­tract with Royal New Zealand Bal­let, a loss that led to a se­ries of hur­dles she fought hard to over­come. Over­come them she did, ul­ti­mately land­ing a cov­eted po­si­tion at the Aus­tralian Bal­let, where she has en­joyed a suc­cess­ful 11-year ca­reer danc­ing in Aus­tralia and abroad in pro­duc­tions by some of the world’s most re­spected chore­og­ra­phers. The blue­bird trav­els with her, a con­stant re­minder that the cracks in our past make us stronger and shape who we be­come.

It is a mantra that guides her and one that has in­spired her great­est chal­lenge to date. A bud­ding chore­og­ra­pher, Topp is pre­par­ing for the in­ter­na­tional de­but of her first main­stage com­mis­sioned by the Aus­tralian Bal­let. Ti­tled Au­rum (Latin for ‘gold’), it is a con­tem­po­rary piece for 12 dancers that pays homage to kintsugi, the Ja­panese art of re­pair­ing bro­ken ce­ram­ics with gold or sil­ver lac­quer to il­lu­mi­nate, rather than dis­guise the frac­tures, of­ten cre­at­ing an ob­ject more beau­ti­ful than its orig­i­nal.

What makes Au­rum par­tic­u­larly com­pelling is that it’s the first work in 15 years to be chore­ographed by a fe­male mem­ber of the Aus­tralian Bal­let. The last was Meryl Tankard’s Wild Swans in 2003. Rather than be­ing in­tim­i­dated, Topp is fac­ing the chal­lenge with grace and de­ter­mi­na­tion. “I feel very ex­cited to be able to stand up and say it’s some­thing I think does need to change,” she says. “But I want my work to be known for be­ing strong be­cause the work is good, not be­cause I’m fe­male.”

Topp is a breath of fresh air, a lively and en­gag­ing con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist whose in­ter­ests and ideas stem from fash­ion, mu­sic, books, art to the AFL and cricket, sports she fol­lows with her fa­ther. Her cir­cle of friends takes in de­signer Toni Mat­icevski and mu­si­cian Ben Folds (whose mu­sic video Ca­pa­ble of Any­thing she chore­ographed in 2017), while her taste in mu­sic ranges from jazz to punk and rock; the po­ems of Patti Smith are on her bed­side ta­ble. But through­out her life bal­let has re­mained a con­stant.

Topp grew up in the Vic­to­rian town of Bendigo and be­gan danc­ing at the age of two, a stu­dent at her mother’s small dance school. By four she drifted into gymnastics, net­ball and horse-rid­ing, a true coun­try girl, but bi­en­nial trips to see the Aus­tralian Bal­let School’s Dancers Com­pany per­form Graeme Mur­phy’s Nutcracker or Stephen Baynes’s 1914 en­sured bal­let was never far away, and at eight she be­gan danc­ing again. When she was of­fered a spot at the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts Sec­ondary School, she begged her par­ents to let her go, leav­ing home for Mel­bourne aged 13, where she lived in the school’s hos­tel. It was a con­sid­er­able sac­ri­fice for her school­teacher fa­ther and re­tail-worker mother and, as it turned out, a tough year for Topp her­self, who suf­fered over­whelm­ing home­sick­ness. “It made me re­alise how much I loved dance, if I was will­ing to en­dure how hor­ri­ble I felt most of the time,” she says, laugh­ing.

She went on to full-time clas­si­cal train­ing at Bal­let Theatre of Victoria, opt­ing for a four-hour daily com­mute to Bendigo and study­ing by cor­re­spon­dence; be­fore land­ing a po­si­tion at Royal New Zealand Bal­let. When her con­tract wasn’t re­newed, she trav­elled over­seas and en­dured 15 un­suc­cess­ful au­di­tions for dance com­pa­nies – “it was like a slaugh­ter­house, so con­fronting, an ab­so­lute shock” – be­fore re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia and fi­nally gain­ing a po­si­tion with the Aus­tralian Bal­let in 2007. Chore­ograph­ing her own steps never oc­curred to her un­til the com­pany’s mu­sic di­rec­tor Ni­co­lette Frail­lon sug­gested she con­sider it, after watch­ing her re­hearse Di­ver­gence, a unique bal­let that al­lows for in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion.

Frail­lon knew what she was do­ing. Since then Topp has chore­ographed four suc­cess­ful works for the Aus­tralian Bal­let’s Body­torque pro­gram of ex­per­i­men­tal chore­og­ra­phy. Her most suc­cess­ful, Lit­tle At­las, re­ceived a sec­ond out­ing as part of the com­pany’s Symphony in C pro­gram in 2016. Mo­ti­vated by a cat­a­clysmic ill­ness that left her mother with se­vere mem­ory loss, it was praised for its abil­ity to de­pict com­plex, in­ter­est­ing and char­ac­ter­ful re­la­tion­ships. It is a topic Topp re­turns to time and again.

“A lot of my work is emo­tion­ally fu­elled,” she says. “You want peo­ple leav­ing the theatre feel­ing, think­ing, ques­tion­ing.” En­cour­aged by pre­vi­ous col­lab­o­ra­tions with Mat­icevski, and fash­ion de­sign­ers Geor­gia Laz­zaro and Crys­tal Dunn, she is de­sign­ing the cos­tumes her­self and again us­ing the mu­sic of Ital­ian com­poser and pi­anist Lu­dovico Ein­audi, per­formed live. Topp says it is a great priv­i­lege cre­at­ing for her fel­low dancers, friends she has grown up with and whose ex­tra­or­di­nary artistry and skill she hopes Au­rum will em­pha­sise.

Topp’s dream is to move from be­ing a dancer-chore­og­ra­pher to a full­time chore­og­ra­pher, but she is aware of the risks, par­tic­u­larly in a coun­try where suc­cess­ful fe­male chore­og­ra­phers are scarce.

“With­out putting pres­sure on my­self or the com­pany, I have spo­ken briefly with artis­tic di­rec­tor David McAl­lis­ter about be­com­ing the first fe­male res­i­dent chore­og­ra­pher. Per­son­ally, I think it’s time. This is the com­pany where I dis­cov­ered this path and I’ve very pas­sion­ate about cre­at­ing on this com­pany. We have such in­cred­i­ble dancers and artists.” Au­rum will be per­formed as part of the Aus­tralian Bal­let’s triple bill Verve at the Arts Cen­tre Mel­bourne, June 21– 30. Go to www.aus­tralian­bal­


Alice Topp wears a Rachel Gil­bert top, $499, and skirt, $1,999. Her own rings and slip­pers.

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