ON GENDER POLITICS IN DANCE
“There have been many times where it would have been easier to step away from the art form, but my love for dance has always been a beacon of light”
In a discipline where women are under-represented, Alice Topp shines bright. Appointed a resident choreographer at the Australian Ballet in 2018, she writes about finding the confidence to take on a new career challenge.
Inever saw myself becoming a choreographer. I thought it must be something you’d always dreamed of doing, a calling, and that there’d be some sort of lightning-bolt strike of inspiration that led you to your destined choreographic path. But it wasn’t like that for me. The opportunity came about when the only woman creating for the Australian Ballet’s choreographic season Bodytorque withdrew to go on maternity leave. It had been a few years since a woman had choreographed for the program and the conversation about the lack of female choreographers had become a popular discussion worldwide. Nicolette Fraillon, the company’s music director, felt I would be a good replacement. I’m not quite sure what it was she saw in me, but I’m forever grateful. She prompted our artistic director David McAllister to ask me if I’d be interested in filling the gap in the program.
I had a weekend to make a decision, but as intimidating as it was to accept the challenge without any notion of what I was doing or how to go about it,
I had watched many freelance friends fight for funding, space and a platform just like the opportunity that had landed in my lap, so I felt it was something I should have a crack at. It was easier not to place too much pressure on myself at first – I was a last-minute wild card with nothing to lose. All the other choreographers were male principal dancers with previous choreographic experience and I was a third-year corps de ballet dancer with no clue what I was doing! I felt there was no expectation, so I couldn’t really fail.
The pressure began after that, when the reviews and audience response were positive and expectations manifested. It was hard to back that up, feeling the pressure to prove it wasn’t a fluke or a onehit wonder. That’s when I found I really had to put the blinkers on to block out the noise that interferes with the creative process. I had to get good at self-talking, and that is a lifelong active practice for me.
Confidence is an elusive notion. It’s not something you’re just born with or can buy in a jar. Usually it comes from building positive experiences and reinforcing them. Taking a risk is scary, and the fear of failing is always at play, but often once you have a go at something new and create a positive experience, you learn and develop with each new opportunity, and the confidence building blocks grow. One helpful tool I’ve learned is to take everything in bite-sized pieces. When juggling both hats, being both a coryphée dancer and resident choreographer in the company, it can get overwhelming if I try to do everything at once, and I’ve found it really important to take it slice by slice, focus on being present and finding joy in the moment, because being stressed doesn’t buy you more time.
In my 13 years as a dancer with the Australian Ballet, I’d never had the opportunity to work with a female choreographer. But gender has never played a part in my story. Of course, there have been times where I’ve had to deal with opinions and heat with statements like: ‘She’s only getting that opportunity because she’s a woman and there’s a lack of female choreographers.’ The shortage of female choreographers has been well documented, but when I’m in the studio, I am an artist. Gender does not come into it. I don’t want to be known as a good female choreographer. I want to be known as a good choreographer, not because I’m female, but because my work is good.
“Don’t be afraid to take up space.” It was a piece of advice a dear friend gave me and has been a mantra of mine ever since. Learning to trust my own artistic voice, vision and process has been a big learning curve for me. I want to do everything to champion young female choreographers, because you may not always have female creative leaders to look up to and it’s important to know that just because there isn’t a path there doesn’t mean you can’t pave one for yourself.
It hasn’t always been a smooth journey. There’s been many times where I’ve doubted whether I had a future in the arts industry in any capacity. My dancing days started when I left Bendigo in regional Victoria at the age of 13, as I was accepted into the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, which seemed like a natural thing for me to do at the time (but for my parents, I imagine many hours of deep consideration and deliberation). It was homesick-inducingly tough and after a year of not fitting in, I moved to a full-time classical dance institution in Melbourne and commuted for four years, spending the train trips studying with distance education. At 19, I received my first contract, with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, only to lose my job two years later due to injury. With my foot barely healed, I took myself to Europe to embark on the cattle-call audition circuit, only to return unemployed after 15 auditions. I started working in a pub and an ice-creamery to be able to pay for dance classes. After a stint with pneumonia and on the cusp of hanging up the pointe shoes, I auditioned for the Australian Ballet’s education pilot program. I spent three months as a dance educator, teaching and performing for regional schools in Victoria before receiving a contract with the company as a dancer. There have been many times where it would have been easier to step away from the art form, but my love for dance has always been a beacon of light, and determination, persistence and trusting my gut has always served me when things have been rocky.
I’ve been fortunate to have great support from friends, family, colleagues and collaborators. Being given the opportunity to create
and be surrounded by such a strong team of creative associates has been crucial in being able to develop in this field of the art form.
Change in the industry is being actioned, slowly, but it’s important to continue the discussion because there is a significant imbalance in male and female choreographic works being presented and it’s important that the creative conversation is equal. If only one side of the conversation is being heard, not all viewpoints are being represented, so it is vital that the female choreographic voice grows, is being fostered, nurtured and that there are more opportunities created for women. Everyone has a different way of presenting ideas, stories and questions and it’s important there is a greater injection of female voices so we can have a balance in artistic conversation.