Since nervously choreographing her first ballet three years into her role as a dancer with the Australian Ballet, Alice Topp has fallen in love with the freedom and catharsis of the creative process. Her latest work interrogates the nuances and utility of memory.
When Alice Topp was asked to choreograph a ballet three years into her dream role as a main dancer with the Australian Ballet, the coryphée dancer figured she had nothing to lose. While she was intrigued by the idea of wearing the shoe on the other foot, what she discovered surpassed her wildest expectations.
“I didn’t know where to start and I mucked around a bit in the studio trying to come up with steps and kept it simple and worked with two beautiful dancers, both friends. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” says the 33-year-old from country Victoria, crediting musical director Nicolette Fraillon with the opportunity. “I’m not sure what it was that she saw in me, but I’m very grateful because I didn’t see it in myself,” she says.
As it turns out, Topp’s debut work was nominated for an Australian Dance Award for outstanding choreography. But it wasn’t the accolades that seduced the dancer into taking on the unthinkably hectic challenge of juggling dancing 180 shows per year and choreographing. Rather, the creative process revealed a side of the dancer she didn’t know – despite the worldliness and determination evidenced and engendered by travelling Europe in search of a break before she landed the Australian Ballet role.
“I’d never had some sort of story, never had a vision I thought I needed to share, but in creating something that felt really true and honest, I kind of found a voice,” she says. “The reviews were very supportive and everybody really responded to the movement as well as the vocabulary we’d created; that was really thrilling as well as eye-opening,” Topp says – careful not to play favourites between her parallel roles.
“It’s not that I don’t feel I have value in a corps de ballet capacity, but it’s not always as creative as choreographing. In the corps you could be one of 24 swans and it’s all about formations and patterns and line and being identical, so to then have the freedom to express yourself openly and freely and explore and experiment and take risks…it’s become a kind of therapy for me, because it’s what I pour myself into when I can’t make sense of the world. It’s a place where you can just be completely free in your work, and get absorbed in your work.”
That’s not to say Topp’s work is declaratively existential, nor introspective.
“Inspiration for me comes from so many sources, it can come from watching films or reading books or walking in a garden or taking a trip overseas, it can come from every different source or art form – a painting, illustration, a poem,” she says.
Topp credits the privilege of regular travel with taking her to places she wouldn’t otherwise have seen. But as she relays the narrative of visits to even well-worn destinations – Tokyo was among her favourite places to dance and to visit – you get the sense that it isn’t the places themselves that inspire her, but the way she sees and experiences them.
“We went overseas recently and were standing outside an amazing landmark and I find it so funny that now you get a photo, you’ve been there and that’s all you need – but to be able to sit in a sacred space and go ‘Wow, how would they have built this’, and ‘I wonder what storms this has weathered?’ and ‘What was going on in their heads?’ and taking in the energy of the place – that’s thrilling,” she says. “Musicians might look at it and hear or feel a note or painters might go off and make a picture, and writers might want to say these words.” But she wasn’t always so mindful. In fact, the creative process itself seems to have prompted a fundamental shift in Topp’s ontological perspective. “I’ve had the opportunity to be able to be more mindful of these experiences and I’d like to think I’ve slowed down; I definitely take more time to consider things and ask questions,” she says.
Like many artists, Topp is insatiably curious about the human condition.
“My main inspiration is people – people’s stories and the things people have endured as well as their history and their scars and how they came to be who they are is the thing that really inspires me more than anything,” she says.
“I absolutely love doing the big ballets and their stories, but being able to create work that feels really relevant and relative to me is quite emotionally fuelled. It’s drawing on stories that are to me current and reflect things that I’ve felt or know other people have felt or I’ve seen or experienced – I really like creating movement that reflects that.” For Topp, there is nothing quite like seeing a story come to life with various synchronistic elements from music to designs and costuming “woven into the fabric of the piece”.
While she is effectively dressing characters with her creativity, paradoxically, the process has stripped the ballerina of the swaths that may become a kind of second skin during a decade in the nation’s most esteemed ballet company.
“For me, choreographing can be more vulnerable than when you’re dancing, because when you dance, you’re representing someone else’s ideas and material, but with choreography, you have no control over any of it, so it’s being able to hand that over to someone else. This is a piece of you – you feel more vulnerable, it’s your thoughts, heart, soul and you’re putting it out there to the world for people to tear down and hate, or to enjoy and you will have times when people will be divided – you’ll get bad reviews and good ones. I feel incredibly vulnerable, but going into the process with absolute openness and open-heartedness and no expectations has been a massive thing for me,” Topp says.
“With choreography, you can’t study it, you can’t say ‘great, I’ve got a degree now’ and get a job – you just have to hope you can continue to develop your craft and skills and that people respond to your work and that companies commission your work,” she says.
Topp has already choreographed for the Queensland Ballet, been commissioned for music videos for Megan Washington, Ben Folds and Esther Hannaford, and collaborated on a video with Orchestra Victoria. “It’s about challenging myself and putting things in different spaces and meeting with new people and sharing the work on broad scale,” she says.
The inevitable tête-à-tête with her inner self has also revealed the importance of authenticity and futility of trying to fit in or please other people at the expense of what feels true – personally, creatively and ultimately, commercially. “You want it to be great, but if you go in not taking risks and are trying to do what people like, you’re not being true and that can kill creativity,” Topp says, describing the idiosyncrasies of the creative process and her tactics for managing the self-doubt for which artists are notorious.
I’m not sure what it was that she saw in me but I’m very grateful because I didn’t see it myself.
“There are times when you come up with three minutes of material in three hours, which is good, and sometimes it’s 30 seconds’ worth, like writers’ block, but you can’t get frustrated with yourself because it’s part of the process. You have to trust the flow of it, not get frustrated, and know that those 30 seconds might be the best of the ballet anyway,” she says, conceding that this career chapter has emphasised her deep fear of failure. “You’ve got to be okay with when you get stuck, shaking the etch-a-sketch board and regrouping and starting again – with a new idea. The more fun I have in the studio, the more relaxed I am, the more productive we are.” Of course, the learnings and sense of growing self-acceptance gleaned during what may be described as a kind of self-courtship translate beyond the studio and permeate her relationships with life and other people. “I think it’s given me the ability to be able to relax a little bit more and go with the flow of things, just in terms of looking at life. It’s not that I didn’t see or experience before, but now I feel like I look at things differently. I’m always looking for inspiration, but now I’m always so much more fascinated by how other people see things and interpret things,” Topp says.
This curious compassion is evident in Topp’s latest work, the one-act Little Atlas.
“Little Atlas, the piece I’m doing in the Symphony in C season, is loosely based around the notion of memory and our desire to recreate or unmake memories – about our attachment to memories and the desire to be back in a certain place or time we associate with feeling wonderful or happy or in love. On the flipside, to be able to erase memories that are really painful or hurtful memories can be a blessing and burden,” she says, drifting into a softer tone and slower cadence that feels as though she is riding the current of her own recollections. “When I was creating it a couple of years ago, my mum was in intensive care for a short term because she got a virus that caused swelling on the brain. She lost some of her memory, which made me redefine what memory was to me,” Topp says.
Having learned how integral her mother and father’s support of an unlikely childhood dream were to Topp’s tenacity and perseverance – and to what she effusively deems the incredible fortune of being in the position she is now – one can’t help wonder whether it was terrifying to think that their shared journey may be wiped from her mother’s mind.
“With some things she can’t remember, it’s a blessing, whereas with some things she’ll get really upset that she can’t remember, like where their honeymoon was – it’s just vanished.”
I’d never had some sort of story, never had a vision I thought I needed to share, but in creating something that felt really true and honest I kind of found a voice.
Considering that autobiographical memory is widely held to be integral to identity, traversing her own memory seems to have affirmed the strength that carried Topp through challenges that might deter others. Just two years into a dream opportunity with the New Zealand Ballet, Topp broke her ankle during rehearsal and lost her position. She also worked two jobs to pay for ballet school in the hope of gaining an edge in a fiercely competitive field. “With certain memories I know I have of heartbreak, sometimes I’d love to be able to forget that happened so I could go and love again freely, but then sometimes you long to be back in that certain place,” she says. “I think the theme of memory is a good prompt to appreciate the power of being present and the ability to be present – because we’ve each got such strong history and scars that we carry and that do make us who we are today. Everybody has their own little roadmap of memories that they carry around, I guess.” Creating new memories with three best friends who had shared more than a decade in the Australian Ballet and wished to dance together before two of the trio retired will, Topp predicts, be indelibly etched in her autobiography. “We’ve shared so much together, so to be able to create a piece about their memories and for them to be able to inject themselves into the work when they know each other so well, it took on its own energy,” she says.
“I want people to walk away feeling something, whether it’s prompted them to reflect on themselves and their own stories and histories, or people and places, or whether it just enables them to escape from their lives for a moment because they’re lost in a different world.”