Alice Topp’s Lucky Break

This episode is sponsored by MDM Dancewear

Today, I’m speaking with the Australian Ballet’s resident choreographer, Alice Topp. Alice was born and raised in Bendigo, a small town in regional Victoria. She started dancing at the age of four and was destined for a career as a ballerina. While Alice’s career at the Australian Ballet is widely known, what many don’t know is that Alice’s journey to the Australian Ballet wasn’t like most. She didn’t train at the Australian Ballet School. Instead, she did a stint at the Royal New Zealand Ballet company. She broke her foot, and then worked in a Melbourne pub to continue her training. Even more incredibly, Alice never imagined she’d be a choreographer.

In this wonderfully candid interview, Alice talks about her journey to becoming only the second female resident choreographer in the 60-year history of the Australian Ballet to now launching Project Animo, a huge creative and choreographic undertaking to bring the royalty of the Australian dance scene back to the stage.

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Transcript

Claudia Lawson: I guess, my first question is how does a girl from Bendigo become the resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet?

Alice Topp: She’s got to be mad. Oh, when you put it like that, I never had choreography as a dream. I really wanted to be a dancer. But I did do a little summer school in Bendigo once where we had to create our own dances and it terrified me. I just was so used to being instructed what to do and taught the steps. And I like to follow, not lead, that I just hadn’t exercised that part of my brain and it terrified me. I wanted to be perfect at it. But yeah, Bendigo. Bendigo to here.

CL: Okay. So let’s go right back to the beginning. Where did you start dancing?

AT: My mom did a little bit of dancing when she was younger. She was very talented but didn’t have the access and opportunities that we have now to really great training, that sensibility. And so my mom had a little dancing school when we were kids and just at a local hall.

AT: Yeah, a little local hall. Taught some local primary kids from Quarry Hill Primary School and family friends and that kind of thing. And she called it Movement to Music. It wasn’t classical training or anything. It was more just an appreciation of moving and expressing yourself.

CL: Wow.

AT: We had ribbons and parasols and costumes and—it was just dressing up. Absolutely. Yeah. And I wouldn’t have appreciated that at that time. I would have gone, “Nah, that’s not for me.” I loved moving my body to music and the freedom and the expression and just having fun. And I did that until I was about five or six and then my sister and I did horse riding and I returned to ballet when I was eight. And I did RAD from eight till I was about 10 or 11.

CL: Okay.

AT: And then I went full time at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School in Melbourne. I boarded it at Redcourt Hostel. I’m not sure if it’s still there in Armadale, and it was this beautiful, big old building and it housed people from year seven to 12 from VCASS and the Australian Ballet School.

CL: Wow. So what? You were just looking over your shoulder at all the other ballerinas that got into the Aussie ballet school?

AT: Yeah, oh, it was such a wonderful experience, but also an incredibly challenging time in my life when I look back. And, particularly now, that my sister has her niece and nephew, they’re nine and 11, and I was not much older and moved from Bendigo two hours away to a city. This is before mobile phones and all of that, and I’d be on a payphone every night to mum and dad terribly homesick, crying my little eyes out. I’d go home on weekends, but to do half a day of dance and a half a day of schooling at VCASS and it was a tough time, but nothing like a challenging time to really work out what it is you want. And-

CL: And so does VCASS take you through to what? The equivalent of the final year of high school?

AT: Yeah. So they go through until year 12, but I only did year eight. I ended up going full time at a school called Ballet Theater of Victoria. So my teacher who taught me in Bendigo moved to Melbourne and opened a full time school and it was full time classical school. And so as much as I loved VCASS, the experience of learning, tap and jazz and kinetic awareness and all of that. So half a day of dance and a half a day of schooling. You do ballet every day but then you do ballet and tap or ballet and jazz. And I was such a bun head. It was all classical. I was a shocker at everything but that.

 And also, again, it was a very difficult experience. I’d had a year in Bendigo at a high school and I was in seven F. So there were many forms and there were a lot of kids that I had, my group of friends, and I thought, “No. Just go to Melbourne. It’ll be great. I want to dance all day.” And I joined in year eight and there were only a handful of girls. I think the class had about 14 or 15 students. It wasn’t large.

CL: Oh, that’s so surprising. I actually would have thought VCASS would be hugely popular in terms of numbers.

AT: It wasn’t a very large class. And I joined where people had already formed their friendships. So I really felt like I didn’t fit in. And also I was a country bumpkin. I had my trackies on and my Blunnies and I didn’t wear any makeup. And I was Nigel, no friends. And they had their hair in a bun, their tight jeans, they’re city heels and their makeup on. And, oh, my gosh, I was a little ugly duckling—

CL: Oh, no.

AT: And it was the worst. It was the worst.

CL: And how through all of this and through what sounds like a really tricky time in your really early teens, your love for ballet remains. And it’s actually quite incredible really because a lot of people would think, “I’m out of here. I’m back to Bendigo, back to my friends. I’m going back to high school.”

AT: Yeah, well, look, there was something about knowing the sacrifice that my folks had made to give me that opportunity. They just wanted me to follow my dreams and to have the best chance at doing that. Again, I look back and I just want to give that little girl a hug because it was a really hard time, but I did it. At the end of that year we had our performance season and it was the first time I’d been on stage in years. And I had a little solo and I remember thinking, “All of that suffering was worth that moment I had on stage.” So I think that really, for me, was the moment where I thought, “Yeah. This is it.”

CL:  So how do you then become a professional ballerina?

AT: Well, I mean, everybody’s journey is so unique and individual. I then wasn’t able to stay at the hostel because it was only affiliated with the Victorian College of the Arts. So I was commuting for a few weeks until I found a boarding house in Melbourne, but I was so happy to be back at home. I just persisted with that. And I ended up commuting from Bendigo to Melbourne for four years. So I did that between the ages of 14 and 18. So I’d catch the 5:50 a.m. and I’d get to Melbourne and I’d train all day and I’d finish around 4:30 and catch a 5:30 train home. And then I’d do studying on the train. So did school by distance education, Victoria, which was wonderful.

CL: Wow. Because I feel in Melbourne at that time, I mean, most budding ballerinas, were really gunning for the Australian Ballet. It was the well-trodden path, and really to head overseas, people went a little bit older. So what happened?

AT: Yeah. I didn’t audition for the Australian Ballet School. I knew it was a feeder school, but we just placed all our trust in what was working for me after a patchy year at VCASS. So I did that for a few years. I burnt out towards the end of it. I found it incredibly hard. I auditioned for the Australian Ballet company when I was 18 and wasn’t accepted.

CL: I don’t think a lot of people would know that.

AT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I didn’t expect to get a job fresh out of school, which was a good mindset to have because I then persisted with New Zealand Ballet and got a job there and had an incredible experience with that company. But not getting into the ballet company the first time wasn’t a massive rejection for me. I think after having a difficult few years, that wasn’t going to stop me. And I knew New Zealand was a smaller company and they had contracts available and I was very, very fortunate to pick up one shortly after my 19th birthday.

CL: Wow. I mean, it’s still so young to join a company.

AT:  I know. I know. We had someone at the ballet company who was 17, just shy of 18. And, I don’t know, I think in hindsight now, just when I see the little poppets down the corridor at the ballet school and I just think, “Gosh, they’re just so young and green and it’s hard to imagine myself being that person.” But also things have changed so much that when people commute now or when they’re in a big city you know that you can follow them on the phone, they can study and do school by correspondence on an iPad. That home learning and Zoom is a thing now.

AT:  Yeah. Whereas I used to get the envelope in the post and then have to post it at the end of the week, my subjects, and go in for the exam, once a term. And it doesn’t feel like that long ago, but just look at my crow’s feet and ask my hips, and it certainly is an age ago.

CL: So you start your first professional job, Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. What’s that like moving countries, joining a company?

AT: Oh, look, it was such a liberating experience. I think because my experience of being away from home when I was a kid was really stressful and then I’d grown, and 19, I still thought, “Okay, I’m still so young,” and I was so ready for it. And I just wanted to, after all that training, have the reward of performing and learning and growing and with a group of people that have a shared passion. There’s nothing like being in company life and getting to know a group of people with the same passion and-

CL: Who was artistic director at the time.

AT: Gary Harris was the artistic director at the time. Yeah. And, oh, it was so wonderful. So I had a short term contract for Peter Pan and then I got my contract renewed for a full year, the following year. And it was the first time the company had toured overseas in a long time. And I got to do a six week tour of the UK. We toured to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bath, Manchester, Sadler’s Wells, all these incredible places. And it was a six week tour and oh, just, it was, for a 19/20 year old, performing these extraordinary works. There were 24 dancers in the company at that time. We were a little family. We shared rooms and it was such a special experience getting to know a small group of people that became family very, very quickly.

 And so the experience I had over there was tremendous. So I was there for two and a half years. The final year was a real challenge. I broke my foot landing from a jump in rehearsals.

CL: So I don’t think many people would know that either.

AT: No, no.

CL: So you broke your foot. Okay.

AT: I broke a bone in my foot and it displaced the bone. It wasn’t a clean fracture.

CL: Okay.

AT: So after, unfortunately, six weeks in a moon boot, it hadn’t healed hardly at all. So they then put me on crutches and there was the option of re-fracturing it and pinning it.

CL: Oh, boy.

AT: But it just seemed, for what is a little bone, a really long recovery time. And for a small company it was too difficult for them to carry injured dancers, and I got the either, “You need to be back by this point or you’re gone.”

CL: Wow. Okay. So that’s big. But I also get it. I mean, small companies don’t have the funds to carry long term injured dancers.

AT: That aren’t performing.

CL: I mean, it’s pretty hard on a what? 21 year old?

AT: Yeah. It’s a lot to deal with and it’s part and parcel of the industry. But you don’t imagine when you finally made it and you’re living the dream to just see it robbed like that so quickly. And that year was incredibly challenging and I ended up losing my job.

CL: Okay.

AT: And-

CL: Do you know, it is really funny that your story has taken this turn because I really thought you were going to tell me that from the Royal New Zealand Ballet, you would cherry picked into the Australian Ballet.

AT: Oh, no. The glamor! Oh, park that somewhere else. No, no. There was nothing glamorous about this.

CL: Oh, gosh. So you returned with a broken foot?

AT: Yeah, yeah.

CL: And no job?

AT: Yeah. So I rehabbed over there and came back. I figured it’s really hard for dancers to get a job post-injury. Usually what’s great is if the company are able to get you back up on your feet and you continue performing because-

CL: And build that confidence back up?

AT: Yes. But also people don’t like to employ dancers post-injury if they have no security and can’t prove that they’re going to be okay and not a liability.

CL: Yeah. Because the injury might come back in six weeks, 12 weeks, and then they’re what? Essentially paying to rehab a dancer?

AT: Yeah.

CL: Okay. So what did you do?

AT: I spent my savings and I did a two months cattle call audition tour in Europe. I just packed my bags and I stayed at all the hostels and just plotted where I would go. And I did 15 to 20 cattle call auditions in Europe.

CL: Oh, okay. And how did that go?

AT: Yeah. I came back with no work. It was great fun. It was not good for my bank account and it certainly wasn’t good for my confidence. Let’s just say that.

CL: Was it a good life experience?

AT: I look at it now and a lot of resilience was cultivated during that time. And it was unbelievable. And I was sharing this story the other night, actually, with some friends, and you’d have your little map and it’d be snowing and couldn’t roll your suitcase because it’d throw down the stones in the snow and you’d be carrying this suitcase around trying to find a street and you didn’t have your phone because there were no phones. And without Google Maps, you just did the thing. You did the thing and it didn’t seem as absurd as it does now. That’s what you did.

CL: How about that?

AT: But I look at it now and I go, hm. Yet, a lot if resilience and tenacity was cultivated in that time because, I mean—

CL: So did you not secure one job?

AT: No. No.

AT: I vividly remember this audition. I’d traveled from one part of Germany to the next on an overnight train. And I arrived at this audition and, at that point, you either sent in your DVD or VHS or whatever it was back then and sent an email and you’d send your height and whatnot. And I remember turning up and there were hundreds of people, people who had registered and people who hadn’t.

And I was in class number seven or eight, and I had a number and there was a girl in front of me, and we all poured into the studio and we put our bags down and someone walked around and put their hand on her shoulder and said, “Thank you. You won’t be required here anymore.” She was, “But I haven’t even done anything. I haven’t even danced.” And they said, “You’re just not the right type.” She was either too tall or something. She was, “I’ve just come from Spain. I came from Spain overnight.” And I just wanted to cry my little eyes out for her.

CL: Just the brutality of it.

AT: Oh, it was so savage. And I remember making it through to grand allegro, and I was a nervous little wreck because I was waiting for someone to come and tap me on the shoulder. And the pressure. And it was obscene, really.

CL: So how did you even find the auditions? I mean, there was no Insta, no Facebook.

AT: No. There used to be a website and I just combed through and bought a round the world ticket.

CL: I mean, it just sounds so insane now.

AT: I know. I know. I mean, I did it and I look back on it and I just think, “All of that has gone into who I am now.” And so I’m really grateful for those experiences. At the time, not so much.

CL: I mean, I can imagine that. And so what happens? You run out of money? Or what do you do?

AT: Well, there were a couple of months there that the auditions run. I ran out of money and I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the means to just stick it out. I went to Antwerp and I took class for a week with a company there and the artistic director at the time said to me, “I really love your work, but I’ve just had to fire 13 dancers because of funding cuts. Do you think you could hang around and just work in a hospitality and then maybe at the end of a couple of months, something might become available?” And I just thought, “I can’t get a working visa to work in hospitality.” I wasn’t in a position to do that and then pay for dance classes on the side.

CL: And then maybe get a job?

AT: Maybe. So I knew coming back to Australia, I had that element of feeling defeated and my failure and, “Can I continue with this?”

But there was something in me that just felt I hadn’t finished this chapter of my life, that I’d only just got started and I still had a lot more to say and experience. And I’d had tough times before. Sure. Is this going to be the way I want it to end? No. So I just-

CL: So what happened? Do you move back in with mum and dad?

AT: I did for a bit but then I ended up moving to Melbourne and living with my aunt and cousins in Brunswick East.

CL: Okay.

AT: They had a study and I lived in their study and then I got a job at a pub and an ice creamery, New Zealand Natural. I played the New Zealand card and ended up paying for ballet classes after being paid to dance. And that was the hard thing because I was working five nights a week at an ice creamery and then Friday, Saturday nights at a pub. And then I’d do dance training in the morning.

CL: It just seems so absurd.

AT: So I’d travel. I’d get on a tram and about six in the morning and travel south to the National Theater Ballet School and I’d do their school classes. They had a full time course and the director at the time, Beverly Fry, said I could come in as an open age student at the ripe age of 21. And I did classes. I’d do back to back advanced and intermediate. So I’d go from eight till 12, two hour class, and I’d do four hours straight. And then I’d work at the ice creamery or the pub until one in the morning—

CL: And be back for class at eight?

AT: Yeah. Yeah. So I did that for four, maybe five, months, and then I got pneumonia.

CL: I feel your story is not exactly what I was expecting.

AT: It wasn’t what I was expecting. I had—

CL: Pneumonia.

AT: Oh, I know it was crazy. I had one really good right bicep from scooping ice cream because I had one with a good gun and the other one from pouring beer and we had a T-shirt uniform for the ice creamery. And I think the late nights, the pub. You could still smoke in the pubs at that time, which seems crazy now that you’re not allowed to, but I remember that passive smoking—

CL: Of course.

AT: And I got pneumonia and ended up going, “Look, I can’t do this for that long.” The New Zealand Ballet came back to Australia and they were performing a wonderful program and let me do classes for a week. And there was a window of opportunity for me to rejoin the company. And the artistic director at the time said, “Look, I’m 99% sure I’ve got a job for you, but you’ll have to start on Monday.” And it was Friday. And he said, “I’ve got to keep this open audition, though, in Wellington tomorrow because I’ve advertised it.” Called me the next day and said they’d found someone stronger.

So I just thought, “Right, that’s it. Hang up the pointes because I cannot continue to do this.”

CL: How much resilience does one person need?

AT: I vividly remember, on my way to the pub, going, “I’ve got to quit my job and it’s not two weeks’ notice or the right protocols,” and then getting that call. And it was a tough shift.

But, yes, so I went to the National Theater the next week and I said, “I can’t do it anymore. Thank you so much for your support and generosity having me trained during this time.” And Beverly Fry said, “Just before you quit, just before, just before. I just got this email today. Have you considered teaching?” And I said, “No, no. I’d be shocking.” And she said, “the Australian Ballet have this new program. It’s a pilot program. It’s called Out There, and they are looking for dance educators. They need dancers, professional dancers strong enough to represent the company, but they can’t use company dancers. It’s a new program doing in-school workshops in public and private schools around regional Victoria.”

CL: Okay.

AT: Part of the process was an interview and an audition because they needed dance educators.

CL: Wow.

AT: And so I said, “Sure. I’ll go do it and I’ll become a dance teacher.”

CL: I feel there’s not so much enthusiasm as you say that.

AT: Oh, there was. But there was still that element of resignation that, “Okay, this is a new chapter. You’re not going to be a performer but you can pass on your passion and knowledge to others.” But also I was pretty low in confidence at this time. It was rock bottom for me at that point. And after losing my job and then the auditions overseas and then pneumonia and then getting knocked back from New Zealand a year later, I just was, “Okay. Done.”

CL: Final straw?

AT: Yeah.

CL: It’s over. And I imagine you grieve that. It’s really a grief to let go of something you’ve been working for over a decade?

AT: Yeah. So I went and did this audition, but I was a little bit cheeky beforehand and I just thought, “Look, last hurrah. Just say at the same time, while you’re auditioning in the class, can you just kick me out? See if you think that I might be able to get a job in the company, I’ll come back.”

CL: I love that. So brazen really.

AT: Oh, insane. But I did the audition and I had my interview and, look, I was just so thrilled to get the job with the Out There program as a dance educator because I thought, “This is great. I can continue to love and celebrate the art form that has been my passion and share that with other people and connect in different ways, not the performer audience relationship.”

So I was thrilled to get that job. And at the end of them saying that I would be successful in getting the job, they said, “Can you come back next week and take class with the company?”

AT: I’m, “Aaah. Going for a little bit.” So I went back and did three classes the following week and, at the end of it, David offered me a job for the next year with the company.

CL: Wow. And this is David McAllister?

AT: Yes.

CL: I can’t even imagine. Was it just the relief, the exhilaration and, I guess, even perhaps disbelief?

AT: Look, it was like nothing else. I remember calling my mom and just floods of tears for both of us. And-

CL: I feel I’m getting teary.

AT: I’m getting teary. I vividly remember just being so overwhelmed, so thrilled, overjoyed. And, like you said, disbelief in wonder that I was just so lucky to be at that point in time where they happened to have contracts available. A certain amount of people had left that year and that I happened to be in that position. The moons aligned. It was a very surreal experience.

CL: Wow. Because I feel so many people listening to this who haven’t had that dream run into the Australian Ballet School and then into the Australian Ballet company or whichever company you’re gunning for, I guess, I think your story just shows there’s so many ways to achieve the dream.

AT: Yeah, absolutely. I look back at that journey and I know everybody’s got their own story. At the time, I guess, I was pretty relentless in my pursuit of, “Okay, there’s another little hurdle. There’s another little hurdle,” and, gosh, they hurt at the time. So I think progress isn’t linear and you can’t just go, “This is the direct route to get to where you want to be.” There are many different ways.

CL: And, I guess, you never know how many hurdles remain in front of you. You could have rehabbed your foot in New Zealand in three weeks and stayed with The Royal New Zealand Ballet company.

AT: Or it could have been non-union and never healed and then you cruise over. It could have gone in many, many different ways.

CL: So at the back of your mind through all of this, are you harboring dreams to become a choreographer?

AT: No. Nothing. No, no.

CL: Not one?

AT: Not one iota. No, no.

CL: And so we are still all, “I want to be a dancer, a ballerina. Dreams achieved?”

AT: Yep. Yep.

CL: And I think you mentioned it before but, I guess, choreography is not a muscle that a lot of dancers flex. You’re always told what to do. The choreography often precedes you by hundreds of years. You’re not really growing up thinking, “What am I going to create?” Your first work, I think, was for Body Talk. So how did that come about?

AT: The way that came about, we hadn’t had a female choreographer consistently for a few years, and so Nicolette Fraillon, I remember seeing her in the lift after we’d done a show of Divergence. She’s the Musical Director of the Australian Ballet.

Yeah. And so I’d done a show and there was a little featured spot at the beginning of Divergence, and she said, when I got in the lift, “Have you ever thought about choreographing?” And I said, “No. Come on. What would I do? No, no, I haven’t.” She said, “I think you’d be good at it.” And-

CL: I mean, that’s pretty incredible really. And I imagine actually fairly unusual for the musical director, the conductor of the orchestra, to say to a dancer, “You could be a choreographer.” That’s really a woman backing another woman there.

AT: It is. But also I have asked her since then, and I said, “What did you see that I didn’t?” But she did say that my approach to things and watching me, it was an unusual path to the company. And-

CL: I love that that’s an unusual path.

AT: It does give you a different lens I really do think because when I did get asked to do it, David gave me a couple of days because it was last minute. And I thought, “I’ve seen people when I was working at the pub and the ice creamery and paying for dance,” and, after that experience, I’d known a lot of people who were applying for grants and space and trying to get dancers to put on their own project. And they were fighting really hard for the platform that I’d just been handed the opportunity for. Someone had just given me this chance to do exactly what they were fighting so hard for. I just thought it would be criminal if I didn’t take it up.

CL: Do you think Nicolette spoke to David and said, “I see this in Alice?”

AT: Because when David approached me, he said, “Look, Nicolette thinks that you’d be good at choreographing. So have a think. What do you think?”

CL: And I love that.

AT: I love it too. I love it too. But, look, I don’t know if they knew either. I think they probably thought I’d say I’d give it a crack, which I did, but I don’t think that they would have foreseen that it would become my number one passion and the thing that I would pursue with my career. Yeah. Look, I’m indebted to them for seeing whatever they saw in me because I still don’t see it.

CL: So you go through your first choreographic experience, you choreograph this piece for Bodytorque. It would have been, I think, 2010, and it’s a huge success. And then you go on to choreograph years and years of works for the Australian Ballet. Can you tell me how that conversation plays out with David, this is David McAllister, for you to become resident choreographer?

AT: Yes. Well, I did four Bodytorque works and I think it would have been around my fourth, I think I expressed to him at some point that my ultimate goal would be to become a resident choreographer. And there’d only been one other female in the ballet company’s history. So in 60 years next year, the only other resident female was Natalie Weir back in 2000 and something.

CL: I think she only did three works, didn’t she? So a relatively tiny stint over 60 years.

AT: Yes. So I think I planted that seed early on because it was something that was really important to me because of the fact that it was something I really saw I felt at home doing. I felt comfortable choreographing much more than I did dance in the studio.

CL: So really quite a change from when you were first accepted into the company as a dancer?

AT: Yes. And so I did massage that into a conversation with David at some point, but after choreographing with Body Talk, he did offer a piece I created called “Relentless.” It was my first main stage work and it was in the “Symphony in C” program. So that opportunity was, for me, a real test.

I think after my first piece where I felt like quite a wild card, the next piece creating was harder because then there was expectation, and so the further I got, it was actually harder. But then—

CL: Because now you weren’t unknown.

AT: Yeah. I wasn’t a wild card. There was expectation. But at that point then I had to go, “Well, do you really want to put yourself out there for people to hate your work and receive bad reviews? Can you offset that as a passion and a drive and the risk?” And it was, “Absolutely.” I love being in the studio creating. I love the exchange of energy with the dance. I love the conversation and throwing around ideas and throwing out material and then throwing something else at them and just experimenting. And I just lose myself in that world. And so, absolutely.

So after my first main stage piece, David then offered me a one act piece in an Australian triple bill alongside Tim Harbour and Stephen Bains. And that was “Aurum,” which we then toured to New York with the help of the Rudolph Nureyev Prize for New Dance.

Oh, look, again, it was a surreal experience. When he offered me the one act piece he said, “Look, the Joyce Foundation have offered us the Rudolph Nureyev Prize for New Dance, which will mean it has to be a new creation and we’re going to give it to you with Aurum next year.”

So it was before I created “Aurum,” and part of me went, “But I don’t know what it’s going to look like. Can I take something that I’m happy with?” So to create this work, my first main stage work, knowing it was going to tour to New York the next year, and I had to just go, “Park that. You cannot wear that pressure. You have to create the work that you’re setting out to create. You have to just realize that vision to the best of your abilities and stick true to yourself. Know the story you’re telling, share that with the creative team and really bring that story to life and anything after that is a bonus.”

CL: So, no pressure!

AT: No. So I just was, “Park all that. Just focus on the work. It all comes down to the work and stay true to that.” So we did that and we took it to New York.

CL: I mean, it was received to rave reviews. It must’ve been like a dream?

AT: Oh, it was just the most beautiful dream. It really was. I had to pinch myself many times each time we performed that work, and New Zealand Ballet also were re-staging that last year. It takes on its own lifeline with the people performing it because it was designed on a group of people and then you get a different group of people and how they wear it differently because it lends itself to the individual.

And so every time we’ve toured it, when we’ve brought it to Sydney and we put on a second cast and the premier season in Melbourne and entering it to the Joyce in New York and the way it connects with people, was really heartwarming and overwhelming actually, because when you put a piece of art out into the world, you’re so proud that you’ve put something out there that didn’t exist before that moment. But you’re also terrified because you’ve never felt so exposed. It’s not like when you’re dancing, you’re representing someone else’s ideas and their vision and their choreography.

CL: That’s so true.

AT: It’s like a window into your mind. And-

CL: And you can’t control what people will write, how they’ll interpret it, what they’ll see on the night.

AT: No. And for the first time being on the other side of the curtain and being immersed in an audience of people you don’t know and hearing whether people like it or they don’t, I found I felt incredibly vulnerable and exposed.

CL: I can imagine. And so David McAllister, he’s really been there almost all of your career as the artistic director of the Australian Ballet. And he’s just recently retired, and you have a new David in your life. David Hallberg, a former New Yorker. And so what comes next for you and the new David?

AT: Yeah. Oh, gosh. Yeah. It’s a whole new chapter and, for me, and for the Australian Ballet, I retired as a dancer last year.

CL: So you did? You formally retired as a dancer?

AT: So my final season was Volt, which I was choreographing for, as well as dancing into the other works.

CL: And that’s a lot.

AT: It was a lot and it was quite a juggle, and I knew beforehand that that would be my final season, but I just didn’t think I’d have three shows as opposed to 30.

So last year was a huge year for change and transition and grief and getting to know myself as AT, the human, not the dancer, seeing whether I like her at all, spending a lot of time at home during the lock downs on my own.

CL: So had you told David McAllister that this would be your final season?

AT: Yeah, we’d spoken about it leading up to that. And so that was a decision that had been made regardless of Covid. So what was really wonderful was the support last year that we had at the ballet company, the emotional support from all the dancers connecting with each other and getting on Zoom and doing classes. The company really supported us through that, the change in lifestyle. We’re used to touring all the time and going from dancing eight hours a day to being allowed out of the house for an hour. So it was a whole lifestyle change for everyone, not just me.

CL: Of course, because the company is based in Victoria, which had some of the strictest lock downs in the world.

AT: Yes. So strangely I didn’t feel I’d left the company because everyone was doing the same thing. So I felt buffered by the fact that it was a circuit breaker for everyone and not just for me. And then when they started to return to dance and it was, “Oh, this is different. You’re not going back on that train.”

CL: And so does David Hallberg, as a new artistic director, does he just accept you as resident choreographer? I mean, how does that work?

AT: Yeah, so I have been resident since the end of 2018. So was made resident in September, 2018. And when David took over directing the company as of this year, he did confirm that I would be resident choreographer with the company this year, which has been an incredible experience thus far, because I’ve had the opportunity to shadow people like Pam Tanowitz, who came out to create a work for “New York Dialects” from New York. And watch some of the incredible rehearsal processes the company have had.

CL: And also different, because the company has been under one artistic directorship for so long, it’s really a change to accept a new style.

AT: It certainly is. It certainly is. And I think last year was such a mammoth year. And then to start this year with Summertime at the Ballet at Margaret Court Arena and to see the dancers recalibrate and look stronger than they ever have.

CL: I thought so too. Actually felt there’s a really renewed energy. I mean, I do also wonder if there is a bit of impressing the new director. You don’t know who the new muses will be and there’s a real opportunity in that.

AT: Yeah. And I think having missed performing for 12 months, it’s still doing the hard work to keep fit, the reward of getting back out there, connecting with people, the adrenaline rush, and just engaging with people again, having danced at home in your kitchen, doing classes off a TV screen, to be able to share what you do is everything. So that was really, really incredible.

But, yes, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to still continue my relationship with the company as resident choreographer.

CL: And work outside the company? Is that allowed?

AT: Yeah, yeah. Look, I’m actually starting my own little project. I know. Who am I?

CL: And when you say “little project,” what do you mean?

AT: The idea for this project was born out of last year, but also navigating the exiting stage left process in that I was 35 when I retired, which is incredibly young. Well, the Australian Ballet do roughly 180 shows a year and are always touring. It’s a pretty relentless schedule and the art form itself is pretty taxing on the body. It’s an unforgiving lifestyle in that way. The demands are huge. So there’s nothing really that eases you into it. It’s all or nothing. You go from performing at the Opera House every night to falling off the face of the earth.

CL: If you have to be a dancer, it affects every facet of your life.

AT: Yeah, absolutely. So to go from that to the shock of last year, where I spent lock down on my own. I didn’t see people for a very long time. I didn’t see family for a long time, and my family, my ballet family. And then having the thing that defined me, I didn’t have that to fall back on either.

And ballet or performing and dancing and choreographing has been my therapy, art therapy. It’s such a thing for me. Whenever I can’t make sense of what’s happening in the world I tend to pour it into my choreographic works and go, “Put that there, jumble that around. Here you go.” I can understand something in this.

So last year was really hard. And then talking with a lot of dancers who were on the cusp of retiring or just newly retired and feeling incredibly lost about what to do with this next chapter. So I started engaging conversation with a lot of people around Australia from different dance companies and looking at the more mature artists and independent dance sector and thinking about ways to help the arts and performing arts industry reignite post-Covid, but also engage a conversation with that 35-on bracket that maybe you’re not where you were in your 20s, physically, maybe the split jumps don’t happen, maybe the 32 fouettés don’t happen, but your artistry only continues growing. And there’s a fine little point of where maybe your physicality and artistry meet and then the physicality diminishes a bit. And the artistry continues to grow, but there’s no platform to still celebrate that portion

So I thought if I could create some choreographic collective that fostered emerging choreographers and helped support that conversation so people who haven’t choreographed before, have the opportunity to. But also people in transition can have a go, but also incorporate it using dancers from the independent dance sector so that people who have suffered throughout Covid with a lot of their jobs evaporating because they’re in companies that cannot provide job security or stability.

And on top of that help bridge the gap between retiring from a main stage company where you’re touring relentlessly and it’s really hard to juggle family life relationships, people with children. And actually the mechanics and the operational side of that in your later years is really hard, but you don’t want to just go all to nothing.

So giving people the opportunity to say, “Hey, I’d like to do this project. It’s three months. I can do that.”

CL: And does this project have a name?

AT: It’s going to be called Project Animo and animo’s a Latin word, which means to fill with breath, to fill with air and to endow with spirit.

CL: Oh, wow.

AT: And the reason why I love it so much is because dancing itself is breath in movement. But also it’s about feeling with breath, giving an extension of breath to those retiring and also to endow with spirit, is exactly what we’re doing. We’re creating works that is about you and injecting your own voice in the work. It’s about the creatives that we’re working with. It’s about the collective having conversation and making work that they want to make.

We’re really having this conversation now at the Australian Ballet about career transition and, particularly after last year, helping people because when you retire, you think, “Oh, gosh, I haven’t got any transferable skills.”

CL: Yeah. I really feel what you’re saying there, because I do think that to have a career in dance, in ballet, in contemporary dance, there are so many transferable skills, but people feel they don’t have any skills for another career. And then to be stripped of that identity and be trying to get a job behind a computer or going to uni, it must seem almost insurmountable at times and from a mental health perspective.

Do you think your experiences leading up to getting into the Australian Ballet helped you prepare for that transition?

AT: Yes. A place where people can come and experiment and have an incredible experience as a collective. At the end of the day, I think the most important thing to have is the passion, the determination, the persistence. And a very dear friend of mine always says, “Work in parallel lines.” And she says, “If you’re wanting to go here, there’s this way and there’s this way. So if this way doesn’t work, you try somewhere else and you’re going in that direction and you exercise all ways of getting there.”

Again, had I not had those experiences, I wouldn’t have taken up choreography. So here I am going, “Thank God I broke my foot in New Zealand.” Would I have ever said that when I was packing up home on crutches? No.

CL: Scooping ice cream and getting pneumonia at the pub. I mean, no.

AT: I look back and I go, “It was a redirection. Had I not broken my foot in New Zealand, I wouldn’t have come back and worked for the Australian Ballet and I wouldn’t have found choreography.” All those challenges and obstacles are, [inaudible 00:49:54], opportunities for growth and opportunities to test how resilient you can be and to cultivate that.

CL: Right.

AT: And then when you do get into the company, not everyone’s on the express to the principal train.

CL: You’re so right. I mean, there are no guarantees to become principal. And that’s why it’s so important to hear stories like yours, where the path has been a little bit winding. But that’s what actually makes it so interesting and it provides inspiration to others.

AT: These are the stories you want to hear because it goes to show there are many obstacles and you’ve got to find your path for you throughout it.


Since we spoke Project Animo has commenced rehearsals in Western Australia. Their premiere season will debut at the Playhouse at the Melbourne Art Center in November, 2021. For updates and tickets, you can find them on Instagram @project.animo. Or head to project.animo.com.au. And to continue to follow Alice’s adventures, you’ll find her on Instagram @atopps.

Alice and I met in Newcastle to record our interview on the land of the Awabakal people, to which we pay our greatest respects.

Talking Points is produced by Fjord Review. Remember to subscribe to get the episodes as soon as they’re released. And if you like us, please leave a five star review. Your host and producer is me, Claudia Lawson. Additional production by Penelope Ford, with editing and sound production by Martin Peralta. And for the latest in all things dance, head to fjordreview.com.

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Alice Topp