“I’ve been so fortunate because I’ve been able to leave on my own terms but, no matter what the circumstances, we’re all so intertwined with the identity of being a dancer,” Topp says.
“It’s part of my whole being and it’s my language. It’s who I am but I’m very lucky to have choreography as this extra branch of my art form that I want to pursue and put all my energy into.”
Topp joined The Australian Ballet’s corps 13 years ago, progressing to coryphees three years ago. Her eyes were opened to choreography 10 years ago, becoming one of the company’s resident choreographers in 2018.
Managing the intense performance and rehearsal schedule as a dancer while creating her own work gradually became too ambitious.
“We do 180 shows a year so we’re always rehearsing two or three productions during the day, then performing in the evening and at matinees,” she says.
“I became really good at compartmentalising. I had to park whatever issues were arising with my own rehearsals, put my tiara and my pointe shoes on in a hot second and go on stage with my flock of swans.”
At the same time, her choreographic ideas have flourished, and now, with COVID-19, she has had even more time to reflect and decide that the time is right to retire from dancing.
She began dancing when she was four years old, switching to classical ballet when she was eight and moved to Melbourne from home in Bendigo when she was 13 to attend the Victorian College of the Arts.
She missed the warmth of her country upbringing, her family and friends who never questioned her preference for tracksuit pants and ugg boots.
“I was terribly homesick and felt like a lost little lamb,” she says.
She moved back to Bendigo and transferred to a ballet school in Kensington, commuting by train two hours each way every day. When she was 18, she joined the Royal New Zealand Ballet for two years until a bad landing broke her foot and she returned to Melbourne.
“It was such a shock because I felt like I was just getting started and had more to say but I found myself back in Melbourne at the age of 21 working in a pub at night and an ice creamery during the day,” she says.
Once her foot healed, she started ballet classes at the National Theatre Ballet School, and the director told her The Australian Ballet was advertising for a new role in their education department. During the interview, Topp mentioned that she wanted to audition to join the company as a dancer. She was in the corps de ballet three months later.
Choreography emerged much later and was a great surprise.
“Honestly, I had no ideas until I was in the lift one day with Nicolette Fraillon (music director and chief conductor) and she said I should try choreography,” she says.
Fraillon approached artistic director David McAllister, who invited Topp to create a work for the Bodytorque dance workshop series.
The result was an emotional duet, Trace, and McAllister knew then he had discovered a talent.
“It’s rare for someone, in their very first work, to come up with something so unique,” McAllister says.
“Often at first, choreographers draw on others until they find their own way of interpreting but from the very beginning Alice was unique. She imbues her work with a really emotional force and has already created two main stage works that have captured the imagination of our audience, which is the hardest thing to do.
“It’s very important to us to foster this talent because, as ballet companies, we can’t just rely on 19th century classics. Ballet must also reflect the time we’re in.”