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The Australian Ballet’s Alice Topp goes from corps to choreographer in ‘Verve’

Alice Topp. Photo by Kate Longley.
Alice Topp. Photo by Kate Longley.

Exclusively to Melbourne this month, The Australian Ballet is presenting Verve, a triple bill of high-octane contemporary ballets created by past and present company dancers. Resident choreographers Tim Harbour and Stephen Baynes will be re staging Filigree and Shadow and Constant Variants (respectively), while Coryphee Alice Topp will present the world premiere of her new work, Aurum

Alice Topp. Photo by Kate Longley.

Alice Topp. Photo by Kate Longley.

Hailing from Bendigo, Topp started dancing at the age of four and trained at the Victorian College of the Arts and Ballet Theatre of Victoria. Her professional career began with The Royal New Zealand Ballet before a broken foot sent her home to Australia to recuperate and reassess her goals. Topp joined The Australian Ballet in 2007, and in 2010, the company’s musical director Nicolette Fraillon suggested that Topp dip her toes into choreography for The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque program. With no previous experience in the area, Topp jumped in the deep end to much critical acclaim, and since then has created a number of works and choreographed music videos for Megan Washington and Ben Folds.

Dance Informa spoke with Topp in the lead up to the world premiere of Aurum.

If not for Nicolette Fraillon volunteering you to choreograph for The Australian Ballet’s 2010 Bodytorque program, do you think you would have considered or pursued choreography?

“I don’t think I would have found myself in this position, no. The thought had never occurred to me. I was under the impression that you would have had some sort of calling or lightning bolt moment when the penny dropped and you had something you wanted to say. I just don’t think that would’ve happened to me without Nicolette prompting me. The gentle nudge and support allowed me to explore this avenue without the pressure.”

Kevin Jackson and Alice Topp in rehearsal. Photo by Kate Longley.

Kevin Jackson and Alice Topp in rehearsal. Photo by Kate Longley.

Your first piece, Trace, was an intimate pas de deux. Your work has evolved since then. Do you find yourself getting bolder and more confident as you gain experience?

“That’s an interesting one…  I think I set new challenges and take risks for growth and development, like working with a larger group (Trace was two dancers; my new work Aurum has 12 dancers) and creating a longer work (my new work is 20 minutes), but do I feel bolder and more confident as I gain experience. I think every work, whether it’s two people or 20, whether it’s 10 minutes long or one hour long, all offer windows into your heart and mind. You’re always putting your heart out there. Each one places you in a vulnerable position. You develop skills to cope with that and learn and grow with each new experience, but every time you create a work, it’s a piece of your heart and you learn to love that vulnerability and process.”

What is the creative process like for you?

“Ideas come from everywhere — stories and ideas you hear or experience, read or watch. Once I’ve settled on a concept, I find music that I feel reflects the concept. Then I recruit collaborators in design, costume. Then once I’m in the studio, the work develops. I may come in to the studio with a few ideas and images – a vision I’m trying to capture. Together, we collaborate to bring this story alive. I invite the dancers to share their ideas and interpretation of the concept. We piece the work together and develop it so that it becomes custom-made on the artists which it’s created on.”

One of the striking features of your debut work was the way the costumes formed part of the piece. How important is costume/set/lighting/music to your choreography?

Alice Topp. Photo by Lynette Will.

Alice Topp. Photo by Lynette Will.

“I think of all elements as equal. We are all trying to convey the same message, and united and synchronised is the best way to convey that idea and story. The music fuels the movement. The design inspires, informs and propels the dance; the lighting and costume compliments all of that, too. They all need to be speaking the same language and singing the same song.”

Tell us about your new work, Aurum.

“Aurum is inspired by the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer. By repairing it with gold, it actually illuminates the fractures, rather than disguising them. Their philosophy is to honour the history of the object, and by repairing with gold, it often highlights the damage and leaves the object more beautiful than it was in its original form.

My idea is to try and capture this with humans. We are just as vulnerable and susceptible to the fractures, pressures and knocks as ceramics are. But often we see our own scars and history as blemishes on our character, rather than strengths. I would like to explore this idea in the work and learn to look at our own imperfections with a sense of illumination and transformation as they do in japan with Kintsugi.”

You’ve choreographed a few music videos in addition to your work with The Australian Ballet. What other avenues would you like to explore choreographically?

Coco Mathieson and Alice Topp in rehearsal for 'Aurum'. Photo by Kate Longley.

Coco Mathieson and Alice Topp in rehearsal for ‘Aurum’. Photo by Kate Longley.

“Any opportunity to create is extraordinary. I’m just very much enjoying learning and discovering as I go along with each new experience. One day, I’d love to share my work with other parts of the world and also experience the work they’re creating.”

While there have been choreographic pioneers such as Twyla Tharp and Pina Bausch, there are far fewer female choreographers than male in the ballet world. What are your thoughts on this?

“There are many contributing factors in the ballet world. Personally, I can only speak from my experience, but we don’t get a considerable amount of time to develop new work. We perform around 180 shows a year, and, as females, much of that time in the corps is spent blending in, synchronised and in perfect unison. Not a lot of time is used to cultivate your own creative voice or to develop your own interpretation or ideas. It’s a demanding schedule and lifestyle. It’s hard to set aside time to workshop your own language of movement. But hopefully things are changing. There are great platforms like Bodytorque where people can put their hands up and have a go at creating work. These forums are invaluable to the development of new, young voices.”

The Australian Ballet’s Verve will run 21 to 30 June at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre with Orchestra Victoria. For bookings, visit australianballet.com.au.

By Rebecca Martin of Dance Informa. 

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