The Australian Ballet’s Alice Topp
Alice Topp watches her dancers with fierce attention. In Studio 8, she is behind the red line that demarcates the stage of the rehearsal space from where she, as choreographer, stands. There’s a sharpness to her, nose forward, arms stiff. She’s in soft clothes, hair scraped back from her face. She looks like a ballet dancer, strong in her slightness. She has been a dancer with The Australian Ballet since 2007, a coryphée since 2017. In the hierarchical world of ballet, a coryphée is a dancer who is a leader in the corps de ballet – literally the “body” of the ballet. She is a dancer and she is also one of The Australian Ballet’s resident choreographers. Her choreography is critically acclaimed, prizewinning. Should I list her accolades? There are many.
She tells me, “I’ve loved dancing The Nutcracker. I love being a snowflake and I love being a flower but, you know, it gets to the point where I’m like, what is the emotional depth of a snowflake? I’ve done this show 40 times and what am I thinking, this snowflake?”
Here, in the studio, she is not a snowflake. She is working on a new work, Logos, which is part of the contemporary triple bill Volt. Her work will be shown alongside two ballets by Wayne McGregor, “the godfather of contemporary dance”. (Volt opened in Melbourne on March 13.)
“Not much pressure,” says Topp, gritting her teeth and hiding under her T-shirt, when I ask her about McGregor. Of Logos, Topp says, “It’s about your own monsters and it’s like going through a muddy storm and coming out the other side … what’s the landscape like now?” Her choreographic work is defined emotion.
Watching her dancers rehearse, Topp sits, legs out, almost doing the splits. She’s holding a tablet, filming the phrase. There are four dancers on the stage of the studio, and around her, behind the red line, lounge her other dancers. It’s sweaty and hot in the studio and, if anything, the dancers look rugged up, some of them wearing leg warmers. They dance in socks. The four dancers look as though they are connected by string, their movements responding to one another. The music is by Ludovico Einaudi and it’s loud, agitating and argumentative.
In a violet leotard and a thick black headband, Jasmine sits behind the red line, stretching. She is sitting in the splits; her legs look as if they belong to another person. Jett is rehearsing behind the others, unrelated to the phrase that Topp is working on at the front of the room. Every now and then Jett stops to roll the soles of his feet on a plastic, spiky ball. Coco has silver hoops in her ears, lots of silver rings on her fingers. She doesn’t dance. She sits on the ground, watching the dancers with as much attention as Topp. She calls out suggestions to the other dancers as they pause. On stage Amanda and Joey dance together; at the front Dana and Jarryd dance. When they’re not dancing, they’re joking, smiling. They dance in front of a mirrored wall. They dance for an imagined audience, for Topp.
Topp directs them with her own soft movements and quiet words and, when it all comes together, with loud encouragement, profuse excitement and swearing.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Topp claps, as the dancers land their lift.
“That was the perfect shape; there you go.
“Oh, I love it. Put it in there, put it in there. I love it.
I can hear the Bendigo in her voice, the country girl. The girl who first danced, taught by her mum, when she was just four years old, in the old Bendigo Uniting Church hall, smelling the “dust and mothballs”, dancing with a parasol over the wooden floors. The girl whose next teacher was a woman who terrified her,a Scottish dancer who’d learnt the ballet syllabus, who used a cane, and who, Topp says, she suspects couldn’t even see but simply yelled at whomever in the class. The girl who, at just 13, moved to Melbourne, on her own, to study dance at the Victorian College of the Arts secondary school. The girl who found herself standing in “trackie daks” and “Blunnies” in a world of girls who “all had a full face, and their hair in a bun and tight jeans and heels”, who found herself homesick, always crying and waiting in a long line for the only phone in the hostel, to call her family in Bendigo. The girl who won one of the main roles in the performance that homesick year, and in that half an hour on stage found a purpose to carry on. “It was like time stood still,” she says. I can hear the dancer who spent a year working in hospitality while she recovered from injury, prior to joining The Australian Ballet. I can hear the “one of 24 swans” dancing as “one swan, one body” in the corps de ballet. I can hear the dancer, the “luckiest sod in town”, who was cast in Wayne McGregor’s production Dyad 1929. Who found her voice, encouraged by McGregor, who found herself becoming a “thinking dancer”, the kind of dancer she likes to cast now. I can hear the choreographer, creating her first main stage piece for The Australian Ballet, Little Atlas, in 2016.
In the studio, Topp says, “All right, let’s have a little listen to this, have a little listen to the landmarks.” The music rises and rises, higher and higher, the sounds sharp and intense, strings squealing.
So much of how she communicates with her dancers is through movement, a language that is half words, half dance. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a way of communicating that’s flowing and subtle. “Like this,” she says, showing them how it might be. Or she adjusts their bodies a little. They all finish one another’s sentences, dancers and choreographer, and not always with words. Their bodies answer questions, or ask them. It’s not like it’s them and her. It’s like they’re all in it together.
Topp adjusts Dana’s head, gently moving it down and then up again. The choreographer steps back and watches them incorporate the note. “This is heaven,” she says.
Topp dances a phrase with Jarryd and steps back. He makes a face. “You don’t like it?” she asks. In reply he walks forward, arms in front of him, an overweight penguin walk, and his face is scrunched up and comedic.
“You can change it. I want you to feel good,” she says, laughing. They dance the phrase again and I can see the part of the dance he’s making fun of.
Jett says, “There’s this one bit, I don’t know what he’s doing…” Jett dances, showing her.
Topp laughs and says, “I don’t know what he’s doing either.”
Near a piano under a cover in the corner, the dancers huddle, watching footage of themselves, moments earlier. Then standing around the piano, moving through the movements, a sort of half dance, as they work out where to go next. They begin working on a trio. The dancers run through without the music, as Topp watches. She’s always watching. The rhythm of the dancers’ feet is loud on the smooth wooden floor.
“And if we could… awesome, great, awesome,” says Topp.
Later she tells me, “I trust my process, and I really enjoy working so closely with the dancers and realising a piece with them, that is designed on them, it’s designed with them, it’s designed for them, it becomes bespoke. And also, it’s so much of them out there. I see real people and it’s really honest. Raw product as opposed to seeing a character or seeing someone act an idea out, a scenario out, because in the studio we are just ourselves. We are in a vulnerable space together, and it’s a safe space and we’re free to have our own voice and it’s a really special journey for me. I can’t imagine creating any other way.”
Jett and Joey hold Amanda between them, in the air. She falls carefully over them, everything controlled, graceful, gravity-defying. The other dancers behind the red line whoop and cheer.
They work on “the worm”. Two dancers on the ground in a line. “This,” says Joey from the floor, “is hella awkward.” He laughs.
“That’s the right shape,” Topp says.
They’re working on a moment where Joey turns Amanda in his arms, in the air. The other dancers, behind the red line, call out suggestions. They’re trying to get the timing right. They all discuss together where to lose a step, dancing as they talk, talking as they dance.
“I think we speed this up, get it done,” says Dana. “You almost have to go: worm, up around, here, so … the worm is going to take longer than the other steps –”
“I think it’s where her thighs are over Joey,” says Coco.
“Her thighs need to be here, so she comes up and over,” says Dana.
“This is good, come back a second…” says Topp, directing the dancers.
Coco says, “I feel like it has to do with the last lift, there’s a change in the music and at the moment it’s almost a phrase too late.”
Topp says, “I feel like we need to lose a step, to allow time, because it’s too dangerous to be doing that, you know. Let’s have a look.”
Dana says, “Could we cut a step from the duet?”
Topp says, “We could cut a step from the duet, or we could cut a step from the trio. The trio is quite short, so … I feel like it needs to go: slide, neck, don’t turn back, don’t pull out … can you show me … so from here. Yeah. If she comes up a little bit, and up, grab hands, slide out from there … okay great, yeah? We’re here!”
They dance the phrase again, incorporating the notes. Topp tells me, “In the studio, it’s always very involved and collaborative, and there’s a great injection of the individual dancers’ ideas and voice. Because I will be relying on them. I’ll tell them, ‘This is what the piece looks like. What do your monsters look like, how do they sit in your body? How do they make you feel?’ I won’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Oh they’re going to do an arabesque, a pirouette, and that’s going to reflect that.’ I ask a lot of them.
“I’ve worked with a lot of choreographers who are like, ‘These are the steps, do it. If you can’t do it, I’ll cast someone else.’ And that is totally fine, because they have their vision, they’re very clear, they’re very direct, and I love that as a dancer – ‘Great, this is what you want, I know what you want.’ But for me, from the word go, choreographing has been a collaboration.
“So much of classical ballet is unforgiving, so much is technical, it’s unattainable perfection, that’s what you’re trying to achieve.” She speaks about how when she is choreographing, in the studio her dancers can’t be wrong; there is no failure, only process.
“Wayne McGregor … he is such an incredible genius to work with, he works so fast, and he’s hard to keep up with, he’s so intelligent and,” she snap, snap, snaps her fingers, “works really quickly in the studio and also for me … he really gave me permission to use my own voice, and to grow my own voice and to believe in my own voice, and to trust that.”
After speaking to Topp, I think about creative genius. She’s so humble. She doesn’t think she’s a creative genius, but she can’t see herself work: how empathetic her process is, how vulnerability brings out the best in her dancers, how she listens. I’d like to think creative genius can be a woman, it can be someone who grew up in rural Australia, it can be someone who wears tracksuits and Blundstone boots. It can be someone who prizes collaboration, communication and raw emotion above all else.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2020 as "Topp’s secrets".
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