Resilience leads to career in choreography

Alice Topp. Photo: supplied
Alice Topp. Photo: supplied
Top Australian choreographer and former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer Alice Topp is creating her first work for the company this year as well as having her duet Clay featured in its upcoming "Tutus on Tour" programme coming to Otago. She talks to Rebecca Fox about developing resilience.

Receiving a potentially career-ending injury while dancing in New Zealand could have turned Australian choreographer Alice Topp off the country, but instead she credits that experience for being where she is today.

After years of studying, training and sacrifice, Topp secured her first job as a dancer fresh out of school with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. She could not have been happier.

"I really wanted to become a dancer, it was a lifelong dream."

She was loving the work — in her first season she performed in Peter Pan.

"It was an amazing experience. I still feel like an adopted Kiwi — they were very formative years for me, my first couple of years as a professional dancer."

Until she broke a bone in her foot. As it took a long time to heal, she lost her job and chose to head back home to Australia to recuperate.

That was about 20 years ago, but Topp could still remember the struggles to re-navigate life outside of dance. She worked in hospitality pouring pints and scooping ice cream soon realising she could not give up on her dream of dancing.

"In those two and a-half years [with RNZB] I knew I had found my calling. I could not let it stop me prematurely."

Once she rehabilitated she went back to dance classes, but at 23 years old she was beginning to wonder if any company would want her, then she got a job with the Australian Ballet.

"I was so close to giving up, it was so difficult to maintain."

She believed it was the resiliency and tenacity cultivated during those years outside of dance that meant when she was handed the opportunity to choreograph she took it.

"If I’d not had that injury and had to refocus I don’t think I would have put my hand up to choreograph as I would have worried about making a fool of myself.

"If I hadn’t had those experiences I probably wouldn’t have taken the risk."

During her time away she met many unemployed freelance artists struggling to find funding and studio space to continue to make work of their own so she knew how lucky she was.

"I saw them go through that so when I was handed the opportunity to choreography, if I didn’t do it for me at least do it for all those people out there who were trying for this opportunity and I’d just been handed it."

Topp was aware that choreography was taking a big step. As a dancer she was always realising other people’s visions but as choreographer she would be putting her own ideas out there to be judged and critiqued.

"There is something so daunting and incredibly exposing about that. It’s terrifying and you are incredibly vulnerable."

But that experience and the other knocks and setbacks she had in her career up until then meant she was ready to take that risk.

"I’d not be here today, doing what I’m doing, let alone returning to New Zealand."

Australian choreographer Alice Topp, centre, rehearses Clay with RNZB dancers Katherine Minor and...
Australian choreographer Alice Topp, centre, rehearses Clay with RNZB dancers Katherine Minor and Calum Gray. Photo: Stephen A'Court
Topp, who now lives in country Victoria, created her first work 15 years ago for the Australian Ballet when then-artistic director David McAllister asked if she would be interested after another woman pulled out of the choreography programme.

"I think they thought I was a good wild card. They’d not had many female choreographers for a while."

She thought she would "have a crack" despite never having considered choreography as part of her destiny before. She had the "most rewarding and fruitful" experience she had ever had creating Trace for the ballet’s 2010 season.

"As a ballet dancer most of my work had been been as one of 24 swans or one of so many snow flakes or fairies or Willies — to have an opportunity to have a voice and to interpret things my way was really liberating."

Collaborating with the backstage creatives and composers was also a revelation.

"It was a really special creative conversation — one that I absolutely love to this day. It was the start of something for me."

Over the next few years, while continuing to dance for the company, she choreographed three more works including Aurum, which was created with the support of a Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance, and had its world premiere as part of the Australian Ballet’s "Verve" programme. It appeared at New York’s Joyce Theatre in 2019 and was performed in New Zealand as part of RNZB’s "Venus Rising" programme in 2022.

In 2018 she was appointed resident choreographer to the Australian Ballet — only the second female resident choreographer in its 60-year history.

She also continued dancing for another two years making the most of the opportunities to work with choreographers and a vast range of repertoire from all over the world and learn from them.

"I started choreographing in my mid-20s and felt I still had a lot to give dancing wise. There’s no rush to be a choreographer, its ageless, whereas dancing is for a finite time.

"I juggled both for as long as I could, retiring at 36. I was very fortunate to have 17 years."

The skills she developed as a dancer were transferable to life and choreography. The discipline of life as a dancer continued in that when she was on a roll choreographing "the hardest thing is to stop". She would often spend six to seven hours in the studio before reviewing footage and notes at night ready for the next day.

"I live and breath new work. I balance it out with meeting up with friends otherwise I’d be completely absorbed."

In 2019, she was invited to spend a month with Studio Wayne McGregor in the United Kingdom, creating a piece for The Grange Festival with a view to making a longer piece for the Australian Ballet. She was also able to shadow the British choreographer and be mentored by him.

"I’ve had a wonderful experience as a dancer dancing Wayne’s ballets so David thought it would be apt for me to create a piece with a connection to his company."

The 10 minute work she created, Clay, was a duet that could stand alone and also be incorporated into a longer one act ballet. Her concept was based on the idea of at what point someone starts taking on someone else’s demons in a relationship whether its family or an intimate relationship.

"When you care so much for someone you want to accommodate or adjust based on their needs — at what point does that push and pull become dangerous and damaging?

"This duet is about a couple significantly buckling under these pressures but grappling to support each other and how that effects them. How most of that is done through closed doors — it’s about being raw and vulnerable on stage within that framework."

It was further development of an idea she had in Australia after conversations with longtime collaborator, designer and former technical adviser at the Australian Ballet, Jon Buswell, about the idea of internal storms and what that is like for different people — at a personal level or on a global level with climate change and world conflicts.

"We had this overarching theme of weathering the storm and coming out the other side into a clearing."

Royal New Zealand ballet dancers Mayu Tanigaito and Levi Teachout perform in Clay by  Alice Topp....
Royal New Zealand ballet dancers Mayu Tanigaito and Levi Teachout perform in Clay by Alice Topp. Photo: Stephen A'Court
While that idea came about prior to Covid, when it came to fruition in the larger work Logo, presented as part of Australian Ballet’s 2020 "Volt" programme with two famous works by McGregor on either side, it took on other meanings.

"It was quite airy and uncanny as it was all before Covid. As we were creating it Covid hit and then as we premiered it we were locked down so it added all this extra meaning of fear and anxiety and pressure."

Being invited back to the RNZB was special, she says. She first returned in 2022 to present Aurum and then again last year to present Logos as part of the "Lightscapes" programme.

"To return to the company and be able to work with them has been extraordinary. To see their voices imprint the work and to see them flourish and thrive in different vocabularies is really thrilling." 

Topp returns again this year not only for Clay but to present a new work, commissioned by the RNZB, High Tide, to be presented alongside works by McGregor and New Zealand choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull as part of the "Solace: Dance to feed your soul" programme in August. 

She recently spent two weeks in New Zealand developing her new work and working with the four couples doing the duet for Clay in "Tutus".

"It’s so exciting, they’re so generous with their energy and the workshop was so fruitful. It’s thrilling to be creating a work bespoke to these artists."

Hide Tide is inspired by the concept of being on the edge of the water and having to scramble up the rocks to escape the water.

"It’s about being on the edge of fear, living with fear, about how you grow up and grow out of your fears ... they morph into very different different fears ... whether personal or global. It’s in constant flux and change."

Topp is again collaborating with Buswell on the piece. Together they work on a concept, flesh it out and how they will realise it creating a more immersive experience for the dancers and audience.

"I treasure any opportunity to work with him. I love the way he sees the world. He’s a genius with set and light designs and how he interprets concepts, really brings the world inside the theatre."

The pair have also set up Project Animo together in 2020 to bring former and current dancers together from different disciplines and ages to collaborate and create.

"It’s aim is to support home grown voices and provide a platform I was given to choreograph for other artists who are emerging and exploring new ideas."

With what little down time Topp has between these projects, she revels in her country home, cooking and gardening, but admits she always has two or three projects on the go at any one time.

"I like to keep busy, when I’m inspired I see things differently. I’m always on the look for absorbing information. Walking, immersing myself in nature is a great tonic."


"Tutus on Tour"

Oamaru Opera House 

February 29 

Lake Wānaka Centre, Wānaka

March 2-3 

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter