Ballet-lovers won’t be surprised to learn that a day in the life of an elite dancer is incredibly physically demanding. But dancer-choreographer Alice Topp takes that grueling discipline to the next level.
She’s danced with The Australian Ballet since 2007, and last year had the additional honour of being made a resident choreographer – the first woman to hold that title in 15 years. (Natalie Weir is the only other female resident choreographer in The Australian Ballet’s history).
When we spoke to Topp, she was wrapping up performing in Cinderella in Melbourne while rehearsing for Filigree and Shadow (choreographed by Tim Harbour), one of three pieces appearing in Verve, a new performance of Australian works which will run in Sydney from April 5 to 25. Verve also kicks off with Topp’s choreographic contribution, Aurum, which premiered in Melbourne last year. (Stephen Baynes’s Constant Variants completes the trio of works.)
Aurum was inspired by an article Topp read about the Japanese art of kintsugi, where broken ceramics are repaired with precious metals to highlight the cracks or flaws rather than trying to hide them. Topp saw a personal parallel. “I had some friends going through some really difficult things [at the time],” she says. “It made complete sense to me.”
She says it’s these kinds of human connections that inform both her dancing and choreography. “It’s human stories though that tend to move me most,” she says. “Whether it’s people close to me or something I’ve read, human stories and the human spirit is probably my greatest motivator.”
Topp starts her day around 7am. After breakfast she spends an hour at home replying to emails, corresponding with collaborators and working on upcoming projects. She’ll then travel from her home in Prahran, Melbourne to The Australian Ballet headquarters behind the Arts Centre on St Kilda Road.
Then it’s straight into half an hour of pilates to warm up, followed by a barre class and then 90 minutes of rehearsal for Filigree and Shadow.
Topp then transitions from dancer to choreographer, leading dancers through a 90-minute rehearsal for Aurum. “I take my pointe shoes off, put socks and shoes on and start taking notes,” she says. Her creative role extends beyond choreographer – Topp also has costume design credits for Aurum. “It’s about coordinating the music with the design, costumes, and choreography, so every element is singing the same song and speaking the same language,” she says.
After the entire ensemble rehearses, there is an overtime call where Topp will work with smaller groups or pairs of dancers on specific movements and sections of the ballet.
Once rehearsal is over, Topp finally has lunch around 4.30pm. The back-to-back nature of rehearsals prevents her from stopping any sooner, but hydration salts, effervescent energy tablets and snacks in between give her sustenance to get through the day.
After lunch she squeezes in some more emails before heading to the Arts Centre to warm up on the barre at 6.30pm. She performs in Cinderella from 7.30pm to 10pm. By 11pm, she’s making her way home on the tram.
Once home Topp will eat a late dinner, perhaps respond to some more emails, write more notes on the day, and, after showering, unwind and “get some perspective” by watching the news or reading the newspaper, before heading to bed around midnight. It’s a huge day, but “chock-full of doing things I love,” says Topp.
Sunday is her only day off, which she admits to spending “horizontal”. Understandable. For now though, she’s relishing the challenge of dancing and choreographing at the same time, even if it does require even more intense focus than usual.
“It’s important that I’m disciplined with that exchange between the two,” she says. “When I’m dancing, I have to be in the present, you have to be in your body. You can’t afford to be distracted or you could get injured.”
She’s also keenly aware that her dancing career has an expiry date. “I’m turning 35 this year,” she says. “I’ve had a wonderful 13 years as a dancer with the company and I’m definitely making that transition into hanging up the pointe boots. And hopefully working as a full-time choreographer.”
Verve runs at the Sydney Opera House from April 5 to 25. More information and tickets here.
See a special lunchtime performance of Topp's Aurum at Sydney Opera House on Wednesday April 17. More information here.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Australian Ballet.