IN HER BOX, a series of interviews with women who personify the spirit of SARAH & SEBASTIAN, in celebration of passion, career and style.
Renowned ballerina and choreographer Alice Topp has been with the Australian Ballet for thirteen years. Her latest work ‘Aurum’ was inspired by the Japanese art of Kintsugi, premiering in Australia before being taken to New York.
Our directors Sarah and Robert met Alice through their shared inspiration of kintsugi which influenced the RELIC collection with its philosophy of embracing imperfection and celebrating flaws.
At what age did you start dancing and when did you join The Australian Ballet?
I started dancing when I was four years old and returned to it when I was eight. I haven’t stopped dancing since! This is my thirteenth year with The Australian Ballet. I spent a couple of years with The Royal New Zealand Ballet before I joined.
We share a common inspiration in the Japanese art of kintsugi, how did you first come across it and then translate its philosophy into a performance?
I first came across Kintsugi when I read a quote about finding beauty in the broken. I thought it was such a beautiful philosophy and wanted to capture that in movement to communicate the message through dance – we too as humans can learn to look at our own fractures and scars with the same sense of illumination and transformation they do with Kintsugi and we too can become more beautiful than our original form if we start celebrating our uniqueness. Inorder to bring the piece to life, I collaborated with Jon Buswell, a master of design and lighting, and set the piece to music by Ludovico Einaudi that we felt reflected the concept. All the elements came together to create our piece Aurum, which means ‘gold’ in Latin.
Your choreography for Aurum is raw and affecting, as a choreographer how do you decide on the different movements in a piece? Is it a collaborative process or more of a personal vision?
The steps and choreographic material are very much a collaboration. I’ll have a strong vision of the direction of the piece – how it’s constructed, whether it’s a solo, duet or group, when and where in the piece this happens, a structure and a clear idea of what we’re trying to say and achieve in what section. Then together with the dancers we collaborate to create movement that helps bring that vision to life. We experiment with steps and combinations and explore ideas together. It’s very much movement designed on and for the individual dancers. Their voices and ideas are very much in the fabric of the movement.
The music a piece is set to must contribute so much to the performance, what did you look for when deciding on the music for Aurum and what do you find yourself listening to in your down time?
When I started the search for music, I knew it needed to strongly reflect the concept… it needed to be strong, beautiful yet vulnerable. I didn’t need to look far because Ludovico Einaudi’s music is my favourite and his music is so emotionally fuelled that each track tells its own beautiful story. I looked for a track that could reflect a sense of fracturing and heartbreak that could match with the fracturing in the Kintsugi concept and again looked for some strong, recalibrating, rebuilding music to reflect the repair. His music was so perfect to create to and helped inform and drive the language of movement.
In my down time I tend to listen to all kinds of stuff – Sharon Jones, The Rolling Stones, Max Richter, Charles Bradley, John Coltrane... a real mix!
When you’re watching a live performance, are you relaxed or are you watching with more of a critical eye?
If I’m watching my own choreography, I tend to find it hard to relax completely because I know every step and I feel like I’m very much out on stage with the dancers going on their journey. But if I’m watching a different live performance, whether it’s theatre or music or dance, I feel like I can immerse myself in another world and leave the critical eye at home. I like to get lost when I go and see a show!
Through ballet there is such an intense strain put on your body, do you think this the greatest challenge of being a dancer?
I think it is one of many of the great challenges of being a dancer! Yes, it’s physically very demanding, but mentally and emotionally too. We have such long hours, we’re always touring and we put our bodies and minds under constant pressure. It’s incredibly challenging to keep our physical instruments in optimal condition but we also exercise our brains just as much. We must learn to retain a lot of choreography, perform it in front of thousands of people night after night and have the same amount of discipline to switch off and have the capacity to unwind.
There are many great challenges in dance and I think learning to believe in your artistic voice, trusting yourself and developing mental strength and resilience are equally as challenging as any of the physical demands.
We saw a 1000-piece puzzle in the wardrobe department, do you have any tricks for getting in the zone before a performance or for mindfulness in general?
My pre-show routine can differ depending on what show it is. I love spending time in the dressing room getting ready with my corps de ballet and coryphées girlfriends – we usually play some music and yarn which is always relaxing and good for the nerves and mind. I usually like to do a little meditation before a show to get in the zone and post-show tend to play vinyl at home or read a book which helps me unwind.
In the wardrobe department there are costumes that are over 40 years old, do you have a favourite costume you’ve worn in a performance before?
My favourite costume I’ve worn onstage would probably have to be the snowflake costume from The Nutcracker. It’s got beautiful long tulle and we get to paint silver on our bodies which makes you feel quite otherworldly!
Your stage wardrobe is filled with ruffles, tulle and colour, what does your personal wardrobe look like?
Not too different – ha! I love colour, bold prints and matching suits. I love velvet, flares and vintage frocks. I have lots of jackets... kimonos, trench coats, furs. I have eclectic taste and I love dressing up, onstage and offstage – why not!
You have an amazing appreciation for detail, speaking in depth about embroidery work, embellishment and traditional craftmanship, do you think your personal taste in fashion and jewellery reflects this?
Absolutely, yes. I do appreciate detail, the craft and the extraordinary work and love that goes into making something and I’m sure this appreciation informs my choices in fashion and jewellery. I love learning the stories behind individual pieces and I guess as performers we’re used to dressing up in costume and transforming into a character – a swan with feathers, a sylph with wings, a tiara for a princess. I always notice how these items make me feel and I guess I’m attuned to that when I chose fashion and jewellery – I want to know its story and how it makes me feel.
You’re wearing two incredible heirloom rings, what are the stories behind them?
One of the rings, a beautiful sapphire with yellow and white gold, was my 18th birthday gift from my grandparents. It was my great grandmother’s engagement ring. The other ring was my grandfather’s cousin’s wife’s engagement ring. It’s remarkable to think it’s found itself a home on my hand and I treasure these heirlooms and wonder at their extraordinary beauty.
When did you discover Sarah & Sebastian and is there a piece you love the most?
I was introduced to Sarah & Sebastian by two of the dancers in the company, soloist Karen Nanasca and Senior Artist Benedicte Bemet. They have long been huge fans and I too fell in love very quickly with the beautiful artworks. My favourite piece would have to be the Kintsugi necklace I’m wearing because it will forever remind me of the special Aurum journey we went on and the beautiful humans that gave it to me.
What three words best describe you?
Creative. Quirky. Sensitive.
You’ve travelled so many places and are off to New York for your first international debut for Aurum, what is your favourite city or country you’ve visited?
That’s a tough one! I absolutely adored our tours to Japan. I’ve done two Australian Ballet tours to Tokyo and Nagoya and loved my time there. Another wonderful tour was our trip to the US West Coast in 2014 when we performed in LA and San Francisco. I’ve been so lucky to do what I love and see the world while doing it.
It seems ballet can be all encompassing; how do you switch off or treat yourself on your time off?
During time off I usually spend it with my family and friends, which helps keep me grounded and keep perspective. I love going back home to Bendigo and surrounding myself with the countryside, going for long bush walks, visiting art galleries and pottering around bookstores and antique shops. Making sure I keep a balance is incredibly important and I have so many interests outside of dance so it’s nice to devote some time to other things when I’m on holiday.
If you weren’t a dancer or choreographer what other path might you have chosen?
Growing up I really liked the idea of becoming an international aid worker.