The Australian Ballet: Romeo & Juliet
When you think of being thirteen years old, the first thing you probably think of is the trauma of high school, right? For Alice Topp, thirteen was the year she embarked on the first of five straight years of training to be a professional ballet dancer. Now performing as Lady Montague in the Australian Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet, Topp recounts the good and bad of life as a ballerina.
“I moved to Melbourne [from Bendigo] at 13 to do a year at the VCA. Then I did full-time training for four years and school by correspondence. That was probably quite difficult, because I moved back home and commuted for four years on the train...To make that sacrifice, when you actually do get rewarded with getting that job, it tastes so much sweeter.”
As Lady Montague, Topp plays the mother of Romeo and a woman embroiled in a scenario involving absolutely no love for one’s neighbour. Topp found it quite easy to engage in the character, particularly given the added emotional influence of the rest of the cast.
“Being Lady Montague [means] you represent one of the houses...you really have to carry the emblem of that house. I think I really focused on the power behind that and what I needed to achieve, that authority figure... [the role is about] being noble and proud, but also knowing that he’s your only son and watching him travel this journey. The beauty about it is that...even in the studio, when I interact with Lady Capulet, we do get very dramatic and get very into the role, so it makes the reactions much easier. When you’re fierce and you fully commit to the role...it just makes it so much easier.”
It’s not as though you really need the excuse of promising performances to go and see this particular production. Choreographed by Graeme Murphy and formidable production budget, Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet is contemporary without being specifically dated, relatable without defeating the purpose of Shakespeare’s work.
“I think it’s really difficult translating text into movement...but it doesn’t need words to represent that. Even though it’s a modern production, [Graeme Murphy] has really focused on that story and everybody follows that through that whole journey. I think it will read incredibly well, I think everyone will be able to relate to it.”
Indeed, while Topp has worked with Murphy before, this is certainly one of the larger Murphy productions for the Australian Ballet. Watching a respected choreographer in action has informed Topp’s understanding of the relationship between the individual performer’s potential and the demands of a full-scale production.
“Basically [Murphy] has his own unique language of movement and he’s influenced us by the uniqueness of what we have to offer as artists, so I think it’s collaborative in that respect. But he’s very clear about what he wants to achieve, and his intentions, so he really has this ability to get the story across very clear and bring the best out in the dancers...he’s very passionate about what he wants to achieve and makes you really sink your teeth into the character and get the best out of that role.”
Topp’s path to the Australian Ballet is a rather unconventional one. After her studies, she spent three years with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. But when injury forced Topp into rehab for a year, she went straight from professional dancing to bartending. It was a sudden change that forced Topp to re-evaluate what she wanted to achieve.
“I felt like I was back at the beginning, I came back to Australia and worked in a pub, found my feet again. It was a weird transition having to draw back on that passion and what I wanted to achieve with my dancing, I had to find that again.”
Now a five-year veteran of the Australian Ballet, Topp sees the clear potential in what Murphy and the cast have set out to achieve in Romeo and Juliet.
“Being in an original full-length Murphy has just been a fantastic experience. Graeme has put this wonderful contemporary spin on this production. It’s not set in any one time or place, so I think for that reason it refuses to be define by a particular era or nationality.”
Her role at the Australian Ballet company has also produced an unexpected source of interest; as an emerging choreographer, Topp is enjoying her job which gives her access to the those at the top of their game.
“[Choreography] was something I never saw myself doing and I’ve found that outlet while I’ve been here in the [Australian ballet] company. It’s really provided me with a number of opportunities that I never saw myself doing. I feel at this point where I can dance and learn off the masters like Graeme Murphy, see how they work and create and their process, I’m in the best sort of situation to really learn and develop my craft. So hopefully there’s somewhere I’d like to see myself going.”
You have to hope that the once-rocky path turns into smooth sailing from now on.
The Australian Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet is playing from 12-24 September at the Arts Centre. For more information on tickets and times, see australianballet.com.au