Career Code: This Is How a Professional Ballerina Prepares for a Big Day at Work
In honour of our co-founders Hillary Kerr and Katherine Power’s latest book, The Career Code: Must-Know Rules for a Strategic, Stylish, and Self-Made Career ($24), we’re running an interview series that parallels the book’s chapters about the work lives of inspirational female leaders who are at the top of their fields. So far, we’ve tapped Lisa Gersh, Pip Edwards, Kelly Wearstler, and more. Up next? Alice Topp.
It’s widely known that if you’ve made it as a professional ballerina, not only are you a top-tier athlete, but also a disciplined creative with a lot of talent. But while we see endless pirouettes on stage and glamorous costumes, building a career as a dancer takes grit and many years of strained muscles and hours at the barre.
Ever wondered what the day in the life of a ballerina actually looks like? Dancing as a coryphée for The Australian Ballet, we spoke to Alice Topp who is both a ballerina and choreographer. From her exercise routine, to where she seeks inspiration, scroll on to read our interview with the inspiring creative.
In civilian terms, how would you describe your job?
Basically, I get to do what I love all day long: Dancing, rehearsing, creating, performing and dreaming! It’s a dream job. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of hard work, demands and discipline involved too but my "job" is basically to perform as a ballet dancer and choreograph ballets.
What part of your job would people find most surprising?
There are many things you wouldn't expect to see: Wrapping our feet up with Voltaren Gel and cling wrap to reduce swelling when injured, taking pets on tour, wearing fake hair buns. For the most part, the most surprising thing to others is the sheer amount of strength required to be a ballet dancer, the physical demands, the long hours and busy show schedules.
What does a ballerina wear to a job interview?
I think I had my job interview directly after doing company class, so I was wearing a leotard, tights and ballet shoes. Ideally I would’ve been wearing a two-piece velvet suit! I’d like to remember it like that.
Who would you like to have a 30-minute meeting with?
I’d like to have a 30-minute meeting with Patti Smith or Crystal Pite. Or Phillip Glass. Or Max Richter. Or Jiří Kylián. Don’t make me choose!
What are your go-to resources for keeping at the top of your game in your profession?
Meditation, physiotherapy, pilates, walking and balance. We have such a demanding program of performing and touring that it’s important to stay on top of our well-being and do activities that support that. Pilates, yoga and swimming are great activities that complement the physical demands of dance, but life balance is also a big thing for me. We spend so much of our time at work that making sure we switch off, take time out from the dance world and detach is really important.
What is the one thing in your career that you’ve regretted?
I have no regrets. I guess the only thing I would say is that I regret not trusting myself earlier. I think it’s hard to have confidence in your voice when you're in the ballet world, as you’re always striving for unattainable perfection and nothing ever seems good enough. But we are all unique artists, and it’s important to back yourself and trust in your own voice.
What are the five top qualities you look for when casting for a ballet?
That’s a tough one! I guess I generally look for people who really sing with their whole bodies, dancers with ideas and imagination, willing to play and experiment, dancers with unique dance language, great musicality, fluidity of movement and the ability to translate emotion and story through physicality.
What do you wear to class when you need to feel powerful?
Sometimes, I put on my favourite perfume but mostly, the main thing is that I don’t put on anything extra! For me, it’s all about being true to myself and that is the most powerful thing you can wear. I’ve come to realise as long as I do me, my thing my way, it doesn’t matter what I wear. Honesty speaks volumes, and that’s what I find power in. So I strive for transparency in my art.
What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?
I get out more! I see more films, theatre shows and exhibitions. I go to more gigs, galleries and spend more time outdoors. I read more, listen to more, spend more time with friends and family. All these things inspire me and fuel my creativity.
What is your go-to lunch?
Usually a sandwich of some sort and most definitely accompanied by strong coffee and a good raid of the vending machine!
What are your morning and evening rituals?
Morning rituals include a walk and meditation. Evenings always include playing records and procrastinating!
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve ever received is a quote from a wonderful speech given by author Neil Gaiman at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (find the full speech on YouTube), in which he says “Do what only you can do best. Make good art. Make it on the bad days. Make it on the good days too.” He talks about how for many it can be a lifesaver and how it can get you through good times and through the other ones.
What are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?
I’m currently choreographing my first One Act work for The Australian Ballet!
Verve is currently showing in Melbourne till June 30. You can purchase tickets at The Australian Ballet's website.