If Graeme Murphy was an Australian athlete he’d be a household name. Kids would wear his uniform. Journalists would compare rising stars to his achievements.
He’s not a sportsperson though. Murphy is a ballet visionary and one of Australia’s most accomplished choreographers. Beginning his career as a dancer at The Australian Ballet, Murphy made his name as the long-running artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company. This March, The Australian Ballet is honouring his 50-year career with Murphy, a six-part ballet that will run in Melbourne and Sydney, featuring highlights of his long, acclaimed and sometimes controversial career.
“He was known as the enfant terrible,” says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet. “He loved shocking people. Even now he is never one to shy away from being controversial.” He says rather than the “tutu and tiara” tradition of ballets, Murphy’s works were visionary and often unconventional. His take on Nutcracker cast the Russian classic through a uniquely Australian lens, including images of Hills Hoists and AFL. “He liked holding the mirror up to us as the audience", says McAllister. “He’d challenge us. He always asked the question, ‘Who are we?’”
Murphy’s bold creative strokes were respected across the industry. “He believes in his dancers so much,” says Lana Jones, principal artist with The Australian Ballet. “That's the most powerful and attractive part of working with him.”
Jones was personally selected by Murphy to play the title role in his ballet, Firebird. “There were seven principals he could have picked,” she says. “I was really young in the company and it was a big risk for him. So it was a big moment in my career. When you're believed in, you can do your best work.”
McAllister says this feeling is familiar among Murphy’s dancers. He describes an illustrative moment while working on Murphy’s production of Nutcracker in 1992.
“Murphy was working with dancers Miranda Coney and Stephen Heathcote,” he recalls. “I was in the second cast watching. Murphy was saying to Miranda, ‘I imagined that you would just launch yourself and fly to Stephen.’ But before he'd even finished, Miranda was hurtling through the air towards Stephen. Stephen turned around, saw her coming to him like a rocket, plucked her out of the air and spun around then collapsed on the floor. There was this huge intake of breath around the room as people wondered what the hell just happened. Then Murphy said, ‘Yeah, just like that’. Then that was the choreography for the show. Those sorts of things happened a lot. He would always make you dance better than you thought you could.”
Jones says this is what makes Murphy great. “He has an incredible commitment to his vision. Even if everyone around him is saying no or ‘this isn't working’, he only sees what he wants. I think that's wonderful. He’s such a risk-taker and I respect him so much for that.”
It does also make for demanding athleticism. “Physically it's very full-on and he is notorious for making very difficult pas de deux (a ballet duet, typically performed by a man and woman) that require a lot of stamina and strength,” says Jones. “Particularly for the men. But he always has feeling behind his ballets. His ballets have been an incredible vehicle for the acting and personal side of my career. He has a wonderful way to make a step come to life and tell a story.”
To celebrate the 50th year of Murphy’s career, The Australian Ballet’s performance of Murphy is a six-part ballet chronicling the evolution and genius of his work. With help from Jones and McAllister, we highlight three quintessential Murphy moments to look out for within the ballet.
The dancers intertwined in Shéhérazade (1979)
“Shéhérazade is one of the standouts in this performance,” says McAllister. “This was an early piece in his career and feels like the beginning of his choreographic evolution. In one moment all four dancers come together to make this pose, the men and women are intertwined. The music stops, and the dancers freeze – it looks like a sculpture of four people, all exquisitely sculptured and improbably flexible.
“It's the one everyone takes pictures of, says McAllister. “It’s the one on the poster.”
The pas de deux in Grand (2005)
“I think Grand is emotionally important,” says McAllister. “He created it just after his mother had passed away." The performance sees dancers surround a piano being played on stage. "She was a great pianist and he made this ballet inspired by her. All the music is piano. There are quite a few numbers in that which are really moving. If I had to pick one, there’s a beautiful pas de deux to Beethoven.”
The pas de deux in Firebird (2009)
“When the firebird comes on and Ivan Tsarevich captures her and they do a pas de deux, the first move in that is very exciting. The firebird dives down and has her leg up behind her. He catches her from her ankle. It's very dramatic.”
Murphy is on at the Arts Centre in Melbourne from March 16-26, and at the Sydney Opera House from April 6-23. Book tickets.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with The Australian Ballet.