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Graeme Murphy in his own words

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This autumn in Melbourne and Sydney, the Australian Ballet will present Murphy, a tribute in dance to the legendary dancer and choreographer Graeme Murphy.

In his 50 plus year career, Murphy has choreographed and directed dozens of dance and opera productions around the world with his signature physicality, humour and an unwavering commitment to beauty and truth revealed in the human body.

Murphy will pay tribute to his work with a revival of his reimagined Firebird, paired with excerpts from his career including The Silver Rose, Shéhérazade, Air and Other Invisible Forces, Ellipse and Grand.

He writes for Daily Review about the musical childhood that led to his extraordinary career in dance.

Murphy is at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, March 16-26 with Orchestra Victoria and at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 6 -23 with the Opera Australia Orchestra.

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“I think my first ever memory was sitting under my mother’s piano when I was about five when she was giving a piano lesson. But I think my first actual memory of dance was when I was nine or 10 when mum was playing the piano in the (school) hall for the town dance.

Most of the adults were doing the progressive dances – the Pride of Erin and the Barn Dance like it was a chore – without any flourish at all.

I remember I joined in and I was getting into the dance steps and I realised dance and movement was something you learnt on your feet.

We lived in a town in Tasmania where my father was the school principal and mum was a piano teacher playing for concerts and accompanying classes called something like ‘character and deportment’.

“I was always moving to music at home so it just seemed a normal progression…”

When you have both parents in a small country who are the teachers, then you are the pinnacle in the local community — and dad’s school dance was the event of the year.

My mum had seen my ability to do movement long before I learned to dance formally – I was always obsessively prancing around.

Of course I loved music, and it was central to my growing up given my mother was a piano teacher. I still remember being fascinated by her sheet music – all those black and white symbols on the white paper. Mum had the music for Showboat and all the other big musicals of the time and I remember asking her to get some jazz piano stuff, which she could just pick up, and play.

I was always moving to music at home so it just seemed a normal progression for everyone that I would supply dance numbers for the annual concert. And it became something I really loved doing; in fact, that annual concert was what I lived for.

I begged mum and dad to let me have dance lessons and there came a time when the nagging became much too much for them and they gave in. I began to learn to dance when I was about 10 and they drove me to my lessons to Launceston 100 miles over rough roads and back.

I think my early feelings were not that I wanted to be a choreographer – although I loved the challenge of making dances for the school concerts – but we all knew I had a talent for dance and eventually I convinced my parents that there was a career in dance – though frankly, that really wasn’t the truth at the time in Australia.

“Dance is about the human ability to evolve”.

It was only when I moved to the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne when I was 14 and my teacher, Dame Margaret Scott, said to me ‘concentrate on your dance’ but she did allow me to participate in choreographic training.

When you joined the company you worked with a choreographer anyway and one day I remember doing some weird somersault thing during the class.

Our teacher, Sir Robert Helpmann, said in that imperious voice of his, ‘what’s that boy doing over there?’ He then made the other dancers copy me. The other students – including Janet Vernon – all looked at me askance.

He was asking them to do something outside their elegant classical existence, but for me the essence of choreography is that strange new journey. It’s about revealing and expressing yourself openly where you find the inner power of dance.

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Artists of the Australian Ballet in a promotional image for ‘Murphy’

My move into opera direction was natural for me because music has always been the motor for everything I do.

The static nature of opera can be challenging but opera singers’ voices can enhance their sound by moving.

Ever since I first worked with the Australian Opera and directed Metamorphosis and Turandot, I always had the chorus moving. And they loved that because music and movement is part of their DNA.

Often I look at back at my work and I think ‘how did I do that? and ‘Why can’t I do that now?’

It’s like I did those things without any filter – without any self-questioning.

Sure, I have the wisdom and experience now, but you still crave those magic moments when you suddenly and unexpectedly discover the truth in a performer – and it’s a rare and wonderful thing when it happens.

Dance is about the human ability to evolve. When someone does something extraordinary with their body it pushes others to catch up, and do something even more extraordinary.”

Graeme Murphy AO studied at the Australian Ballet School. He has danced with the Australian Ballet, Sadler’s Wells Ballet (London) and Ballets Félix Blaska (France). He returned to Australia in 1975 as a freelance choreographer. The following year, he was appointed artistic director of Sydney Dance Company a position he held for 31 years, creating more than 50 works, including 30 full-length productions.

He was honoured at the Inaugural Sydney Opera House Honours (1993) and named a National Living Treasure (1999) by the National Trust of Australia. He has received a Helpmann Award (2001) for Best Choreography, Body of Work – a Retrospective; a Centenary Medal (2003); named Cultural Leader of the Year by the Australian Business Arts Foundation and the Award for Contribution to Cultural Exchange by the Ministry of Culture, the People’s Republic of China (2008) and the Fred & Adele Astaire Award for Excellence in Choreography in Film for Mao’s Last Dancer (New York, 2011).

His directing and choreographic credits include Metamorphosis, Turandot, Salome, The Trojans, Aida (Opera Australia); Ainadamar (The Adelaide Festival of Arts); Beyond Twelve, Nutcracker-The Story of Clara, Swan Lake, Firebird, The Silver Rose and Romeo & Juliet (the Australian Ballet); Tivoli (a Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet co-production); VAST (the Australian Bicentennial Authority); Hua Mulan (a Sydney Dance Company and Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble co-production); Die Silberne Rose (Bayerisches Staatsballett, Munich); Water (Shanghai Ballet. He also choreographed Death in Venice (Canadian Opera Company); Samson et Dalila (The Metropolitan Opera, New York); the movie Mao’s Last Dancer and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Love Never Dies.

4 responses to “Graeme Murphy in his own words

  1. I was excited by Graeme Murphys from the first moment I saw his work. He is an Australian Treasurer.
    When will tickets be available for Melbourne?

  2. Thank you for such an interesting article, he is so inspiring, and I already have tickets for “Murphy”, I can’t wait. One of the most memorable ballets he created was “Death in Venice”, many years ago, but I have never forgotten it, Garth Welsh, and a very young blonde Paul Mercurio. When it finished, the audience sat stunned and exhausted, and it took some time before people could applaud, so brilliant. I was so disapointed when he left SDT, but of course his career has gone in so many different directions. Thank you Graeme for all your wonderful work.

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