It’s hard to imagine what Australian dance would be without the artistic vision and life-long dedication of choreographer Graeme Murphy. In a career spanning 50 years, he has not only pushed the boundaries of ballet styles, techniques and storytelling, but has paved the way for bringing raw and real emotion to the stage.
When he was at the helm of the Sydney Dance Company he helped carve an international reputation for dynamic, fearless dancers. Among his works for The Australian Ballet, including Swan Lake and Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, he has boldly offered a modern take on traditional works.
The Australian Ballet is paying tribute to his genius in its new production, Murphy, with excerpts from his works from 1979 to 2009.
Beginning with a piece from The Silver Rose (2005), an adaptation of Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, we see film actress Marschallin (Dimity Azoury) lament her ageing beauty and what it will do to her career and relationship with her younger lover Octavian (Ty King-Wall). As the pair entangle with passion on a tilted bed (for easier audience viewing!) we see Murphy’s ability to capture complex human thought processes and relationships, in which not everything is as it seems.
Things move to the spiritual in an excerpt from Air and Other Invisible Forces. To the music of Michael Askill, dancers in orange harem pants roam below the striking mountains of Asia, in an apparent search for meaning. It exemplifies Murphy’s cultural interrogations – international, popular and societal – that makes his work so relevant.
Desire is palpable in Shéhérazade. Leanne Stojmenov, Jarryd Madden, Lana Jones and Brodie James languidly hang from swings before a glistening gold backdrop, reflective of the rich and ‘decadent’ art of Gustav Klimt. As they come ‘down to earth’, their evocative moves are punctuated by the dramatic live performance of opera singer Victoria Lambourn. The language was foreign but the feeling was emcompassing.
The program leaps (literally) into an excerpt from Ellipse. In an injection of speed and energy, dancers Jade Wood, Brett Chynoweth, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli boot scoot, butt-slap and endlessly jump to the incredibly fast music by Matthew Hindson. Wearing irreverent Kim Kardashian-style high-cut leotards with ribbons flowing from the back, the dancers are pushed to the extreme – but keep a great sense of humour.
Humour also features in Grand (image below) from 2005, with some impromptu ‘Chopsticks’ peppered amongst the serious scores of iconic composers. A tribute to Murphy’s piano-loving mother, it explores the link between the great instrument and human movement. Grand combines moments of beauty – a pas de deux between Leanne Stojmenov and Kevin Jackson, to Beethoven, and on to the quirky when the dancers emulate piano keys as they are struck. Pianist Scott David took centre stage and played perfectly.
In the final act, Firebird (main and second image), Murphy grapples with good, evil and temptation. To the sounds of Stravinsky he takes us to the Garden of Eden. Here, Firebird (Lana Jones) is trying to help Tsarevna (Amber Scott) and Ivan (Kevin Jackson) find love amid serpents and darkness. While the trio’s triumph is an illusion (shiny red apple, anyone?) Murphy’s success is unquestionable.
Of course, no talent thrives in isolation, and Murphy has long been backed by his artistic associate and partner in life Janet Vernon. The Australian Ballet’s production with its striking sets, costumes, lighting, multimedia and the music of Orchestra Victoria – make this a must-see program.
At the Arts Centre, Melbourne until March 26 and Sydney Opera House April 6 -23. All images by Jeff Busby