Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
April 6, 2018

In 1968, a young man fresh out of The Australian Ballet School joined the corps de ballet at The Australian Ballet. His name was Graeme Murphy. He would take his first steps as a choreographer for the company and go on to become one of Australia’s greatest dance-makers, creating works for every artistic director of TAB, as well as founding and running Sydney Dance Company for 31 years.

To celebrate Murphy’s 50-year association with TAB and pay tribute to his genius, Artistic Director David McAllister programmed a mixed bill simply called Murphy to open the 2018 season, featuring extracts from selected works by Murphy in the 90-minute first act, and then his re-imagined version of Firebird in the second.

Since Murphy’s glorious Swan Lake and imaginative, touching “gumnut” Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, are both regularly revived by TAB for whom they were created, it was decided not to include those. And given that many of his most popular works involved large sets or live music by the likes of percussion ensemble Synergy (Synergy with Synergy) or a 10-piece band in the case of Tivoli, there were clearly restrictions as to what they could select.

Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. Photograph © Daniel Boud

The works eventually chosen range across three decades from Shéhérazade, created in 1979 for SDC, to Firebird, created in 2009 for TAB. Murphy himself admits that the program “goes everywhere” but it certainly is a thoroughly enjoyable dip into an extraordinary career, offering plenty of nostalgia for those who remember the works when they were first created, and a fascinating perspective into Murphy’s dance making for those coming to some of them afresh.

The evening begins with a short film by Philippe Charluet in which Murphy talks about his aim as a choreographer: his desire to give dancers “a moment of truth where I allow them to be the artist they aspire to be” and his belief in dance “where the physical takes second place to spirituality”. The interview is intercut with production stills, including a black and white image of Shéhérazade from 1979 showing Murphy himself performing with Ross Philip, Sheree da Costa and Janet Vernon, his “muse”, artistic associate and wife.

From there it’s straight into excerpts from The Silver Rose, created for the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich in 2005 and first performed by TAB in 2010. Based on Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, and choreographed to music by Carl Vine, the ballet doesn’t hit the heights of Murphy’s Swan Lake but nonetheless it shows his ability to convey emotion through movement and explore human vulnerability.

The Silver Rose centres on the Marschallin, a famous actress who fears losing her fame and aging, particularly since she has a younger lover. In the ballet’s prologue, she dreams of being pursued by sinister mirrors that close in on her, while a Dali-esque clock spins at an alarming rate and melts. She wakes to find herself in bed with her lover Octavian who tries to console her. A double bed that rises (all the better to see the Marschallin and her lover) feels a trifle naff but Amber Scott, dancing with Callum Linnane on opening night, captured the Marschallin’s uncertainty, yearning and fear.

Christopher Rodgers-Wilson and Karen Nanasca in Air and Other Invisible Forces. Photograph © Daniel Boud

There’s a contemplative, spiritual feel to Air and Other Invisible Forces, created for SDC in 1999. Choreographed to music composed by Michael Askill, which includes Riley Lee’s shakuhachi, the work is represented here by a male trio (Brett Chynoweth, Drew Hedditch and Brodie James) and a duo (Karen Nanasca and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson). Set and lighting design are always key elements in Murphy’s work. Here, the fabric draped mountains succinctly sets the scene, while a huge, luminous windsock, billowing in various directions, is wonderfully effective (set design by Gerard Manion).

From there it’s into the realm of the sensual with Shéhérazade, choreographed to the music of Ravel and featuring a Klimt inspired design by the late Kristian Fredrikson (one of Murphy’s key collaborators until his death). Mezzo soprano Victoria Lambourn sang the plaintive score on opening night, while four dancers, initially revealed on swings, descend to earth. Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden were particularly lovely in the first duet, before being joined by Lana Jones and Brodie James. It’s fascinating to watch an early work like this and see so much of Murphy’s signature style already at play – the use of patterns, the unusual lifts, the evocative partnering and theatrical staging.

Members of The Australian Ballet in Grand. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Playfulness is also one of Murphy’s great gifts, and there’s plenty of it in Ellipse, a suite of abstract dances created for SDC in 2002 to music by Matthew Hindson. The exuberant, high-energy excerpt in Murphy features Jade Wood, Brett Chynoweth, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli boot-scooting, thigh-slapping and springing around to Hindson’s fast-paced score. Dressed in high-cut leotards, with ribbons flowing from behind, it’s like a joyous, terpsichorean hoedown, and huge fun.

Act I culminates with several excerpts from the wondrous Grand, created in 2005 for SDC. Celebrating the grand piano, the work is dedicated to Murphy’s mother Betty (“one pianist I adore above all others”). With set design by Manion and costumes by Akira Isogawa, it is performed to a selection of music (Ginastera, Beethoven, Gershwin, ‘Fats’ Waller, Gounod) played live by a pianist (Scott Davie) seated at a grand piano which is moved around the stage. Manion’s design includes a grand piano shaped casing which descends to enclose the piano at key moments.

The extracts illustrate the range of Murphy’s invention from the patterning of eight female dancers in black, to the humour of dancers playing chopsticks or forming a chorus line to emulate the keys of the piano, to a delicious, jazzy Fosse-like duet for the fleet-footed Chynoweth and Morelli. But it is the moving, meditative pas de deux between Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov, so full of pathos, that really strikes at the heart.

Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Grand. Photograph © Daniel Boud

And how lovely, as a segue into Grand while the set is being changed, to see some footage of Wakako Asano performing in the work for SDC – very nostalgic for those who loved and remember Waki as she was fondly known.

The evening ends with Murphy’s re-imagined version of Firebird choreographed to Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite from 1945. Designed by Leon Krasenstein, the set features a huge cracked egg, and broken eggshells, while the costumes are highly theatrical. Chynoweth caps off an excellent night as the evil Kostchei, showing what a charismatic and truly versatile dancer he has become, while Jackson exudes understated princely authority as Ivan Tsarevich, who is given a magical feather by the Firebird and releases the princess Tsarevna from Kostchei’s clutches. Lana Jones is in commanding form as the Firebird and Amber Scott shines as Tsarevna.

Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Firebird. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Although the choreography originally created for members of SDC doesn’t sit quite as naturally in the bodies of ballet dancers, they do a pretty fabulous job. Jackson, Chynoweth, Stojmenov and Jones are standouts. Jarryd Madden is sensational in Shérérazade. Valerie Tereshchenko also shines in the Gershwin section in Grand, as does corps de ballet member Shaun Andrews, who is clearly one to watch.

Murphy may be rather bitty, and not as richly satisfying as some of his most iconic works, but it’s hugely enjoyable and a richly deserved tribute to one of a genuine national treasure.

Murphy runs at the Sydney Opera House until April 23


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