Australian Ballet: Murphy

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Published: 26th March, 2018

Graeme Murphy deserves this tribute. Not only is it 50 years ago that he started his professional career in the Australian Ballet’s corps de ballet but he is Australia’s best known choreographer internationally.

The Australian Ballet takes a bold approach to this tribute. It could have staged a triple bill of Murphy’s works, but instead chose to use excerpts of four ballets and the short ballets Shéhérazade and Firebird. The idea was seemingly to show as large a range of his choreography as possible (understandably excluding his work with Torvill and Dean), and from a long period of 30 years.

Using excerpts can leave some audience members feeling a little unsatisfied, wishing they could have seen the whole ballet. Then there’s the question of which works to select to represent an incredibly prolific and versatile choreographer.

Some audience members might have preferred a pas de deux from Murphy’s hugely successful commissions by the Australian Ballet: Swan Lake or Nutcracker. Obviously the demands of quick set changes were in the planners’ minds with only pauses in between the five works before interval. But these pas de deux could have been performed without sets. Artistic director David McAlister has sometimes programmed ballets without sets and relied on lighting for effect.

Also absent are two of Murphy’s finest ballets, created for the late Kelvin Coe, principal of the Australian Ballet for many years: Beyond Twelve (Australian Ballet) and Homelands (Sydney Dance Company). Homelands was toured overseas by Sydney Dance Company to great acclaim and it would have been wonderful to show it to a larger Australian audience. Its theme of cultural dislocation is timeless.

Beyond Twelve has been performed by the Australian Ballet without Coe and would have been cost-effective as the Company still has the set and costumes. Beyond Twelve has also toured overseas and it was reportedly so popular that staff at Covent Garden risked their jobs to sneak into the theatre and watch it. The fact that Beyond Twelve was featured in the AB’s 40th Anniversary Gala in 2002 and in the AB’s Icons in 2012 (a triple bill of significant works from AB’s repertoire) may have gone against its inclusion in this Murphy tribute.

Of the ballet excerpts chosen for Murphy, the ones that work best are Ellipse and Grand.  Both ballets use the structure of a suite with several “self-contained” segments, so it’s easy to pluck a segment (or a few) out for the tribute. The Ellipse excerpt is a western-flavoured romp full of energy and cheekiness that seems a natural projection of Hindson’s sweeping and rhythmic music. It was delightfully and unflaggingly performed by its four dancers.

Preceded by a short video, and interrupted by the dancers’ playing Chopsticks, five segments of Grand are included in Murphy. Each is distinctive – humorous, sensual, sassy, melancholy, playful – and perfectly expresses the mood of its accompanying solo piano music.

Aside from his inventiveness and scope, what Murphy demonstrates is the choreographer’s consistently brilliant choices of music, set, and costume, which don’t merely complement his choreography but are intrinsically part of his ballets.

Murphy provides audiences with the opportunity to appreciate these works and performances. The program demonstrates that the dancers of the Australian Ballet are wonderfully attuned to Murphy’s fiendishly difficult choreography and to expressing both the extremes and the nuances of his imagination.

Murphy ran March 16-26 at the State Theatre at the Arts Centre Melbourne. It will play at the Sydney Opera House April 6-23.

Editor’s note: Classic Melbourne has reviewed a number of Murphy’s ballets over the years. Normally, the focus would also be on the performance of dancers and the orchestra. But this was Murphy’s night, and he chose to share his curtain calls with his partner Janet Vernon.