Murphy – the Australian Ballet’s tribute to choreographer Graeme Murphy, surely their brightest star – kicks off with a scene in bed.
The extract, from 2005’s The Silver Rose, tells the story of an actress who, as time marches on, becomes frightened that her looks will fade and with it her grip on fame and fortune. In a melancholy sequence, she dances in the twilight hours in a white nightgown. Reflecting back her image are mirrors, which she is drawn to but also desperate to escape. In the meantime, clocks pitilessly tick down the minutes.
When the actress (the wonderful Amber Scott) slides into bed with her younger, handsome lover, played by Callum Linnane, The Silver Rose comes into its own. Nonchalantly, with all the ease of youth, he draws her to him and the pair feverishly, hungrily embrace. The following celebration of their physical love – amorous and ardent – is both erotic and sorrowful. It is as if the lovers know that such visceral passion must end, as all things do.
The Silver Rose, like most of the extracts in this extraordinary compilation, sums up why Graeme Murphy is a genius: he has the ability to create complete worlds and, in those worlds, to conjure emotion that feels real and true.
Raised in a small Tasmanian town, Murphy, fittingly, kicked off his own career as a dancer at the Australian Ballet (he met his wife and creative collaborator Janet Vernon at the Australian Ballet School). Murphy, then, is a celebration of fifty years of the maestro’s influence, and work with, the company.
Drumming this home, the evening starts with a short but memorable video of Murphy talking to camera. In it he explains the essence of what he is trying to capture: that the ballet dancer is an artist far above and beyond a physical athlete. And that in every dancer he strives to find that ‘moment of truth’.
Murphy highlights this point, as well as the choreographer’s originality: this is a man, after all, who re-set The Nutcracker in the sticky summer heat of Melbourne and who was inspired to create Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake by the real-life love triangle of Camilla, Diana and Prince Charles. As he told the Sydney Morning Herald last year: ‘No one had any expectations that I would be a success. No expectation is a good place to start really. You could be wild, you could be free.’
While neither The Nutcracker: The Story of Clara nor Swan Lake, arguably two of his greatest hits, feature in Murphy, there are other gems on display here from 2002’s Ellipse (a fast, fun rumpus featuring lots of butt slapping) to 1999’s Air and Other Invisible Forces, which fuses the search for spirituality in East and West. All showcase that hint of wildness alongside admirable creative discipline.
1979’s Shéhérazade, like The Silver Rose, is an exploration of both physicality and desire, set to Maurice Ravel’s score. Gustav Klimt was a major influence for the work and the stage glistens with gold, while dancers languidly loll, suspended from the ceiling on swings. As they descend nymph-like, ethereal opera is supplied live on stage by soprano Victoria Lambourn. The entire sequence feels as if one has walked into an otherworldly kingdom, a veritable midsummer’s night dream.
Few put it better than designer Kristian Fredrikson who wrote for the 1980 program: Ravel’s images create ‘an exquisite sensuality out of melancholy – where longing itself threatens to erupt in orgasmic chaos… Klimt, on the other hand, is vibrantly erotic – his joy in the female nude, gauzed and glitteringly patterned, is uninhibited.’ As Fredrikson noted Shéhérazade is so beguiling, so delicious to watch, due to this tension between Ravel and Klimt, the former who ‘in his music, covets that which Gustav Klimt reveals in his painting, the quivering light and dark of the human heart.’
Grand changes the tone entirely, from suppressed lust to the fun, frivolous jazz era. Once again, music is provided on stage: this time by solo pianist Scott Davie, whose grand piano is wheeled around by the irreverent dancers. Grand, originally created for the Sydney Dance Company, where Murphy was creative director for 31 years, has it all: humour and sadness, moments of high spirits and moments of still. It is an ode to Murphy’s mother, who had a life-long affair with the piano, and brings to life the instrument with such verve it is hard not to tap along.
The evening ends with a longer extract from Firebird, first performed by the Ballets Russes in 1910 with newly commissioned music by Igor Stravinsky and a story extracted from Russian folklore. In it is a battle between good and evil: represented by the bad magician Kostchei and the lofty firebird. The latter helps a prince (Adam Bull) free his love, a princess (the beguiling Valerie Tereschenko) who Koschei is keeping captive.
What makes Murphy’s 2009 rendition so different, however, is that under his guidance the story becomes biblical. Giant prehistoric eggs, with their nods to Christian mythology, crack open on stage: from one soft core hatches Kostchi, slithering out and across the floor. Performed with slimy perfection by Marcus Morelli, Kostchi is reptilian, a snake-like creature with a curling slab of a tail. The firebird, meanwhile – a gorgeous Ako Kondo – is the opposite: all fluttering feathers and elegant wings, a thing of beauty to behold in a garden that looks like Eden.
Murphy kicks off with temptation – the curse of vanity and worldly desire – and ends with it, too. As Murphy notes in the program, the original Firebird sat firmly on the side of good triumphing over evil. ‘My version, though,’ he says, ‘suggests that evil seems inevitably to return, in the same way that spring inevitably follows winter.’ The ballet ends with the princess – near nude and resplendent, with everything before her that is good – emerging out of an egg, echoing the Birth of Venus. As she turns Kostchi the serpent suddenly appears, unfurling a single greasy hand. In it is an apple.
Murphy was peformed at the Sydney Opera House in April