Left – (Shéhérazade) Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov, Jarryd Madden. Cover – (Firebird) Artists of the Australian Ballet. Photos – Jeff Busby
Graeme Murphy is one of Australian dance's most brightly shining stars. The long-time artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company – which he helmed from 1976 to 2007 – has a rich back catalogue of innovative dance works to his name, which must have made choosing the pieces for this retrospective a challenge.
Murphy, The Australian Ballet's first offering for 2018, is a stunning showcase. From the glamour of 1979's Scheherazade, in which dancers dressed in glittering gold Akira Isogawa designed skirts are accompanied by soaring operatic vocals, to the boisterous playfulness of Ellipse (2002), with its nod to Western hoe-down dancing, Murphy's startling range is on display.
Murphy's works frequently incorporate elements of other artforms. The Silver Rose (2005) is distinctly filmic, Grand (2005) homages the jazz era, whereas Air and Other Invisible Forces (1999) uses shakuhachi flute and Asian influenced movement styles. It is startling to think that in the year Air and Other Invisible Forces came out – a piece that was formative in this reviewer's own youthful appreciation of art – Murphy was already being named a National Living Treasure by the National Trust.
The retrospective is steeped in history in a very personal way. The Australian Ballet has made efforts to reunite the creative teams from the original productions and to reuse or recreate original sets and costumes. Murphy's first break as a dancer was with the Australian Ballet some fifty years ago and you can feel the love that has been put into recreating his old works.
The pieces are visually lush and, this being the Australian Ballet, it goes without saying that the dancing is impeccable. There is cunning use of stagecraft, such as a vast billowing silk that alternately divides or encircles the dancers in Air and Other Invisible Forces, or The Silver Rose's tilting bed, which enables lovers' night-time interactions to be played out as a dance.
The level of intimacy in the couple dances is striking. Murphy's choreography makes liberal use of physical contact between the performers and relationships on stage feel intense and convincingly romantic, even erotic. The use of contact is perhaps at its apex in Air... in a trio dance which has three dancers almost constantly intertwined, flowing together in a hypnotic whirl of graceful bodies.
The night culminates in Murphy's 2009 reinterpretation of Stravinsky's Firebird. A flight of fantasy loosely based on Russian fairy-tales, this version is more fantastical than most with the evil wizard depicted as a literal serpent and a set made of giant cracked eggs from which the wizard and his minions emerge as if hatching. It is a visual feast with Lana Jones bringing a tremulous intensity to the role of the titular bird, and Brett Chynoweth a louche charm to the serpentine sorcerer.
My personal highlight of the night was Grand. With its elegant incorporation of jazz stylings, its balance of light and dark, combining deeply emotional pieces with touches of humour, and its on-stage piano, sparklingly played by Sydney pianist Scott Davie, it is a finely tuned piece of art.
I could have lived in its world all night, or any of the several worlds on display. That perhaps is what strikes me most about Murphy's creations: each indeed feels like its own world, with its own unique visual and physical language. This collection of his works makes for both a deeply satisfying spectacle and a beautiful tribute to an artist who has shaped the face of dance in Australia.
The Australian Ballet presents
16 – 26 March 2018
State Theatre Arts Centre Melbourne
with Orchestra Victoria
6 – 23 April 2018
Joan Sutherland Theatre Sydney Opera House
with Opera Australia Orchestra