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The master of movement invention – Graeme Murphy

By Kristy Johnson.

Infinity sees choreographers Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page, collaborate in a powerhouse triple bill, for The Australian Ballet’s 50th Year Anniversary.

Murphy takes a turn from his established narrative style with an abstract piece aptly titled The Narrative of Nothing. This piece allows audience members to appreciate a pared back ballet from which they are able to draw their own stories.

Having known the company intimately as a dancer and choreographer, Graeme returns to The Australian Ballet to open its milestone 50th year.

Prior to the Melbourne premiere, Dance Informa journalist Kristy Johnson sat down with the iconic Australian choreographer.

Firstly, congratulations on your last work choreographed for The Australian Ballet, Romeo and Juliet.

Oh, thank you. I have to tell you, I really enjoyed that work. I’m so happy to hear, because I thought it was going to be hard for some of the diehard fans. They’ve had that one for a long time. I had to shake cobwebs off, you know? It’s a beautiful ballet, but this was not going to be a replica of that. There’s no point. I think it paid off because it brought in a really different audience. I think there were a lot of people who weren’t necessarily ballet people in the audience, because it was visually sort of everywhere.

Trained dancers are the best audience; they actually know how hard it is. A lot of people love ballet, without sort of knowing. And it’s not just about knowing how hard it is, it’s about knowing how much brainpower goes into making those things work. It’s about making hard things look easy. I often tell my dancers, ‘make it look harder’ (laughs).

Graeme Murphy. Photos by Lynette Wills

With your next choreographic work The Narrative of Nothing falling more on the abstract side, were you keen to break away from a pure storytelling piece?

I used to always alternate doing a storytelling work and doing a pure dance piece at Sydney Dance Company, because if you do one storytelling piece after another, you just get into this sort of really difficult deep world of ‘how do I tell this in dance?’ It’s so hard because you let the music put you in free fall. The dancers are a huge motivation in this one, because they’re all beautiful.

There will be 1500 people in that auditorium and there will be 1500 different narratives applied to my non-narrative work. That’s how it should be. Human beings are not capable of accepting abstraction. That’s human nature to tell stories.

You must be excited to be choreographing this piece as part of The Australian Ballet’s 50 Year Anniversary.

It’s like being part of a family of dancers, because I’ve been working pretty solidly here for the past thirty years. This is one of the greatest companies in the world and it’s not necessarily about standards and techniques. It’s about the fact that it lets people grow. It’s a beautiful network of individual dancers. There’s such a variety of people I like to work with and in some companies you don’t get that. You get that fabulous uniformity but you’re just hanging out for a rebel (laughs). I do love this company.

How can you tell when a dancer has that X-factor?

I think you don’t always tell when someone walks into the room. I think it’s something you learn and sometimes someone who you just saw dimly in the background pulls your eye and you store him or her in your memory for a work like this. This is a great work. To work with some of the more established people and the more unknown. I keep pushing because if I see the spark, I’m going to break your comfort zone. I’m going to push you out of your warm fluffy slippers (laughs).

Why do you think your partnership with your wife and Creative Associate Janet Vernon works so well?

We know each other so well and she was my muse for so many years. She’ll see me demonstrate the step and the dancer perform the step, but she sees beyond those things and she sees how that step should be. She was the person who would be the icing on the cake or put that level of perfection up a notch. She’s fabulous and the dancers love her because when she gives direction, they know it has the potential to push the level. The dancers want it. You’re not in this profession if you’re lazy, are you?

How does it feel to be working alongside Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page?

That’s extraordinary. I’ve got to keep up with the young guns (laughs). Both those choreographers have found their signature and found their stride. You see their hunger to create, and that’s what choreography needs. That’s the mark of choreography.

You have had such an amazing career to date. How do you ensure your creative ability is always flowing?

I’m very lucky. I’ve always had a good variety. I’m so blessed my job has led me and hasn’t stuck me into one mould. But at the end of the day my greatest joy is creating one one-on-one dance in the studio. That’s more thrilling than the opening night. That process as opposed to the finished product is what keeps you interested; hoping that I can sometimes break out of what comes naturally and what comes easily, and find another direction to extend my vocabulary and find some new words. It’s the same in life. You can sit comfortably in one level but occasionally you have to break the mould, find some new friends and do something that scares you. This has afforded me all of that. That’s why I’m still interested.

Infinity closes on March 6 in Melbourne. Sydney shows will commence from April 5-25. For bookings visit or call 1300 369 741.

Published by Dance Informa dance magazine – everything dance in Australiadance news, dance auditions & dance events.

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