Graeme Murphy AO
- Graeme Murphy AO
Graeme Murphy AO
Graeme Lloyd Murphy was born in Melbourne in 1950, but grew up in Tasmania
In 1968, when he was 14, he was accepted into the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne – the youngest student to gain entry.
Murphy toured the United States with the Australian Ballet’s Don Quixote in 1970-71.
An Australia Council grant enabled Murphy to study in New York with the Joffrey Ballet.
The Pied Piper of Dance
In 1989 performing arts writer Pamela Ruskin had this to say about Graeme Murphy: ‘In March 1987, Graeme Murphy’s photograph appeared on the cover of the glossy magazine Follow Meand on posters displayed by newsagents all over Australia. The symbolism is apt, for he is something of a Pied Piper of dance. It is what he asks of his dancers: “Follow me’. And they do, with total commitment. Dancers regard it as a great privilege to find a place in the Sydney Dance Company. He is Australia’s most innovative choreographer. He is, too, an inspired producer. His is a versatile talent and he has the ability to seize each “shining” moment and with his quicksilver mind, move in a new direction with almost every new work. A genuinely charismatic figure, he has a particularly strong following among the younger generation. He is clever, articulate and immensely gifted.’
Graeme Lloyd Murphy was born in Melbourne in 1950, but grew up in Tasmania. His first experience of dance was seeing a touring Tivoli revue – and he was hooked! His first teacher was Kenneth Gillespie in Launceston. In 1968, when he was 14, he was accepted into the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne – the youngest student to gain entry. A scholarship helped pay for his studies. It was at the school that he met Janet Vernon – this was the start of their long professional and personal partnership. In 1968, during his third year at the school, he was invited to join the Australian Ballet.
His performance later that year with Vernon in Garth Welch’s Jeunesse attracted praise from dance reviewers. Murphy toured the United States with the Australian Ballet’s Don Quixote in 1970-71. His first choreographic work, Ecco le Diavole, created to music by Nino Rota, was a highlight of the company’s First Choreographic Workshop, which was presented by the Australian Ballet Society at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne on 17 July 1971.
An Australia Council grant enabled Murphy to study in New York with the Joffrey Ballet. He worked for six months with the Royal Ballet in London, and then joined Vernon who was dancing with Les Ballets Félix Blaska, a contemporary touring company based at Grenoble in France. After this they toured the East with Ballet Caravan, eventually hitch-hiking their way home from Manila.
Murphy tried to freelance as a choreographer. He choreographed 3 Conversations for the Queensland Ballet, Pandora for the Tasmanian Ballet and the full-length Papillon for the Australian Ballet School – but these were not enough to sustain him financially. In 1976 Murphy and Vernon decided to return to the Australian Ballet, as resident choreographer and coryphée, she as a soloist. Later that year Murphy travelled with the Australian Ballet back to London where he danced in The Merry Widow. He also attended the Gulbenkian Foundation summer school there.
At the end of 1976, Murphy was appointed director of the Dance Company (NSW). The first ballet he created for the company was Glimpses in 1977, to music by Margaret Sutherland. In 1979 came the sensational Cocteau-inspired Poppy, the first full-length ballet ever created in Australia, with a score commissioned from Carl Vine. It was in the company’s debut season in Melbourne, at the Princess Theatre in 1980, and it was seen in New York the following year, on the first of the company’s more than 20 overseas trips. They have toured through Asia, Europe, and North and South America.
Under his inspired direction the SDC emerged as a major choreographer-led contemporary dance company. Clever marketing attracted a new, devoted, younger audience. With Vernon as his associate director, Murphy nurtured the work of other Australian choreographers, notably Paul Mercurio, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page.
In his 30 years at the helm, Murphy created a remarkably diverse repertoire, including 30 full-length productions. His works reflect his eclectic interest the music of 20th century composers: Maurice Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Daphnis and Chloé; Iannis Xenakis’ Kraanerg; Karol Szymanowski’s Mythes Opus 30, Song of the Night and King Roger; Olivier Messaien’s Turangalila Symphony; Steve Martland’s Drill and Istvan Marta’s A Doll’s House Story, are examples.
Graeme Murphy is also passionately committed to Australian music. He has commissioned scores from many local composers, such as Barry Conyngham (Rumours, VAST), Richard Meale (Viridian), Graeme Koehne (The Selfish Giant, Nearly Beloved, Tivoli), Martin Armiger (Fornicon), Ross Edwards (Sensing), Iva Davies (Boxes, Berlin), Max Lambert (Deadly Sins, Berlin, Tivoli), Michael Askill (Free Radicals, Salome, Air and Other Invisible Forces), Matthew Hindson (Ellipse) and Carl Vine (Tip, Poppy, Piano Sonata, Beauty and the Beast, Mythologia).
Additionally, he has created works for the Australian Ballet (including Nutcracker and his 2002 award-winning Swan Lake, conceived in collaboration with Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson); The Silver Rose for the Bayerisches Staatsballet München; Mulan for the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble; Song of the Night for Nederlands Dans Theater, Orpheus for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and Embodied, a solo work for Mikhail Baryshnikov and the White Oak Dance Project. He has choreographed for the Canadian Opera Company (Death in Venice) and more recently for the Metropolitan Opera, New York (Samson and Dalila). He has also choreographed extensively for the ice skaters Torvill and Dean, creating their world tour show as well as the TV special Fire and Ice.
In 1988 Murphy was commissioned by the Australian Bicentennial Authority to create a national dance event, VAST, involving 70 dancers from four state dance companies – Australian Dance Theatre, West Australian Ballet, The Queensland Ballet and Sydney Dance Company.
He began directing for Opera Australia in 1984 with Brian Howard’s Metamorphosis, subsequently directing an acclaimed production of Puccini’s Turandot, followed by Richard Strauss’s Salome and Berlioz’ The Trojans, the latter combining the singers and dancers of Opera Australia with the Sydney Dance Company in a lavish spectacle. His Turandot has been revived many times.
In 2000 Murphy celebrated with a retrospective season at the Sydney Opera House, opening with a Gala Performance followed by Body of Work – A Retrospective. He next created Mythologia, an elaborate full-length work commissioned for the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival.
In 2001 he created Tivoli – a dance musical paying tribute to the much loved Tivoli variety and revue circuit. Tivoli was an historic co-production between the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company, produced to mark the Centenary of Federation. It was seen in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and had two seasons in Sydney. It won four Australian Dance Awards, including Outstanding Achievement in Choreography.
In 1982 Graeme Murphy was awarded an AM for his services to dance. He is the recipient of three honorary doctorates – Hon. D Litt Tas (1990), Hon. D Phil Qld (1992), Hon. D Litt UNSW (1999). He was honoured at the Inaugural Sydney Opera House Honours in 1998 and was named by the National Trust of Australia as a National Living Treasure in 1999.
Live Performance Australia presented him with the 2001 Helpmann Award for Best Choreography for Body of Work – A Retrospective, Gala Performance and, the following year, the James Cassius Williamson Award, in recognition of his career achievements.
In 2003, he was awarded the Australian Government’s Centenary Medal in honour of his contribution to the development of dance in Australia. In 2004 he was named Cultural Leader of the Year by the Australian Business and the Arts Foundation, receiving the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Award in commemoration of this honour. In 2005 he was listed among Australia’s 50 Most Glamorous Exports at a special celebration hosted by the Australian Government and Austrade.
Murphy received Australian Dance Awards for outstanding achievement in choreography for Tivoli in 2001 and Swan Lake in 2003. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2006, the year in which both he and Vernon resigned from the Sydney Dance Company, they were joint recipients of the award for lifetime achievement. They took their final SDC bows in 2007.
After his 30 years with Sydney Dance Company, the remarkable Mr Murphy is setting out afresh, seeking new opportunities, relishing new challenges. The Pied Piper is playing again.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Edward H. Pask: Ballet in Australia – The Second Act, Oxford University Press, 1982
Pamela Ruskin: Invitation to the Dance, Collins, 1989