Murphy: Firebird, Sheherazade and excerpts from Silver Rose, Air and Other Invisible Forces, Ellipse, Grand
Sydney, Opera House
6 April 2018
It was a night of nostalgia, Ballets Russes’ memories, bare chests and sheer costumes, a stage full of cracked eggs, and a kaleidoscope of colour. Within this potpourri of Graeme Murphy’s works, the highlight was Grand, a charming and poignant tribute he created in 2005 for his mother, a pianist, who died the previous year.
The program, titled Murphy, was itself a tribute to Murphy’s long association with the Australian Ballet, as a dancer and choreographer and his 30-plus years at the helm of the Sydney Dance Company.
As Murphy curated the program himself, the six pieces he chose seemed to be those that meant the most to him rather than a collection representing his impact on dance in Australia and specifically, one of the most important gifts Murphy has given to Australian audiences – the unique way in which he interpreted Australian stories, whether they were set at a Sydney beach (Rumours), a country town wedding (Nearly Beloved), at variety theatre shows that toured the country until the mid-1960s (Tivoli), or the years when Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes’ troupes toured to Australia and left behind the men and women who founded Australian ballet companies (Nutcracker: The Story of Clara).
While the program of four excerpts from Murphy’s body of work and two full works, Scherezade and the one act ballet, Firebird, lacked cohesion it did show the trademark moves and steps of his choreography – the floor slides, complex and twisty lifts, quick running backwards, the formation of groups, whether small or large, and an underlying connection to the days of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, none more than the moment in Grand, when the women rested their heads on one another in the manner of Nijinska’s Les Noces.
The Ballets Russes’ elements weren’t surprising considering Murphy’s first full-length dance theatre work for the Sydney Dance Company was Poppy – the life and art of Jean Cocteau.
That wasn’t part of the Murphy program except for the similarity in one aspect of the set in the first piece, a pas de deux from Murphy’s Silver Rose, adapted from the opera, Der Rosenkavalier. In the Silver Rose prologue the lovers lie on a bed that is shown vertically, in the same way as Murphy himself lay on a vertical white (hospital) bed when he played the role of Cocteau in Poppy back in 1978.
Three excerpts followed Silver Rose and only one, Grand, was long enough to get a sense of what the original works were all about, from a choreographic, musical and narrative point of view. For example the four dancers in Ellipse, leapt into a do-se-do game of playful pats on the backside while the entire Ellipse (2002) represented the way the dancers could move in so many ways to the driving force of the 90-minute compilation of music by the Australian composer, Mathew Hindson.
Sheherazade, set to Ravel’s score, with four dancers sharing the stage with the mezzo soprano, Victoria Lambourn, made a strong impact, especially for those in the audience who could remember Murphy’s 1970s era at the SDC, and how well he collaborated with the late designer, Kristian Fredrikson, who played a major role in Murphy’s works. Fredrikson’s Gustav Klimt-inspired costumes added much to the mood of Sheherazade.
Murphy’s Firebird was choreographed as part of the Australian Ballet’s three-year program acknowledging the impact of Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes’ tours to Australia from 1936-40. Firebird premiered in 2009 in a triple bill along with the traditional Les Sylphides and Petrouchka.
As a stand-alone piece that ended the Murphy program, Firebird also seemed lost in the absence of context. The set is overwhelmed by cracked and broken eggs of various size, among them a giant egg that serves as an entrance for the metamorphosis of Ivan and Tsarevna (Kevin Jackson and Amber Scott). They re-enter as they emerge from another egg in the guise of the naked Adam and Eve. As the Firebird, Lana Jones reprieved the role that was made on her in 2009. She gave it her all and kept the focus on the Firebird whose fierce manner was more than a match for the reptilian Kostchei, (Brett Chynoweth) who also emerged from an egg complete with striped tail. Of course there is an egg in the story of Firebird, one that keeps Kostchei’s soul in a magical egg hidden in a casket. In this production, the eggs are definitely not in hiding.
Throughout, the Australian Ballet dancers were exceptional as they traversed many styles and narratives and kept their energy on full throttle, particularly Chynoweth who danced in four of the works on opening night in Sydney.
His showbiz duet with Marcus Morelli to Fats Waller’s music in Grand was a highlight of the evening although all the segments of Grand were a pleasure to watch and something to be treasured for, I hope, another season. Scott Davie played his grand piano as it rolled around the stage with the dancers inhabiting the music of Alberto Ginastera, Beethoven, Gershwin, Waller and Gounod with much aplomb and sensitivity. Play it, Scott, again.