The last few years have borne a whirlwind of changes for Graeme Murphy. Having left Sydney Dance Company in 2007, Graeme and Janet Vernon (his artistic and life partner) proceeded to produce an amazing amount of creative work. Amidst this abundance of practice and output, Murphy’s body of work continues to reflect the boundless curiosity he has for both the discipline of dance and phenomenon of life. Join us as we revisit this classic Dumbo interview with Graeme Murphy all the way back from Issue 2.
Graeme Murphy is the father of contemporary Australian dance. His fascination with the possibilities of “what a body can say” and his relentless quest to bring out the unique spirit of each dancer, has lead him to create some of the most iconic, sublime Australian dance works of the century – Swan Lake, Tivoli, Ellipse… As Artistic Director of The Sydney Dance Company for almost 30 years, his works have been performed globally by The Australian Ballet, The (New York) Metropolitan Opera, Torvill and Dean and many others. Oh, and he’s an honourary doctor three times over, a National Living Treasure, has been awarded an AM and the Centenary Medal, and is rather partial to a martini.
DUMBO FEATHER: So you’re right in the thick of Shades of Gray?
GRAMEME MURPHY: It’s the kind of work that sort of overpowers you and overtakes you. I try not to come every night, but I find it hard not to come because it’s still growing, and the performances are expanding and I love to see where they’re taking it. And then of course there’s always the drama of a new injury. In a company of 18 I think we have a quarter of the company off currently with major operational things. So we’re juggling casts… There are two complete casts of principals which is really good, so you get two very different performances, both very valid. For me Dorian is such a complex character that I don’t mind seeing another interpretation because vanity has many faces. Really the only way is a company of 80, I know why the classical companies are huge. You forget how frail and human dancers are when they’re looking so fabulously sturdy and athletic.
Did you ever suffer any major injury?
I had a fairly blessed career, but then I had a fairly brief career because by the time I was directing this company, I was already starting to phase it out. In the early years I was dancing, and directing, and choreographing – dancing on stage and looking around seeing what lights weren’t coming on. It was really disruptive, it’s so hard to do all those things. Then I started phasing out dancing a little, and doing more choreography. But I think my work got a lot better when I stopped dancing because I could put total focus on the theatricality of the work, I could go out into where the audience sat and see what was wrong, and that was such a revelation!
So why was it that you tended that way rather than towards dance?
I think I always knew I wanted to choreograph, I was just fascinated with the endless possibilities of what a body can say. And I also had a career in a big classical company, and in big classical companies the exception is new choreographic works – normally you’re doing repertory – and repertory means that you’re really reproducing works that are in the tradition of the dance. Sometimes they’re 100 years old, and sometimes they’re 50 years old, and sometimes they’re 10 years old, but rarely are they being made around you. I just knew that no-one was going to get my number, no-one was going to tap into what I was good at unless I was working with them choreographically. And I decided that I would virtually dedicate my life to tapping into what dancers are good at and exploiting it in the best way possible on the stage. So that their contribution is a physical and creative contribution to what’s going on on stage, not something they’re fitting into. I was always dancing dead dancers’ roles, and it felt like necrophilia after a while! I said for so long, “Please can’t I do something that comes from inside me?”
So when you did revisit one of the great classics, being Swan Lake, you completely revisited it?
The steps are beautiful, and the tradition’s there and the music’s sublime. Everyone does after Petipa or after Ivanov, or they do their version based on that, and I thought, well everyone’s done that. By now, what everyone thinks of as the original Swan Lake is so far removed from what it was, that it’s just pretentious to think, I’m doing the original, or all I’m doing is adapting the original. So I just decided not to even think about the original, and yet somehow elements of it, key elements, key motifs, or almost the mythology of the work, still managed to get back into that work. I wanted to give audiences the magic they expected of Swan Lake (see page 102 *Swansong). I did things like reorder more in the way Tchaikovsky had ordered the music, and so the purists were dying because they thought the Black Swan came in Act Three when in fact it comes in Act One where I put it. Richard Bonynge had done a lot of research and put it back to the original manuscript, and that was what I based it on.
So you really worked from the music rather than…
Yes absolutely. I mean we first have a concept , and Janet [Vernon] and myself, and Kristian Fredrikson had many discussions about where it might go. And one of the places it might have gone was Tsarist Russia and the Ivanovs and Rasputin as the Von Rothbart villain, and that was cool… I actually, I found it too removed in the same way that with Shades of Gray, if I’d had to go back to the 1800s Gothic, foggy London I would have found that hard too. And in the same way that when I did the Nutcracker with The Australian Ballet I had to make it relevant to me, so I set it in Melbourne in Summer. So when we hit upon the immortal line, “There were three people in this marriage”, the Diana line, it just hit.
So you very much draw from your own experience?
Look, all my work’s autobiographical, and I don’t think there’s any denying it. I mean where else can I draw from, someone else’s ideas? I mean having said that, I look at art, and I look at literature as a source, and I look at life. And my best experience of life has been my own. I think every artist has to draw from their own experience. I think
someone smart could probably look at all my work and know a hell of a lot more than I would like them to about me.
And in this latest work, about who you were in the ’70s and ’80s?
I don’t know. I was there, so obviously it permeated my youth and therefore it permeates my creativity. I draw from my past, and I draw from my present, and I think about my future and all of those things… I love dabbling with age, and the passage of time, and I love older people on stage. I find that the concept of beautiful young baby companies with no depth of field of character is a bit impoverished. I’m sick of seeing young people playing old people where old people should be playing themselves. And dancers are eternal – I don’t think dance is something that has a shelf-life, or a useby date, I really think that dance, and you will be a dancer forever. I used Dame Margaret Scott in the Nutcracker when she was in her late seventies and Val Tweedie at a similar age, Harry Haythorne in Tivoli on rollerskates you know at the age of 76 doing the same steps he was doing when he was 25. So they are a palette I find interesting, not shallow children… I know their injuries and I know what I have to work around, but then I have the absolute joy of being able to create with people who have had life experience, who aren’t pretending to have loved and lost – it makes a huge difference. Especially a work like this [Shades of Gray] – some of the kids weren’t around in the ’60s so they had to research, they had to get out the DVDs and Andy Warhol films (see page 109 *Of an era) and they had to know who Edie Sedgwick was. I do work about everything I feel. I’m really lucky, I’m so indulged. If I have something that’s worrying me, or that I’m feeling strongly about, I can do it. Dorian Gray was quite interesting because the sub-plot of Dorian Gray is really about the AIDS crisis and how it affected the dance community, and how basically, how complacent we have become because in the West we’ve got a few smart drugs. But all of the statistics say the percentages are rising, and that’s a new generation who’ve gone, oh it’s okay. But not only that, you look at it as a global thing and one in five people in Africa have AIDS, and you think, why are we not addressing this issue? Maybe because there’s a trendy American war happening or whatever.
Trendy from the point of view of, “Let’s jump on the bandwagon”, not “How do we solve this?” There’s a wonderful Wilde quote in Dumbo feather Issue One which goes something along the lines of “War will only become unpopular when it ceases to be seen as wicked, but as vulgar instead” [ed. Wilde “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”] And that’s something that makes me laugh because people go “Oh, it’s not Oscar”, but this is exactly what Oscar would be doing if he was around now, only more extreme than I’m doing!
You could retire today…
Some say I should!
Oh, but you could, and you would be lauded as the father of contemporary Australian dance…
Funny isn’t it?
And a living… What are you? Isn’t it a National Living Treasure?
Yes, I am! Dusty and buried, but living. I just think that it’s funny, it’s such a funny thing because maybe if I did retire then those things would mean a lot to me. But the current obsession, is the current obsession, and
the current crop of dancers are beautiful people who I have to find their resonance in the dance world before it’s too late,
it goes so quickly.
And that’s what compels you to keep creating, seeing that new talent coming through?
Absolutely. I deal in human trafficking, it’s about the body trade. You have to be there at the right time for these people – everyone has a moment of ripening, of maturing, of self-discovery – and I want to be around to help share that with the dance public and the dance world. But it goes beyond that. This piece is not particularly a dance piece, it’s a piece of theatre. [Janet comes into dressing room]
JANET: Sorry, I’ll be quiet.
That’s okay. We were going to be in the Green Room, but that bloody television. Time is a strange thing for both of us because 26, 27 years just flew like anything, and no sense of it. You almost feel like you’ve got the same dancers you started with, because there’s this overlapping, and one generation of dancers comes in at the point and are fed by the older generation, and you forget they’re our great, great, great grandchildren, not our children! You can imagine how many dancers have flowed under the bridge. But interestingly, the aspect of the way I work is that if I have a lot of dancers I don’t know, then I tap their dance talent and tend to do abstract works that are about their physicality and their beauty. And then as I get to know them more I get to do more narrative works, which is about their inner self and who they are and who they can become.
In the early days of your partnership with Janet, was that very much the way you worked? You used her as your muse and created works in that way for her?
Yeah, I mean there are certain dancers that inspire, and there are a handful over the 26 years that… I did those works because those people were around. There were a huge amount that Janet inspired, and pushed and created, and there was the Paul Mercurio era when I mostly used Paul, and it’s gone on from there. Tracey is a fascinating creature in the company at the moment.
Carrodus. And she’s been with us for seven or eight… she might say “Don’t be stupid Graeme, I’ve been here ten"… My sense of time is shockingly warped. But I think dancers, and particularly choreographers, do get tired. We can make a minute seem like an hour, or we can make it seem like a nanosecond. The nice thing about dance is a mirror – you’re possessed by your mirror image, you’ve been trained to look at yourself shockingly critically in the mirror, and when you’re not doing it, some ballet teacher’s telling you you’re crap anyway. And it’s a really fascinating journey, and it’s very Cocteau-esque, you know Cocteau who was obsessed with mirrors. There’s a time when you need the mirror because it’s like informing you of who you are, what’s wrong with you, your flaws, your imperfections are always there on show. And then there’s a beautiful time when you know what you look like and it’s almost like you’ve swallowed that mirror and you’ve imbibed it, you can see yourself internally. You’re on the stage and you know where every bit of your body is, and that’s a beautiful breakthrough. That’s a lovely time when you no longer need the external… And even better still is when you become reflective, and you can mirror other people’s emotions. You can be on stage and they know by looking at you what they feel, and where they are in the world. You’ve just become the reflective object. It’s very rare, there’s only a handful of artists who reflect that sort of light, really just a handful.
Who do you believe are some of the greats in that handful?
Really glowing? Margot [Fonteyn] was glowing, [Mikhail] Baryshnikov was glowing…
Fabulous technicians will blow your socks off, but the ones that will tell you something, something about yourself by watching them, are a rarity.
One imagines that Nijinsky was one of them. Janet Vernon was glowing. She could, with the most subtleist of movements, tell a whole house of 3,000 people what she was thinking in that second. Such a talent is rare, and I think there are people in theatre and film that have it too. But then there’s the Cocteau thing of the mirror being the doorway to death, and his reason for that was if you watch yourself all your life in the mirror, you’ll see death at work like bees in a glass hive. And if you stare at the mirror as much as a dancer does, you just see the changes occurring, and you see your moment of greatest beauty and you see your moment of decline. I found it really painful at that moment when you think, this is really, this is towards the end, and I was 38. Because you know there are definite cut-off dates that the world has dictated are the cut-off dates, and 40 is usually it. I solved that problem by just going away for a year at the age of 39 and it was miraculous, because I ceased to care. But I remember as a child, I was lying about my age when I was 18, because I didn’t want to be 20, because people who were 20 looked like they didn’t have long to go.
Yet you were 14 when you were accepted into the Australian Ballet School… was that really your age?
Yes, it really was! I left home and school with three years of high school under my belt. It makes me laugh now because my parents said I’d never do well because my education – when I was pushed into the world of dance – stopped, and they were both school teachers! But then when I brought home three honorary doctorates they sort of hung up the hats and the gowns in the hallway, because none of their kids had actually done it for real, but I managed to get three honorary! It was nice revenge for those people who said, “If you don’t get an education you’ll be nothing”. I’ve got no education, but I’ve got three doctorates. Yes!
I’ll have to remember that, to refer to you as Doctor in the profile! So when you did leave, were they supportive of you?
Oh they were divine. It’s very hard to leave home at 14 if your parents aren’t supportive, the police bring you back. I was really lucky. And also, more so for my parents and for me, it was fairly traumatic because I was quite a young 14 year old, quite under-developed physically, and I did have a very protective family in a very isolated country town in Tasmania. To hit Melbourne was a big deal, and especially the dance world. At that point the Australian Ballet Company and School shared residence so you were constantly reminded of your goals and your shortcomings.
But also, I can imagine being surrounded by your heroes and mentors, must have been wonderful.
Very much. People who became lifetime friends, and people who affected… You might be malleable, physically and mentally, to get some value from that, but not everyone survives that time with sort of hormones flying round, and emotions flying round, and the physical strain of dancing full days… I can remember walking to the train and thinking, I’m not going to make it to the house, crawling along the footpath thinking, “I’m buggered”.
And how did you know you wanted to be a dancer at age 14?
I knew I wanted to be at about age four. I seriously did. I didn’t quite know what the definition of a dancer was, I just knew that I wanted to physically dance and whenever music happened, that’s what happened.
You grooved around the house.
I grooved around the house. Then when I went to school, I did school concerts, and anything remotely entertaining could get into the school concert. I did numbers, and I choreographed a lovely dairy scene with girls from the local area! I don’t know where it all came from…
I suppose they now say, “Oh yes, I was once in a performance choreographed by Graeme Murphy!”
I doubt it! But I do go back and I went back to Mathinna – which is a minute ghost town really, ex-gold-mining, now turned timber, probably forestry massacred down in Tasmania – and there was a little bus shelter, shockingly dilapidated, and there were famous people from Mathinna, and there was my photo! Janet and I drove through on our sabbatical and there on this bus shelter was this fading photograph… It was so funny. It’s one of those beautiful places that hasn’t changed… Tasmania’s miraculous like that.
You took your sabbatical last year?
Yes, I took six months off, took some time to rediscover my homeland. Tasmania was divine, I did a lot of photography, and a lot of drawing, and things I’d never done before, and I read buckets and towards the end of the sabbatical we thought we’d better to a bit of formal sabbatical activity. We went to Russia, and Scandinavia, and Prague, Vienna and Sicily of course, I always go to Sicily.
Because the people are so good, and the food’s so good, because it’s an island, and I love islands (see page 116 An Island Life). I’m an islander, even living in Coogee, I feel like I’m on an island, I look over Wedding Cake Island, and the ocean that’s surrounding me almost comes three quarters. I pretend I’m on an island. I get a bit antsy if I’m inland. The sabbatical was important because Shades did emerge out of it. I read a book called Dorian, by Will Self, which was fascinating, which was again, yet another person with a take on Oscar, I mean he’s so rich. I just find him rich because he’s poetic, and I think Dorian has resonance on every generation. It was funny because when we were starting to think “What are we going to do next May?”, as you do – you either know three years out or three months before, it’s one of those things, never when you want it to be – and we were thinking of doing a take on film noir (see page 110 Film Noir) and in the darkness of this story, something pricked in my conscio, and I thought Dorian as a dancer, who else is more suited to prolonging one’s career, one’s life. Most people would sell their souls for an injury-free body in this profession. It was rich pickin’s.
And Some Rooms, which is your next performance coming up, what’s the story behind that?
Well Some Rooms will be 21 next year which is extraordinary, and it was such a key work for the [Sydney Dance] Company. It was created at a time when we were facing liquidation, we were in receivership actually, and the Opera House rallied – because I’d created the work and it looked like the work would never hit a stage – but the Opera House made the venue available, virtually sponsored us for a season. And it went on to be a smash hit that actually rescued us. We took it to New York, all round America, it was huge. I have a huge affection for it, and I believe it is a timeless classic. I’ll adapt it to the dancers that have to do it because all my works are individually tailored around the needs, and experiences, and talents of people, so it’s inevitable that I’ll rework something. But I think its structure will stay virtually the same. I’m not sure if you have to – if people’s memories are rose-coloured. Technically the world of dance, and the world of lighting technology and so on, have moved on so far to at we used to have the classic three-colour washes, and that was about it. I think that it deserves to be revisited technically, but we’ll see because I won’t really know until I’m in there.
And are you thinking of new works?
Yeah, one of the things is necessity because funding bodies want to know what you’re doing for the next five years so they’ll fund you, and that’s really hard because creatively you have to have a storehouse of ideas, and some of them will come to fruition and some of them will dry up and wither on the vine. I do have lots of ideas, but I’m always open to a new one that might slip in the back door. I think that’s good.
How do you work? Do you write them down, do you sketch?
No, I think enliterature’s the enemy of dance and I tend not to translate into words too much. A work like this – which is literary-based, based on historical literary writing, and is in 18 scenes – I actually have to put pen to paper and just break it down into its basic forms so that the designer, the composer, the lighting designer, costume designer, could all know where I was coming from. But so often I let a work evolve organically, in the studio, with the bodies. I don’t like to go in with preconceived steps because
I think it’s rude to expect a dancer just to wear your steps, I want them to make the cloth with me.
Sure I’ll go in there and I’ll go “We’re going to do this, and that, and that”, but when they do it, it looks different, and I’ll say “Look I really love it when you exaggerate that aspect of it”. Ideas are essential. If you don’t have an idea, then there’s no way it’s going to work. Even in an abstract work, even in a full-length work with no storyline, themes emerge, ideas emerge, emotional content comes. You know when you’re dealing with people’s bodies…
For a start you’ve got sex, the minute you see a beautiful body you think that, and the minute you see two, your mind just goes overboard.
So I mean that aspect is inevitable, you have to be open to it. If you treat bodies like lumps of clay, then you get ballets like lumps of clay, a pottery work.
I read an interview where you used that analogy of the lump of clay as being the antithesis of the ideal muse. You were saying that the ideal muse has a brain.
And Janet was ideal like that, a muse with a mouth! In dance everyone just thinks we’re all just mutes – I don’t think you’re allowed to say mutes, you have to say something-challenged – because we don’t speak, people think we can’t, or people think dance performers are strangely inadequate. There are two sorts of people that go to the theatre, the ones who like lots of words, and the ones who like none, and I belong to the latter. I’m not good at even movies, I just want to see things, I love movies that are visual, but people talking, agh… I watch television with the sound off!
Brilliant! Just watching the body language.
You learn so much more.
I love football, love watching the footy, it’s the accidents in their movement which are so interesting.
We all can actually intellectualise movement, but when fate steps in… That’s why football’s so beautiful in terms of creativity, because nothing’s planned really – they pretend they have game plans, but that’s bull shit – they just go after a ball, fixate on a ball, and it all happens.
Do you ever wonder, “How on earth am I going to come up with a new step?”
Yes, usually when I’ve just done a new ballet, and there’s nothing left, I’m just drained, and I’m just emptied out. That’s the most vulnerable time, that’s when the critics stick the knife in, and you go, “Oh gee thanks, I’ve just killed myself on this work, every day I’ve been up there…It worried me for about the first five years of my career, and then I went, 80% of the time they’re wrong, so you can’t take the good, you just can’t say, "Oh I love that review, it was so spot on”, because they liked it. I realized that if you want to dismiss the critics, then you’ve got to dismiss the good as well as the bad, and that’s liberating, you’re free. Works that are wildly successful at the box office and works that aren’t, that’s not a judgement thing either because works, great works of art are usually unrecognized at the time because they’re timeless, or ahead of their time. I mean you have to survive, but you cannot glue yourself to what makes a hit, and what makes a financial success, because it’s not what makes art.
So how do you judge? How do you know you’ve nailed it?
It’s my personal barometer. I’m afraid I can only judge from what I want to see on stage, when I know I’m moved, and also there’s this silence in the audience that comes about. There’s a moment when, even if the audience is perfectly still and silent, there’s a different sort of silence at the point when people are touched, and
if you could bottle that silence and if you could make a perfume out of it, it would be the most rare, gorgeous scent.
I live for those moments. You have audiences who have been trained to clap like performing seals – when the music goes da da, they wake up and burst into applause – so to have audiences just sit there and suck it in, and soak it in through their eyeballs straight into their brain, and they’re not even taking it via their intellect, they’re taking it straight into the emotional part of their brain. And you know that, because it makes a different noise.
You do mix it up, stylistically, such a lot, that the chances that someone’s going to appreciate it all, are pretty slim.
You do one work and people find it incredibly hard, and therefore the next work they don’t find so hard because you’ve pushed them that little bit further. I’d hate the world of dance if it was uncaring about an audience, we all live for those moments when you feel an audience is there. It’s almost as if they’re up there helping you do those steps. But the Company is blessed, its longevity is really rare in the world of contemporary dance – especially a choreographer’s company – because after seven years you think, “I’ve seen all this person has to give me”. To have kept people, and to have kept alive through the financial insecurities of our times, is quite extraordinary. And the infidelity, and the callousness of the political world… There are certain governments that you feel you have the support, and maybe even a safety blanket because they care, and there are certain ones that you know, if you go into the red, you’re in real peril, because they don’t care. Dangerously uncaring about the Arts, and without that sensitivity how can they care about human issues and the big picture? Because if you contract art then culture dies, it’s as simple as that.
Do you feel that in the past 25 years, Australia has made leaps and bounds in its appreciation of the Arts, or do you feel it’s stagnated?
I think we reflect the people at the top. We’re like children, we reflect our parents and guidance, or reject it. We want to think that the people who run this country have our sensibilities at heart. And sometimes I think there are governments that just clearly put the Arts on a “Yeah, yeah gotta do it, we know we’ve got to do it”, but under sufferance. But countries that really put the Arts up front are leaps ahead in many ways – socially, financially, economically – it’s quite extraordinary. And I reckon if, even just one of the states, took the arts flag and waved it… It has happened in the past with certain Premieres… I think Don Dunstan, I think Paul Keating, people who know that their soul needs more, have been wonderful. And in those periods people flourish beautifully, the golden eras of Greek and Egyptian civilization…
Is that because it feeds the soul?
Definitely because it feeds the soul, but it’s even bigger than that.
I think there is such a deep human need for people to have beauty at the core of their existence,
to be surrounded by the most beautiful buildings and sculpture, and to hear the most sensational music, to see the most wonderful dance, which is in fact the original and most primal of all the arts. Because of course, before the word there was the dance, and people communicate through movement, not through words. Words are how you tell something that’s happened, but at the time it’s happening, you have just movement. Someone loving you, someone hating you, someone killing somebody, and then after you say, “He killed her”. But at the time, life is just a series of movements, and if we just go back to that simplicity, and just learn to understand each other’s movements and our communication… How many words does it take to say what I’m saying? Here we are rattling along, there’s got to be a better way, there is – in dance, in life, on stage and off.