It is near impossible to imagine Australian dance without Graeme Murphy. His prolific output, theatrical imagination, and nurturing of generations of dancers and audiences have enriched Australia like almost no other choreographer.

While Murphy is known for his work internationally and with the Sydney Dance Company, it was Dame Margaret Scott who first spotted the raw potential in the “underweight, underaged and undertrained” schoolboy from rural Tasmania, accepting him into The Australian Ballet School to the confusion of her colleagues.  He joined the company in 1968 and has choreographed for every artistic director since, creating some of Australia’s most iconic ballets in the process.  Who could forget his inspiringly Australian Nutcracker, or his triumphant Swan Lake?

In Murphy, The Australian Ballet tributes this fifty year partnership with a selection of excerpts spanning several decades, curated by Murphy himself and his creative associate and wife, Janet Vernon.

The evening opened with Philippe Charluet’s film Reflections, in which Murphy explains his choreographic raison d’être of allowing a dancer’s soul to become “the shining mirror that reflects the world.”  The footage was interspersed with black-and-white stills of a young Murphy and Vernon, providing a nostalgic reminder of their involvement in the development of Australian dance.

The curtain then lifted on The Silver Rose, Murphy’s reimagining of Der Rosenkavalier to music by Carl Vine. It was a surprising first choice given its darkly turbulent emotions. Amber Scott was nonetheless lovely as the Marschallin, haunted by the passage of time on her beauty.  Callum Linane – clearly a dancer to watch – was an ardent Octavian, and their sensual pas de deux was touching and beautifully performed. Theirs proved to be the most lyrical partnering of the first act, with subsequent excerpts troubled by unusually laboured lifts.

Trio and duo selections from Air and Other Invisible Forces followed. The dancers, clad in Tibetan orange, moved through Bodhisattva-like shapes to the bamboo tones of Riley Lee’s shakuhachi. A billowing windsock, resembling at times a column of cloud and at others an icy Himalayan stream, was characteristic of Murphy’s flair for theatrical invention.

The oriental mood continued with Shéhérazade, set to Ravel's music and featuring glittering Klimt-inspired designs by the much-missed and long-time Murphy collaborator, Kristian Fredrikson. Mezzo soprano Jacqueline Dark added musical and theatrical depth as an on-stage presence amongst the dancers. At this point, the deeply introspective nature of the excerpts began to weigh. The two preceding pieces also showed their age, with a dated exoticism (I couldn't help being reminded of Avatar: The Last Airbender) that was heightened by their placement after The Silver Rose.

The vibrant percussive energy of Ellipse was welcome relief. The quartet of dancers (Jade Wood, Brett Chynoweth, Montana Rubin, and Daniel Byrne) threw themselves with athletic exuberance into the thigh-slapping, square dance-inspired work, cresting on the drive of Matt Hindson’s pulsing score for woodblock and strings. The piece was a wonderful reminder of Murphy’s trademark playfulness and joie de vivre.

Excerpts within excerpt followed with Grand. Dedicated to Murphy’s mother Betty (the “one pianist I adore above all others”), the piece was a series of vignettes celebrating the intimate relationship between dance and the piano. It was warmly nostalgic for those of us who remember childhood hours of ballet class dancing to live piano accompaniment, and showcased Murphy’s skill in evoking the intimate mood of memory.

Scott Davie reprised his role as the on-stage pianist, providing a beautifully-played visual and musical focal point around which the vignettes and dancers revolved. Highlights included Valerie Tereshchenko’s cool, long-legged elegance as the Gershwin lady, and a humorous Chopsticks skit where the dancers hammered Davie’s piano with hilarious aplomb.

The second act was Murphy’s Firebird. While lacking the narrative drive and emotional depth of his other ballets, it still provided an enjoyable reinvention of the classic fairytale. The novelty stemmed from its resetting in a primordial pre-Eden wasteland, ruled over by the despotic lizard Kostchei, and littered with giant eggshells from which the enslaved dancers hatched and slithered. The four leads – Lana Jones as the Firebird, Bret Chynoweth (with tail) as Kostchei, and Kevin Jackson and Amber Scott as Ivan Tsarevich and Tsarevna – all gave strong performances.

All in all, Murphy was an enjoyable and richly-deserved tribute to this great figure of Australian dance. While the choice of excerpts made the evening feel fragmented, they nonetheless showcased Murphy's fearless eclecticism and his dynamic collaborations with Australian artists of every field. 

They also reminded us of Murphy's hallmark choreographic talents: strikingly inventive shapes, strong staging and musicality, and - most importantly - a profound gift for communicating the full range of human emotions and experiences.

Australian dance is indeed indebted to him. Here’s to another fifty years.