BOOK REVIEW: Glimpses of Graeme—Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy by Michelle Potter, FortySouth Publishing, 2022
From the very first paragraph I am so tempted to raid my treasured stock of dance programs featuring the work of Graeme Murphy—in order for them to accompany me on this journey through Michelle Potter’s Reflections.
The Preface informs us this is a collection of her writings on Murphy—his career as a dancer, choreographer and director, dating from his Glimpses—A Look at the World of Norman Lindsay—a part of Ballet ’76, within a program of new choreography presented at the Canberra Theatre in that year. With this work he ‘won the prize for the most outstanding creation on the program’ and was reported as saying ‘I want to provide a nucleus of creativity for designers, composers and choreographers’. Something he has adhered to, without a shadow of doubt, for the next forty-odd years.
Glimpses is divided into eight chapters, each of which contains several parts, with dates and original sources. Each entry shines a little more light on Murphy’s life and immense ‘body of work’—this last also being the title of a program created in 2000 to celebrate his 50th birthday, and all he had at that stage achieved. As Potter so rightly states ‘His energy and ideas appear to be boundless’. The Americans refer to him as ‘an artistic hero of his country’. Murphy pays tribute to Janet Vernon, also a dancer and now his wife—‘his Muse from day one’. There is more on the enormous part Janet has played in Graeme’s life and in his work …
Truly, this volume certainly goes to emphasize the need for a ‘true biography’ of Murphy, something in the style Dr. Potter has presented before, with her 2014 biography Dame Maggie Scott: A Life in Dance (Text Publishing).
But apart from her reflections on Murphy’s work Glimpses is a fascinating account giving us a history and/or overview of dance in Australia—a wonderful bonus. Companies covered are, principally, The Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company, this last Murphy directed from late 1976 through to 2006. Within the Prologue there is a brief biography and mention is made of the many choreographic works Murphy has created. Although he was born in Melbourne, Graeme, the son of two schoolteachers (one of which, his mother, was a formidable and inspiring pianist), lived in Tasmania up until his early teens when he was accepted, at the age of 14, into the Australian Ballet School, having taken ballet classes, in Launceston, under Kenneth Gillespie. By the age of 18 he had become a member of The Australian Ballet Company—by which time he had already ‘tried out his choreographic wings’. In particular, it was a privilege to read, here in the Prologue, Potter’s article on Murphy’s Swan Lake, seen here in published form for the first time.
Glimpses is not overly endowed with photographs but of the images included some have rarely been seen previously, while others are, just simply, iconic. I can find no credit for the designer, but it must be said—the design is a credit to its creator, who happens to be, in fact, one Kent Whitmore. A most attractive and inviting book—the study of Murphy on the front (photograph by Branco Gaica) is both striking and totally appropriate, and inside within the cover’s wraparound format, it presents us, thanks to photographer Lisa Tomasetti, a bold and tantalizing stage panorama.
Under Music Initiatives mention is made of the many composers Murphy has drawn upon—new, old and emerging (also the scores that were commissioned). The list is long—from Sutherland to Sculthorpe on the ‘local scene’, and beyond these shores and present times, Xenakis to Mahler.
It is evident, in Crossing Generations, that Murphy has always been deeply interested in and involved with ‘time and age’, his productions incorporating dancers ranging from 12 years onwards. Potter’s article on the 2017 work The Frock gives a splendid description of its theatricality and highly emotive nature. ‘Magnificent Murphy’ is how she ends this particular Glimpse.
In the section entitled Approaches to Narrative the author deals with Murphy’s ‘two sorts of work’—those with a narrative and those without, and over the years the two, somehow, managed a natural sort of balance. Nutcracker: The Story of Clara (1992) is an example of the former sort, and is dealt with in some detail, whilst Berlin (1995) is of the latter. Swan Lake (2002) and The Firebird (2009), for example, both follow a narrative. In this last ballet Murphy tells us he wants ‘to give the audience the magic that they believe Firebird is’ and although he retained all the original (1910) work’s elements, the focus is a little different—as it is not difficult to imagine, being Murphy.
He collaborated with Kristian Fredrikson (see Michelle Potter’s Kristian Fredrikson: Designer—Melbourne Books 2020) over a period of almost three decades, and most notably for Swan Lake, Tivoli and Nutcracker—or rather, these were possibly the ‘grandest’ productions. But other designers, under Elements of Design, include Jennifer Irwin, George Freedman, Andrew Carter, Akira Isogawa and Gerard Manion. Some would be responsible for both sets and costumes, others for one or the other, but always there would be a strong collaboration between designer and choreographer/director Graeme Murphy—not forgetting the role of the lighting designer. Several of his ballets’ costumes were shown at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2012 in the exhibition Ballet and Fashion, curated by Roger Leong.
Potter tackles Postmodernism presenting the comments and opinions of several writers, not necessarily of dance, and her own thoughts on the term. The 1995 dance work Fornicon is discussed, Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet (2011) and The Happy Prince, which sadly, Melbourne and Sydney never got to experience, due to the Covid-19 pandemic—Brisbane was the only lucky city! Eight performances were all that were seen. I, for one, was so looking forward to viewing Kim Carpenter’s designs, along with, naturally, Murphy’s choreography.
Potter discusses Theatricality and Collaboration—regarding the former Murphy admits he simply ‘can’t help it’. Why do his works appear so theatrical? The collaborative approach is described here, recounting the many composers and designers that have been essential in the creation of so many productions (just how many have there been?)—not only for ballet but also opera and film. There are several very telling reviews or reflections in this section, on Salome (1999), Mythologia (2000), Body of Work (2000), Ellipse (2002), and there is more on Nutcracker: The Story of Clara and his Romeo and Juliet.
Finally, within the Epilogue, there are words from David McAllister (former artistic director of The Australian Ballet) and critic William Shoubridge, plus a summing up of Murphy’s long and exceptional career, dating from 1976’s Glimpses—A Look at the World of Norman Lindsay to his most recent work for Tasmania’s Mature Artists Dance Experience (MADE)—and here I feel, prior to heading to the last few pages presenting Chapter Notes, a Bibliography and Acknowledgements, Michelle Potter should have the very last word: ‘Murphy thrives on engaging an audience and on giving that audience the opportunity to reflect on life, culture and society, as well of course as enjoying the theatrical occasion.’