Graeme Murphy’s Giselle experiment
It is a blustery autumn afternoon and the clifftop apartment where Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon have lived for the past 30-something years seems to be taking the full brunt of the mini-cyclone that is ripping down Sydney’s east coast. It is an appropriate backdrop for discussing the choreographer’s latest project, arguably his most audacious yet: Graeme Murphy’s Giselle, which will have its world premiere in Seoul next week.
In typical Murphy style, audiences can expect the unexpected. His production comes complete with new choreography, new designs and — this is the clincher — a new score.
Gone are Adolphe Adam’s familiar ghostly strains, gone are the simple peasant folk, the lavish royalty. Even the ensemble of demure Wilis is receiving the Murphy treatment. Although the story itself will remain largely intact, Murphy is looking to put flesh on the characters’ bones, beef up their backstories, introduce new characters and create wild, vengeful wraiths. And if that isn’t exciting — or risky — enough, he is choreographing it on the Universal Ballet company of South Korea, marking that company’s first international commission.
Not everything is untried, however. Murphy, 64, has surrounded himself with his regular collaborators: wife and creative associate Vernon, costume designer Jennifer Irwin, set designer Gerard Manion and lighting designer Damien Cooper, while the score has been composed by Christopher Gordon, who worked with Murphy on the 2009 Bruce Beresford film Mao’s Last Dancer.
Of course it is common practice for contemporary choreographers to put their spin on traditional classical works. Indeed Murphy’s 2002 production of Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet remains one of the most loved and criti- cally acclaimed productions in that company’s canon, a production that has been performed more than 170 times domestically and which will tour to Beijing in October.
Murphy’s 1992 Australian-flavoured Nutcracker: The Story of Clara is another cherished production, although for some his Romeo and Juliet was more miss than hit.
One of the oldest surviving ballets, Giselle is somewhat sacrosanct, with few choreographers daring to stray too far from the score and universally loved story of the sweet and innocent peasant girl Giselle who is betrayed by a noble prince, dies of a broken heart and enters the haunting world of the Wilis, jilted ghost brides who wreak revenge on any man fool enough to enter their night-time realm.
Former Australian Ballet artistic director and choreographer Maina Gielgud recently revived her ultra-traditional 1986 production of Giselle to great acclaim, with one reviewer noting it was a “presentation that maintains — or could revive — your faith in the future of ballet without updates”.
Murphy is the first to acknowledge Giselle has a sound basic storyline that doesn’t need reinvention. Nevertheless he has always felt its themes of love, death, vengeance and redemption are relevant to other cultures, other times. “It’s a clash of two cultures really, of people with opposing values, it doesn’t have to be peasants and nobles. And I like the fact that in lots of Asian cultures there are revenging spirits, and they’re usually women,” he says, citing the Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion.
As always, Murphy wants to know more. “With most of the classical ballets you somehow have to cloak your logic with your hat and for me that is a problem. Because I find myself looking just at the aesthetic, and that’s not enough. I want my heart engaged. “A lot of people say, ‘But Giselle is the most moving and beautiful ballet’, but I ask myself questions all the time: Who is Giselle’s father and where is he? Why is this Queen of the Wilis such a bitch? What’s her backstory? The dancers need to care about the character sufficiently, which in some fairytales is hard because they’re not three-dimensional.”
Just as he did for Swan Lake, Murphy has peopled his world with credible characters, each with their own story. In this production there is a prologue revealing both Giselle’s mother Berthe and Myrtha (Queen of the Wilis) were in love with the same man. When that man, Ultan, chose Berthe, Myrtha took her own life and vowed she wouldn’t rest until revenge was complete. Her first of many victims is Ultan, whom she murders just as the couple are celebrating the birth of their first child, a daughter. Act I begins 16 years later.
Universal Ballet gave Murphy free rein with his choice of production. One of two South Korean classical ballet companies, the privately funded organisation was founded 30 years ago by its general director and former international prima ballerina, Julia Moon. Moon is a savvy businesswoman who is proud of the company’s 70-strong dancers and keen to continue its tradition of touring internationally (which she hopes will include Australia).
Moon was introduced to Murphy through a mutual acquaintance in diplomatic circles. She had been impressed by his Swan Lake, which she had seen performed in Japan, and was only too happy to hear his thoughts for creating Universal’s first international commission. Without knowing Moon’s nickname was “the Korean Giselle”, courtesy of her many acclaimed performances in that role, including for Kirov
Ballet in Leningrad, Murphy leapt at the chance to realise his long-held dream of choreographing a new Giselle.
Moon was cautiously agreeable, but Murphy had yet to deliver his punch line: a new production would inevitably involve new music. “I was anxious about them agreeing to a new score, that was the hardest thing. And I have to give Julia credit, you could tell there was a little bewildered look. But she said, ‘You know what? I’m giving you the choreography so basically you have to make that decision yourself.’ And I thought, ‘Oh God …’ ”
It hadn’t always been Murphy’s intention to work to a new score. Initially he had asked Gordon simply to amp up the existing music, adding some orchestrations for oriental instruments.
“Chris came back to me, dear man, and he said, ‘I have tried. And you cannot panelbeat this score into a new vehicle’,” Murphy says with a laugh.
“If I was basing it on the original choreography I would have used the original score, I couldn’t have escaped it because both Janet and I have danced it [for the AB].
“But whereas Tchaikovsky has such powerful interpretative qualities ... [Adam’s] Giselle music is such a mishmash. And there’s so much of it that’s not Adam. And that has become accepted.”
The result is a sweeping, evocative symphonic score for the 86-member Prime Philharmonic orchestra and its Russian conductor, a score that will include a number of traditional Korean instruments such as gayageum and water bowls. Murphy’s Giselle will be performed over five nights in Universal’s 3000-seat theatre in Seoul. Along with its own theatre, studios and various performing arts schools, the company also has one super-talented and efficient wardrobe department, as Irwin discovered.
Despite the challenges of distance and language Murphy opted to have sets and costumes made in Korea, adamant this first international production would be collaborative. Irwin did a recce to South Korea last December and again in March and was stunned by the breadth of fabrics on offer. A visit to the Dongdaemun markets revealed a multistorey warehouse containing hundreds of thousands of fabric swatches, jewels, buttons, feathers — anything she could imagine. She was similarly impressed by the capabilities of the wardrobe department, most of whom don’t speak English.
“They’ve never actually said to me, ‘You can’t do that’ so I just keep giving them things to do, and I gave them things I would never dream of doing here,” enthuses Irwin, describing Giselle’s dress, all feathers and spinifex laser cut in rows and rows of layers.
“I would never give that to anyone (in Australia) because it’s too hard (but) we did a fitting and the next morning it was done. It’s really exciting being able to do anything you want.”
In Murphy’s Giselle the peasants and royals have been replaced by clan villagers and nobles, the former having an earthy aesthetic of dyed rough-hewn fabrics, woven bags and oriental shapes influenced by designers such as Yamamoto.
“We certainly didn’t want to design it so that it was me designing Asia, but there will be hints of it,” Irwin says. They will be juxtaposed against the sculpted, textured world of the ‘‘foreign’’ nobles, which Irwin is creating using gold, silver and reflective fabrics, leather, bigpleated skirts and modern stylised wigs.
Again without being overtly Asian, Manion hopes his set is representative of that part of the world, with a beautiful cloud-covered mountain range forming a backdrop to Act I, replaced with a dark, haunting Korean pine that dominates the stage in Act II. The Wilis appear to be almost an extension of its craggy branches, their silver, reflective wigs, and tree-like headdresses reminiscent of Irwin’s 1997 Rites costumes for the Bangarra/AB collaboration. Just as white and black symbolised goodness and evil throughout Murphy’s Swan Lake, his Giselle Act I finishes with cascading white snow that slowly, menacingly turns black.
Murphy is only too aware of the risks this project entails, not least of which is creating on a company that is new to him, and choreographing on dancers who are strangers to his notoriously rigorous style and the collaborative way he works. “Conceptually they’re not used to working from the ground up with a choreographer. It really is quite a different process,” he says of the company that regularly performs existing works of Kylian, Duato, Forsythe and Naharin in addition to classical ballets.
There is also the issue of language. Although the dancers are accustomed to working with international choreographers and repetiteurs, the pressure of creating an entirely new ballet from nothing, on non-English-speaking dancers, should not be underestimated.
“Dance is great in that you can get away with a lot, but when you’re not just talking about a step but why you’re doing it, that gets a bit lost in translation,” Murphy says.
“I go in with a concept, but never a step. Literally. Otherwise the dancers get excluded from the process. It gives them a sense of ownership, and they fiercely defend it and the concept, because they’re the ones it was made on.” Murphy is no stranger to working with Asian dancers, however. He first visited China in 1982 as artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, returning with his company in 1984, the first contemporary dance company to perform there. He and Vernon have maintained a cultural relationship with that country, collaborating on Hua Mulan in 2005 with SDC and the Shanghai Song and Dance Co, filming Mao’s
Last Dancer (Murphy was the choreographer) and creating Water on Shanghai Ballet in 2009.
“It feels natural, like an ongoing relationship with a culture I’m really enamoured with,” Murphy says. But he is not so egotistical as to presume Giselle is a guaranteed success. “I am quite nervous about the reaction of audiences. It’s called Graeme Murphy’s Giselle but is that enough clue that it’s not going to be what they’ve always thought was Giselle?” he ponders.
Irwin is more to the point. “People in Korea might hate it, they really might. But Seoul is a really cool, modern city, they see modern works, so I can’t see why [they would].
“It really is up to the dancers to see if they can pull off Graeme’s choreography. Because the music is beautiful. Audiences just need not to expect the Giselle they know and love. Because it certainly won’t be that!”
Graeme Murphy’s Giselle plays at the Seoul Arts Centre, June 13-17.
The Australian Ballet’s production of Maina Gielgud’s Giselle tours Adelaide in July.
Graeme Murphy; with his partner Janet
Graeme Murphy’s Giselle, above and left, will open in Seoul next week; Murphy’s celebrated Swan Lake with the Australian Ballet, below