Chance move

Graeme Mur­phy’s Giselle ex­per­i­ment

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

Ver­non, be­low

Graeme Mur­phy’s Giselle, above and left, will open in Seoul next week; Mur­phy’s cel­e­brated Swan Lake with the Aus­tralian Ballet, be­low

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.