Jennifer Leake speaks to Graeme Murphy,
Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company,
in the offices of the company's waterside studios.

© Jennifer Leake



Jennifer Leake: After a quarter of a century of dance making, do you ever feel like your creativity has dried-up?
Graeme Murphy: My productivity is very high. I've done more than 40 works in the last 24 years and over half of them have been full-length works. One year, recently, I didn't do a new work in Sydney and the press rode me ragged. I thought, “Excuse me I am not a sausage machine; I need to want to do new works.”

Where do you keep finding ideas for new dances?
From the company – my stable of dancers now is wildly inspiring! It's great, I don't have to panic and ask, “Do I have the right people to realize my dreams?” I actually build my dreams around the dancers I've got in my company. I have enough material among the ranks to fuel my wildest dreams and ideas. And currently, there are four to five new works in the pipeline for upcoming celebrations such as the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Australian Federation, my 50th Birthday, and Sydney Dance Company's 25th Anniversary.

You became Artistic Director/Choreographer of Sydney Dance Company (SDC), then the New South Wales Dance Company, in 1976. Australia has seen you struggle to keep your company funded in an economic environment that, at times, has little room for artists. How free are you from financial worries today?
Sydney is a very good market for us – we have a very strong following here. We do up to 20 weeks a year in this comparatively tiny city. Normally our season is seven weeks in the Drama Theatre and four weeks in the Opera Theater. We usually add on to that a choreographic workshop and a season in another venue. We also tour nationally and internationally.

Does your role allow you to create whatever you wish, whenever the impulse drives you?
I'm very conscious of what I do. Mostly, I'm in the very enviable position that no one dictates what I do. I can do the work that I want to do next. The only thing that might influence me is the thought that “My God, I have to make this work at the Box Office now the Golden Era of funding has gone.”

Why do you think SDC members, currently 17, tend to stay in the company for years?
I look at the dancers and I get the inspiration for the work from them. This year (1999 season) with the more lyrical/less narrative work, Air and Other Invisible Forces, I really just wanted to challenge the dancers, to push them. I think that's how you keep dancers happy, by developing them at the right time. Not too soon. I always figure I have this tree and there's always some green fruit that's not ready to pick or blossoms that are ready to flower; there are always some ready to drop off too.

Your choreography is considered contemporary but it obviously requires dancers to be trained in classical ballet. What is it you look for when choosing SDC members?
I'm in the position to pick the cream of the crop. There's a line of dancers waiting to get into Sydney Dance Company. I'm not interested in a group of people with some sort of incredible homogeny, a group that can do the movement I want. I'm interested in people who can take the movement somewhere. I feel this is a company of creators. It's not a company of exponents of my style. We give equally in the creative process and I'm not afraid to ask their commitment towards developing something. Some are less giving, others are more reticent and you actually have to create for them. Others have within them the next step.

Is it something other than coincidence that many former SDC members also become dance-makers? For instance, Gideon Obarzanek (Chunky Move Expressions), Stephen Page (Bangarra Dance Theater) and Kim Walker (Flying Fruit Fly Circus) have all gone on to create for their own troupes.
SDC has recycled more dancers than I care to name, whether they've come in as massage therapists, ballet masters or mistresses, secretaries, or whatever. That has been a part of our history. The recycling of dancers as choreographers is incredibly prevalent in this company.

You are well known for your successful collaborations. What's so fulfilling about co-creating with other artists?
I always regretted that as a dancer I was just a passive tool for a choreographer, because I was always doing repertory. No one was creating and I always wanted to be created on.

Your collaborators include musicians, set designers and costume designers. Can you explain how these partnerships enrich your troupe?
SDC has a great reputation for putting live music on stage. We are one of the few contemporary companies that believe “live music” is essential. This may be part of our popularity in America. We use a lot of commissioned scores. Some of those scores are around the concert halls long after we've commissioned them and that's very satisfying. We can't afford big symphonies but we commission works that sound rich and symphonic because of the nature of the instrumentation and the people we work with. That makes it really exciting for the dancers who have become better musicians, because often their services are enlisted as musicians. They are learning new skills all the time.

Australian contemporary composer, Carl Vine, was a 20-year-old unknown when you commissioned him to compose for your first full-length piece, titled Poppy, in 1978. Will there be another Murphy-Vine project in the near future?
Yes, Carl Vine stuck around. He's now number one composer for choreography. I'll be working again with him this year. I'm bringing a new work, a major collaboration with a brand new Vine score to the Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney. It's a piece called Mythologia that delves into the Greek myths. It's a massive work that places a very large choir on stage.

Will SDC's presence at this year's Olympic Arts Festival add international fame to the company's good fortune?
I think the Olympics could help us reach more people. I don't think people we'll miss the fact that SDC is way up there and that our profile is high. I'm wildly optimistic, but I never look at the millennium or the Olympics as a pinnacle; I see the future as an ongoing battle. If the year 2000 can help us move into the future, that's fine, but I am afraid that people see it as a full stop and that one can take a big breath afterwards – you can't.

Thank you, Graeme. Chookas* for your upcoming premiere.


SDC will premiere "Mythologia" in Sydney this August. The company will present American audiences with "Air and Other Invisible Forces" in November and December this year (2000).

* "Chookas" is the word Australian dancers use for "Good luck." I don't profess to know how to spell it, so please forgive me if I'm wrong (all of you Australian readers).

(Copyright: Jennifer Leake)

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Edited by Azlan Ezaddin

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