A Princess among Men:
Gillian Murphy is injecting new glamour into the male-friendly American Ballet Theatre.
Susan Reiter, Los Angeles Times, 4/21/05 (Original Article)
In recent years, most of the attention paid to American Ballet Theatre has gone to its high-caliber male roster -- dancers such as Julio Bocca, Jose Manuel Carreno, Angel Corella and Ethan Stiefel, who have been at an exciting peak.
But for all these guys' highflying bravura, George Balanchine's oft-cited remark that "ballet is woman" continues to hold true. Without an impressive Swan Queen, Giselle or Kitri, many of the mainstays of ABT's repertory simply won't work.
The company's ballerina roster, though, has been going through a transition period, with several stellar veterans reaching the end of their performing careers. Susan Jaffe retired three years ago, and Amanda McKerrow has said she will give her farewell performance in July.
All the same, a major new ballerina has emerged in the ABT ranks, steadily and convincingly garnering attention and acclaim. Gillian Murphy, who displayed remarkable poise and unaffected confidence from the moment she first made a splash in smaller roles, has moved gradually -- and with apparent inevitability -- into increasingly major ones.
"I was breathless -- she jumped right out at me," ABT ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson, a former ballerina, recalls of her first glimpse of Murphy as a teenage student. "I always saw the possibilities there. She has the most wonderful technique: strong jumps, beautiful turns, lovely line. There's something very honest about Gillian, and she's so smart. You can feed in the information and she processes it all for herself. She doesn't look like someone trying to be anyone else."
Now the tall and ideally proportioned Murphy, who just turned 26, is taking on some especially important assignments. In June, when ABT unveils its new production of Frederick Ashton's 1952 "Sylvia," she is to dance the title character, a role originated by Margot Fonteyn, on opening night. Later that month, the PBS telecast of the company's "Swan Lake," taped this year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., will feature Murphy partnered by Corella.
During ABT's engagement this week at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, meanwhile, she is scheduled to display her natural affinity for Balanchine's choreography at Thursday's opening night gala, in the leading role of "Ballet Imperial." And she is set to appear Saturday as Myrta, the commanding queen of the Wilis, in "Giselle" -- one of the first major parts she took on during her brief tenure in the corps de ballet and one she has enjoyed growing into.
"It's a role that demands some respect. I think it's very special to have that authority, to be in control of that second act," she observed at ABT's Manhattan headquarters after a full day of rehearsals. "It is difficult, because you come out and do a 10-minute variation -- it's all you out there. It's different from most roles in full-length ballets, which have entrances and exits so you can ease your way into it instead of busting out from minute one.
"After doing it for several years, I feel right in it now and don't feel overwhelmed. It's something I can enjoy now. And it's kind of fun to be evil for a little while," she added slyly.
Thoughtful and quietly intense in conversation, the strawberry-blond Murphy -- who was born in England but grew up in South Carolina -- is refreshingly down to earth. Onstage, she makes the most complex classical challenges look natural and displays an unmannered graciousness. It was her formidable technical ability that first caused audiences and critics to sit up and take notice in 1998. Her amazingly secure, musically phrased turns in a featured role in Ashton's portrayal of ice skaters, "Les Patineurs" -- plus a remarkably mature display of classical purity as one of the Odalisques in "Le Corsaire" -- launched her on a path toward increased importance.
Her assurance is partly due to an early, unwavering commitment to ballet as a career and to solid training at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where former New York City Ballet principal dancer Melissa Hayden became her mentor and a major influence in her development. A leading Balanchine ballerina of the 1950s and '60s, Hayden created central roles in such classics as "Stars and Stripes," "Agon" and "Liebeslieder Walzer."
"One of the great things about her is she never lets you think that anything is difficult," Murphy said. "Anything's possible -- if you're given the most difficult combination or, in my case, if you're given the lead in 'Theme and Variations' to do at 16. It's no problem -- just do it. She's wonderful.
"I was 14 when I first worked with her. To this day, I still try to work with her at least once a year, just to get back to basic technique. It's nice to have someone who knows my technique and the things that I need to work on as well as she does."
One might expect that, having come under Hayden's influence so early, Murphy would have felt compelled to make New York City Ballet her goal. Under Hayden's coaching, after all, she learned several Balanchine ballets, including the lead roles in "Concerto Barocco" and "Western Symphony," and loved dancing them. She also spent two summers studying at the NYCB-affiliated School of American Ballet -- where she marveled at "the enormous level of talent in my age group, it pushes everybody in a good way" -- and had the good fortune to be exposed to such celebrated teachers as Stanley Williams, Richard Rapp and Antonia Tumkovsky.
But when the school invited her to attend full time, Murphy's commitment to her North Carolina alma mater won out. "The faculty was fantastic. They have a good academic program. There was a real camaraderie there, and I really felt part of that community."
That choice was just one example of Murphy's forthright decision-making and clear sense of priorities. When she auditioned for ABT at 16, having been recommended by Parkinson, who spotted her while visiting North Carolina, artistic director Kevin McKenzie wanted her to join two days later. But Murphy was determined to finish high school. "They asked me to join the corps de ballet in April," she recalled. "I was doing a full schedule of classes in order to graduate early, and I wanted to graduate. So I joined ABT in August.
"A few days after I joined, the company went to Brazil. It was a whirlwind. It had been a childhood dream to be part of ABT, and I watched all those videos with Natalia Makarova, Cynthia Gregory, Cynthia Harvey, Gelsey Kirkland. ABT just has this aura, because of its history. It was so exciting to be part of the company -- to see Susan Jaffe, Amanda McKerrow, all these incredible dancers day in and day out. I still feel that way.
"The first year was a learning year -- adjusting to dancing in the corps, because I'd never done a corps role before I joined. There's really a group responsibility -- to hold your own but also for the good of everyone."
Promoted to soloist in July 1999, she has since developed an impressively wide range. Her repertory includes works by Mark Morris and Paul Taylor, as well as Martha Graham's "Diversion of Angels," in which she has embodied luminous serenity as the central woman in white, and Antony Tudor's "Pillar of Fire," to which she has brought dramatic fervor in the celebrated role of Hagar.
Asked if that Tudor role, with its six decades of history, is daunting, she replied, "I looked at it more as inspiring. It was a really great experience, to work on something so completely different. You not only grow from the experience of working on it but also from all the time you spend outside the studio thinking who is this character, why is she the way she is, why are those around her reacting like that?"
Murphy is also interested in new choreographers, however, and she's been exposed to some through her longtime boyfriend, Stiefel, who will become artistic director of Orange County's Ballet Pacifica in fall 2006. The couple attend a variety of dance events when their schedule allows and also like to catch chamber music and opera performances with some regularity, she said. Stiefel's new position will be full time, and he will be living in California, but he expects to maintain ties with ABT, performing in New York and in select engagements elsewhere.
Does Ballet Pacifica figure in Murphy's plans as well? "I would hope to dance with both companies," she said. "I'll be with ABT full time for at least a few more years, but at some point in the future, I would want to coordinate the schedule so that I would dance with both. I'm truly excited about what Ethan's envisioning -- making a world-class company based in Southern California."
Present and Future Tense
For the moment, ABT is keeping her happily busy and challenged. As for the dominance of those media-magnet male stars, she said, "I look on it as a privilege, in the sense that I get to dance with all these extraordinary men. I understand why there's been a huge deal made about them, because they are incredible. I think it's important for the women to retain their femininity -- but we can mix it up as well. In terms of being a ballerina at this time when everyone is looking at the men, I've just been gradually growing into it. I've been a principal for a couple of years, so I feel now is the beginning of becoming a ballerina in the truest sense -- not just a dancer who's been promoted."
Indeed, having had her eyes unwaveringly on the prize since she was 11, Murphy brings a healthy sense of perspective and clarity to what being a dancer means.
"The first time I put pointe shoes on, I was certain. I've been on a mission, in terms of wanting to dance and to be the best dancer I can be. At a certain point in a dancer's career, it becomes a mission to look out for the art form as well, to concern yourself with the present and future of ballet."
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