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Entertainment Choreographer Graeme Murphy is turning 70 but not even COVID-19 is slowing him down

02:06  01 november  2020
02:06  01 november  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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a man looking at the camera: Graeme Murphy will celebrate his 70th birthday amid rehearsals for Seven Deadly Sins. (ABC News: Luke Bowden) © Provided by ABC Health Graeme Murphy will celebrate his 70th birthday amid rehearsals for Seven Deadly Sins. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

At a certain age it's not uncommon for women to feel invisible in society but a group of dancers in Tasmania is defying the stereotype and refusing to do that.

In fact, the members of MADE (Mature Artists Dance Experience) are doing the exact opposite and proving that age is no barrier to performing.

Their talent and professionalism is such that one of the country's most revered choreographers was keen to work with them a second time.

Internationally renowned dancer and artistic director Graeme Murphy has been dubbed a national living treasure — and he hails from the tiny of town of Mole Creek in northern Tasmania.

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Murphy spent 31 years with the Sydney Dance Company and still works with the Australian Ballet, and internationally.

In March, the deteriorating COVID-19 situation prompted Murphy and partner Janet Vernon leave Sydney and head back to Tasmania.

They made it in, two days before the state's borders closed.

"It is the longest we've been in one place, seven months, without packing our bags and going somewhere, so it's been a whole new experience," he said.

Murphy has returned to the state many times over the years and values the start in life it gave him.

"I actually love that part of my life in Tasmania, that thing about being the son of a school teacher and living in the most remote [areas] Mathinna, Meander, Mole Creek … all the 'M's," he told ABC Radio.

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"All of those places were so important actually and what a perfect childhood and what good fuel for the future. That's what I always felt.

"When I was was with Sydney Dance Company and with the Australian Ballet, and particularly now with MADE, I am so happy to be drawn back to this place.

"Because sometimes you want to give back and sometimes you want to go 'well, it was a childhood well spent, and now I can offer something in the dance world'."

He feels "incredibly privileged" that the opportunity to work on a production with MADE, titled Seven Deadly Sins, has come along at a time when artists and performers are struggling to adapt to life under COVID-19.

"You can only do so much gardening and I've become a born-again gardener in Tasmania," he quipped.

"I love it but then there is a time when you just long to be surrounded by dancers because that's our lifeblood and that's what Janet and I have done all our lives so that aspect of it is like a gift."

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It only took a phone call

MADE's Shirley Gibson said the experience a second time around had been "unbelievably exciting".

Their association goes back to 2014 when she approached him about a collaboration.

"I found out Graeme's phone number from a friend and I rang him up," Shirley laughed.

"I was scared stiff, but Graeme said: 'Oh I would love to come and do that. But you may have to wait two years because my dance diary is pretty full.'"

That conversation led to the 2016 production The Frock, which toured to Japan in 2018.

'No sinner like an old sinner'

Their latest work, Seven Deadly Sins, was at his behest.

"The work is an exploration of sinning and I think it's a very individual thing — one person's sin is another person's saintly behaviour.

"It's a very murky world … what is bad, and why it's bad, and it's really about motivation about what you're thinking when you are doing a deed that is the difference between a good deed and bad deed.

"We are exploring the dark side of those sins, and that's fun actually, I hate to say it."

The women of MADE have also revelled in exploring sins.

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"Graham says there is no sinner like and old sinner. That's our punchline," Gibson quipped.

It's been inspired by the sculptures of Australian artist and friend Judith Wright, who has contributed pieces to be incorporated for the Hobart season.

"I thought to myself seriously if anyone can do those sins justice, it's the girls of MADE, they are so collectively sinful," Murphy said, laughing.

"Judith has evolved from works on paper, to in this more sculptural work. It's such a privilege to work with these strange dark things she does."

Treating them like the Bolshoi

He calls MADE one of his favourite troupes and coming a home a "huge bonus".

"Working with this troupe is different to anyone I've ever worked with, the maturity of the artist is the first striking factor," he said.

"But the enthusiasm, the independence of the group, the absolute commitment to keeping dance alive in Tasmania and showing the world that dance is not the domain solely of the young and beautiful.

"Their hearts are young and their spirit is so beautiful, I just love working with them.

"Janet and I are constantly amazed that we don't treat them any different than if they were the racehorse elite of the dance world.

"You need to give them poetry in order to get poetry back and that seems to be universal regardless of age and I think we feel exactly the same when we are working with them as if we were doing something with the Bolshoi."

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'Feisty, rare and wonderful'

With a combined age in the hundreds of years, part of the attraction is their life experience.

"When you work with younger dancers you are often explaining how they would feel because they often haven't had that emotional journey and you think about a collective like this and their collective ages is probably in the hundreds."

"So their collective wisdom is absolutely huge and I tap into that and they are very generous.

"They are quite feisty, they talk back, they ask questions and they contemplate what you've done and they give you back in spades the amount of energy that you push out.

"So it's that sort of emotional interaction that I really love and the depth of experience that makes you look at them and you see layers and textures and patina of age and I just think that is rare and wonderful."

Advancing years is something this pairing has in common.

Murphy will turn 70 two days before the show opens.

"I would rather be turning 70 in a working environment than in a surprise party in a fine restaurant," he quipped.

"When I think about dancers in the Australian Ballet and and the bigger companies and the opera that I work with, they are just craving to be with each other.

"And in this situation I'm surrounded by people who love what they're doing and it's replenishing for me and I'm feeling really privileged."

Work for other artists 'gold'

As well as a top visual artist, Murphy secured the services of leading Australian composer Chris Gordon to write an original score.

Gordon wrote the music for the movie Mao's Last Dancer and Driving Miss Daisy, among other Hollywood films.

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"Everyone thinks it's is a little isolated event happening in small [Tasmania] .. it's actually on an international scale already and hopefully it will continue to go that [way] when the touring world opens again," he said.

"Each sin has its own instrument and so he was making a score and at the same time giving people some work which is gold in this period.

"He has been able to take some of those unemployed musicians from the major orchestras in Australia and give them work."

Murphy credits MADE with helping drive that opportunity for others in the arts.

"That's come from MADE, it hasn't come from a government incentive," he said.

"That's because we managed to get these people who love the art form who care about it to actually give that sort of care and give back."

MADE ahead of 'young guns'

The Seven Deadly Sins Hobart season starts on November 4 then moves to Launceston.

It will have several performances a day designed for small audiences in keeping with COVID restrictions.

The Hobart season will be in the Long Gallery but when it moves to Launceston, the performers will make use of the entire theatre — the foyer, backstage, dressing rooms and orchestra pit.

"It's important that MADE is a leader it that area," Murphy said.

"A lot of people say we'll just wait until life returns to normal, that's got a lot of question marks.

"I think it's wonderful that we have found a way and it's wonderful that a group of older women are actually leading that, that it is not being pushed by the young guns."

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