Gillian Murphy: On Her Toes
After 20 years with American Ballet Theatre, principal dancer Gillian Murphy still loves the challenge of making the difficult look effortless.
Gillian Murphy celebrated her 20th anniversary performance with American Ballet Theatre on May 28, dancing the lead role as Lise in La Fille mal gardée (translating literally to “The Poorly Guarded Girl,” and also called “The Girl Who Needed Watching”). The ballet tells the story of a playful, imaginative girl who resists her mother’s attempts to marry her off to a rich nitwit, preferring instead her romantic, if poor, beloved. Nearly as impressive as her practiced pointe work was Murphy’s ability to use dance to tell a complex story, expressing an emotional range from mischief to frustration to joy and romance using only the controlled movement of her body and the look in her expressive eyes. When Lise snuck out to meet her beloved, or performed a complex and mesmerizing ribbon dance, Murphy’s talent needed watching indeed.
Unlike Lise, Murphy had her parents’ full support growing up as she identified her passion: ballet. With roots on both her Murphy and Sullivan sides firmly planted in County Cork, Murphy joined ABT at 17 in 1996 after a childhood spent learning to dance in the Carolinas. At 11, she danced the Black Swan pas de deux, and at 14 she attended the North Carolina School of Arts (UNCSA) training under Melissa Hayden. (A former prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet, Hayden stressed the importance of the Balanchine technique.) At 15, Murphy was a finalist at the Jackson International Ballet Competition. After joining ABT at 17, she was promoted to soloist at 20, and the rank of principal at 23. The roles she has taken on over the years have run the gamut to showcase the wide range that is one of the marks of her talent, including the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, Desdemona in Othello, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Princess Aurora and the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, and Sylvia in Sylvia. Of this last, the New York Times wrote that “the illustrious Gillian Murphy, as Sylvia, has few roles that better show her bravura skills.” Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie called her, “a joy…for every minute of 20 years! She is gifted and smart, willing to absorb from her peers and be an example at the same time. We have watched her grow organically into her potential – blossoming into a truly unique American ballerina with an astonishing command and range of repertoire.” During her career, Murphy has been awarded the Prix de Lausanne Espoir, a dance fellowship from the Princess Grace Foundation, and the Princess Grace Statue Award. She also received an honorary doctorate in Performing Arts from UNCSA, and the school has endowed a scholarship in her name.
Now 37, Murphy has played a vital role in keeping the art of ballet relevant to mainstream audiences, whether it’s answering questions in a Reddit AMA, playing a cameo as herself in Gossip Girl, or dancing in Center Stage and Center Stage 2: Turn It Up. Along with her husband, choreographer, director, and former ABT principal dancer Ethan Stiefel, Murphy is ballet royalty.
In other reviews, the New York Times called her “a redoubtable and complex artist,” and noted “the blazing clarity, the air-cleaving jumps, the dazzling turns and the plunging, hopping, complex footwork…the plasticity of her torso.” It is true that to watch Murphy dance is a stark reminder that ballet, first and foremost, pushes the limits of what the human body can achieve. But it is Murphy’s discipline, determination, and the art she brings to interpreting and inhabiting each of her heroines that make her a brilliant ballerina.
We meet up on Memorial Day in a café near Lincoln Center. Murphy arrived from rehearsal wearing a light summer dress and sandals. She is fresh-faced – no lipstick – and unbelievably young looking – but she’s not a girl. She’s a woman of quiet self-possession who takes the dance seriously, but not herself. She may have been born in London but she is a passionate American who believes “education and healthcare are fundamental to everyone’s life,” and the anti-immigrant sentiment being expressed by some Americans to be “very disturbing.”
How much of your life is your work?
It is a big part of my life. There is no denying it. This profession requires an intense level of dedication and devotion, but it also is incredibly fulfilling. I get to go out there and do what I love – just to dance to live music with extraordinary dancers, with these great partners and the rest of the company sharing their artistry. That is a big part of what I love about performance, too: it’s about being in that zone collectively with others. I like being a principal dancer and having all those solo moments, but just looking around the stage and sharing that moment with these other artists is a big part of my love of being out there.
It must be very important to trust the other principal dancer, your male partner.
Oh, that is key. Trust is key like in any relationship, but especially as it is a partnership and you are going to be lifted over their head, or twisted around or spun around the stage – you absolutely have to trust. But I have been very fortunate to have had amazing partners. I have no complaints.
I read that you said, “It is not enough to have natural talent. You really have to work at it.”
That is true. It is never enough to have the talent because you also have to have the tools, the training and you have to put the work in.
In your early life, how much work was it on a daily basis?
As a twelve year-old, I was taking class an hour and half every day, followed by some other rehearsals for an hour or two. As a fourteen year-old, when I was at North Carolina School of Arts, I had a ballet class every weekday. We would have one day off for the weekend, possibly two, but usually one. So ballet class and either pointe class, pas de deux, or modern class. So almost every day there was at least three hours of certain conditioning, training classes, and then, one to three hours of rehearsals on top of the full high school academic program.
Were your parents supportive of you wanting to be a dancer?
They were, yes. I was always dancing around the house when I was little and I really loved it from an early age. They were very supportive and my mother ended up driving long distances for me to get better training. When I was about twelve, I think they realized… First of all, they knew I loved it, and second of all, they realized I might have some potential. So we started driving to Columbia, South Carolina, which is an hour and a half away each way, several times a week when I was twelve, and then, when I was thirteen, we actually relocated there, just me, my mother, and my little sister. My father was working in North Carolina at the time, so it was hard for all of us to be apart from each other, but I think my parents understood how much I love to dance and how much I would need to have the right kind of training to make that happen.
When did you know that you wanted to dance professionally?
I don’t think I knew what to expect in terms of like where my career would go or what was possible really. I just knew from a very young age that this is what I love to do. If this could be a profession, then I absolutely would love to at least try and make that happen. I have just been very fortunate and I’m really grateful for everything that has occurred.
I was very lucky also that my parents allowed me to go away from home when I was fourteen because that time in Columbia, training there, away from our home in Florence, was really critical, but the next critical step was moving on to even more advanced training which was the North Carolina School of Arts with Melissa Hayden. She really took me under her wing and I got the opportunity to do a lot of Balachine’s pieces at the a very young age and train there without compromising my academic growth.
You were actually accepted into ABT before you finished high school.
Yes. Georgina Parkinson was a ballet mistress and a coach at the American Ballet Theatre in New York, and she came down to North Carolina School of Arts to work on a piece and she saw me and she said, “Gillian, you are ABT material. You should come, audition, come take a class.” So I came up for her class on a Saturday in April. I’d just turned seventeen, and Kevin McKenzie [the director] offered me a place for the following Tuesday. I was graduating from high school a year early and I had another month of academics, so I asked to join in August. It was great. A couple of days after I joined, we went to Rio de Janeiro on tour, then to Korea. We work all over the world as a company, and as the designated national company, we perform regularly all over the United States.
Was it a big change moving to New York?
It was a bit of cultural shock. You know, I grew up in the Carolinas [with] a much slower pace, so moving to New York when I was seventeen was definitely different, but I’ve always liked it here. Especially because we do tour a lot. I think New York 24/7 day in-day out can be a lot. It is just so fast-paced, so much fun at all times, but the fact that we travel the world and every now and then my husband and I get out to Pennsylvania, to the woods and rivers – having that balance makes me appreciate New York much more.
Does dancing ever feel like work?
The only time when it becomes work is dealing with injuries. It becomes more complicated because you are pushing your body to do something that it clearly probably shouldn’t be doing at that moment. I have been very fortunate in my twenty years at the company in regards to injuries, but just recently I had a calf strain. So I actually didn’t rehearse as much as I might have wanted to because I need to let that heal. That takes away some of the joy of it, when you are dealing with a muscle strain or some sort of situation like that. But generally, I feel so grateful that this is what I do for a living and I understand that the discipline of hard work is part of that and it is a necessary part of growing, making progress, and getting the opportunity to be free on the stage. If you put that work in, then I feel like performance is where you trust that work – and [you are able to] just be more spontaneous and just enjoy the dance.
How important is it to have a strong sense of yourself, which is something I’ve read people saying about you?
I think that has been very important because it’s kept me grounded – that I am always grateful for talent, for the potential that I started out with but I don’t just take it for granted and I don’t take the opportunities I’ve been given for granted. I really just want to make the most out of this profession and art that I love so much. I take ballet as an art form very seriously and I think it can be very powerful and meaningful, but I try not to take myself too seriously. I have to have a sense of humor and take myself with a grain of salt and [I try to] keep that sort of grounded sensibility of striving for something more rather than getting caught up in applause or a good review here or there. Dancing cannot just be an exercise in ballet technique, which can get very much isolated in a bubble, but something human and a real and spontaneous expression of joy, or drama or pathos that just happens to be in this classical form.
You seem to spend so much time on pointe, more than anyone I have ever seen – sort of like you float around the stage effortlessly.
Lise runs on pointe, literally, quite a bit, and hardly ever comes down. But I do love that. I always loved pointe shoes and just that sort of ethereal feeling, kind of other-worldly feeling of being on my toes. I enjoy it. I mean, I am lucky that ABT also does more modern repertoire, so I am not always in pointe shoes and I can explore different types of movement and work with modern choreographers and do various styles. But my favorite – my real passion is for pointe shoes and classical ballet, Balanchine, Ashton, Tudor, et cetera.
I don’t know how you manage to do that ribbon dance [as Lise]. It seems so tricky!
There are some tricky moments with that ribbon! Doing a little jumprope with that ribbon in pointe shoes is not easy, but it is fun and I do love being on the stage. And music is fundamental to why I dance. When you have wonderful music and exceptional choreography, and the Metropolitan Opera House stage, there is no reason to pull back, really, and some of what we do is very difficult, but that is the art of ballet. To make it look effortless.
What was the music that you used to dance to when you were a child?
My father loved Amadeus, the movie, so he would play that quite a bit, the soundtrack. I remember loving that music when I was little and dancing to it endlessly.
Speaking of your Dad, where are your ancestors from?
Both sides are from Cork. My mother is English and she is a Sullivan. The Murphys moved to America around the Famine time, to the Midwest. I think around Wisconsin. My dad grew up all over the United States because his father was a cartographer. He was the oldest of six and they would move around constantly. His father was surveying and mapmaking the entire country.
Where did your parents meet?
They met in Barcelona. My father went to Dartmouth and he wanted to do a year abroad at university in Spain, and my mother was going to school there and they met there.
Have you ever been to Ireland?
I’ve never been. I always wanted to go. It’s really high on my bucket list. My brother Kevin just went. He brought back all sorts of Guinness shirts and paraphernalia. I have two older brothers Thaddeus “Thad” and Kevin, and a sister, Tessa, who is eight years younger than me. They were all born in America except for me. I was born in Wimbledon because my father was working overseas for a few years – he was with GE.
My parents live in Virginia now. They have been traveling a fair amount lately because my father retired. We should all do a family trip to Ireland. It’s time. ♦