Imagine having to come up with original dance ideas to fill 30 years of programming at the Sydney Dance Company.
No wonder choreographer Graeme Murphy often comes up with the same tricks, especially for a thirsty company which is in the news lately for its crippling deficit.
His latest work, Grand, shows his best strengths. Most outstanding is his choice of talented and long-time collaborators, people who bring immaculate staging for his nimble dancers.
Murphy also finds his inspiration and direction in a wide variety of music and, again, collaborations with some of Australia’s best composers and musicians. Grand is Murphy’s homage to the grand piano, which literally takes centre stage.
Sydney Conservatorium pianist Scott Davie plays a glorious sweep of repertoire through Bach, Villa-Lobos, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin and Fats Waller.
Dancers occasionally wheel his grand to new places on the stage and, just once, take over and play chopsticks.
The shape, tone and even insides of this remarkable instrument are echoed in the sparse clean stage design by Gerard Manion, startling lighting from Damien Cooper and the costumes by Akira Isogawa. His prints pick out the notes and his flowing layered dresses play beautifully across dancing bodies.
The ensemble of young dancers though are Murphy’s best collaborators, dancers who know his expressive classicism and how to deliver it.
Murphy serves them best with works like this not tied to explicit storytelling. Grand is more abstract than his last work, about Wilde’s Dorian Gray, which left his dancers floundering in childish acting.
Murphy here matches well their individual strengths to some 20 vignettes around moods of the piano, whether yearning or jazzy, honky-tonk or ballroom.
His dancers capture that balance in Murphy between classical beauty and discipline and his sudden departure into something more vernacular, surprising, often witty. The formula is well tried.
There are frequent wandering moments in Grand in search of real inspiration, but for me Murphy still has those original gasp moments of surprise delight.
His choreographic death will be his compulsion to always keep giving us a bit of everything, the showman trapped ironically by his own collaborative skills to stage a kaleidoscope of emotions for everybody.
Grand was inspired by the recent death of his mother, and her love of the piano. Here Graeme Murphy delivers enough real emotions and thus inventive choreography to make it one of his better works -“ and one beautifully staged.
Grand is at the Sydney Opera House Theatre until 18 June.