Cupcakes & Conversation with Gillian Murphy, Guest Artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet & Principal with American Ballet Theatre

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Cupcakes & Conversation with Gillian Murphy, Guest Artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet & Principal with American Ballet Theatre

ballet dancer Gillian Murphy

Gillian Murphy Photograph : Rosalie O’Connor

Gillian will next star as Giselle in the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Giselle, co-choreographed by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg. (7 November – 12 December)


How have you settled into life in New Zealand ?

It’s still a bit surreal living here in New Zealand, but I’m enjoying every bit of it. Wellington is a very cool place to live – I’m enjoying the calmer pace (compared to New York), as well as the great restaurants, walking along the gorgeous bay, and meeting so many friendly, down-to-earth people.

What motivates you at 8am on a Monday morning ?

Coffee! I’ve recently become more of a morning person because the coffee is so unbelievably good here in NZ that I started drinking a cup each morning. But once I’m really awake, I’m motivated by an insatiable interest in learning and seeing where the day will take me. I recently discovered that this does not just apply to my own journey as a dancer and as a person; I’m equally happy as a coach to support other dancers in exploring their own technical and creative possibilities.

Why ballet ?

“If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.” That’s the motto plastered across Harley Davidson shirts around the world regarding why people drive motorcycles. In this case, I imagine anyone reading Cupcakes and Conversation gets it. Ballet is a universal language full of incredible grace, athleticism, and artistry. To be a ballet dancer is a privilege, and to dance is to be exhilarated by the joys of movement. It sounds over-the-top, but the feeling of dancing is larger than life. Ballet is my favorite form of expression, and I love that it is a constant balancing act between control and abandon.

Gillian Murphy

Gillian Murphy dancing Medora in Le Corsaire with ABT Photograph : Rosalie O’Connor

What are you looking forward to dancing during 2012/13 season & what are the big challenges likely to be for you ?

I have a lot to look forward to this year between my scheduled performances at the Royal New Zealand Ballet throughout the season and at American Ballet Theatre in the (northern hemisphere) spring of 2013. I’m excited to revisit many of my favorite roles for the 8-week Metropolitan Opera House season with ABT: Sylvia, Juliet, Odette/Odile, Medora, Kitri, etc. However, I’m particularly thrilled to be in two creations this season at the RNZB; I’ll be dancing in a new comedic piece choreographed by Ethan at the beginning of 2013, and playing the title role in Ethan’s and Johan Kobborg’s new production of Giselle this November and December.

Giselle appears to be my biggest challenge because it will be my first time dancing the role, and every ballerina portraying the character is immediately compared with the greatest interpreters of the past. My plan to approach Giselle’s character is to be as natural and honest as possible in portraying her emotional voyage in my own individual way. I have immense respect for the great Giselles of the past and of the present, but my challenge this year will be to make Giselle’s character come alive through my own voice so that hopefully, one day, I can give at least one audience member the goosebumps and inspiration that I often get when I watch her story unfold.

Who would you most like to dance with & what would you dance ?

I’m so grateful to my many extraordinary partners at ABT, and I’m looking forward to dancing with Qi Huan in Giselle here at the RNZB.

If you could dance anywhere in the world (not only in a theatre), where would you dance ?

One of the most beautiful spots on the planet is Queenstown, New Zealand, but I don’t think they have a stage there unfortunately. Aside from my favorite stages in the US (the Metropolitan Opera House and Kennedy Center), I particularly enjoy dancing in any beautiful opera house with a flat (rather than raked) stage. I would love to dance at Covent Garden and also in South Africa.

How do you prepare your pointe shoes ?

I sew ribbons and criss-crossed elastic to my Gaynor Mindens, and then I’m ready to go!  They don’t need to be broken in, and they last quite a while, so I like to wear a new or fairly new pair for performances (so they are nice and clean), and then I’ll continue to wear that pair either for other performances or throughout the rehearsal process.

What is your daily routine at the moment ?

During the upcoming rehearsal period, I will wake up around 8:15, shower, eat breakfast, and get to the studio around 9:10. I stretch a bit before class, but I actually prefer to stretch more later on in the day. Class is at 9:30-11:00 followed by rehearsals, an hour lunch break and then more rehearsals. Sometimes I will also take a gyrotonics class or do yoga, depending on the intensity of the rehearsal process. I’m usually home by 5:30, so I have time for e-mails, schoolwork, and chilling out before dinner around 7:30 or 8:00. After dinner with Ethan we might spend time with friends, see a movie, or just relax at home (or I might do more schoolwork while he continues working on his laptop).

Gillian Murphy  dancing Gamzatti in Makarova's La Bayadere with Angel Corella's Barcelona Ballet  Photo Rosalie O'Connor

Gillian Murphy dancing Gamzatti in Makarova’s La Bayadere with Angel Corella’s Barcelona Ballet Photograph : Rosalie O’Connor

What do you eat during the course of a typical working day ?

I try to eat organic and healthy foods for three meals a day, but admittedly I have a sweet tooth that usually gets the best of me (I often snack on dark chocolate or on gummy bears). For breakfast I either have Greek yogurt with honey and granola or else eggs with avocado; for lunch I usually eat either a grilled chicken wrap or salad or else another type of sandwich or soup; for dinner I like variety from night to night- either Indian (samosas, tandoori, etc.), Japanese (sushi or yakitori), Thai (noodles with tofu), Mexican (burrito or fajitas), or else pizza or a hamburger.

You can ask six famous people to dinner – who would you invite ?

I would love to have one more dinner with my mentors from the past- Melissa Hayden and Georgina Parkinson, and the three of us would certainly savor the delightful company of 98-year-old Frederic Franklin. Just to mix things up, we could invite Bob Marley, Beethoven, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

What would surprise people about you ?

I’m naturally a bit shy and a bookworm.

Who inspired you to dance ?

I always loved to dance, but seeing videos of many great ballerinas as a young kid inspired me further. Also, I was truly fortunate to have such a supportive family that allowed me to leave home when I was fourteen in order to pursue dance as a potential career.

What is your best piece of advice ?

Get the best training that you can, and also develop your awareness and perspective outside of the studio. Aside from giving you personal fulfillment, your growth as a person will feed your artistry as a dancer so that you can use the structured language of ballet to express the passion and texture of music and your emotions as an individual and/or character.

How do you prepare in the hours before a show ?

After class and possibly a bit of rehearsal, I’ll eat a good lunch and take an hour or two to nap at home or back at the hotel. I head back to the theatre about two and a half hours before a show to take a shower, get hair and make-up done, stretch, and warm-up. During the day I try to eliminate negative thinking about what might happen, and I visualize how the steps could be meaningful within the context of the character’s life or the choreographer’s intentions.

How do you deal with the stress of performing ?

I try to turn my stress or nervousness into excitement. I remind myself that Now is the moment; it won’t come again, and it may or may not be remembered, so it’s an opportunity to make the most of. I relinquish control in the sense that I have to trust that I’m prepared, and I focus on immersing myself in the music and the narrative so that my personal concerns are irrelevant in the zone of performing.

Qi Huan  Gillian Murphy in 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini CREDIT Evan Li

Qi Huan & Gillian Murphy in 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini Photograph : Evan Li

Which role has tested you the most & how ?

Lizzie Borden in Fall River Legend has probably tested me the most because the acting had to be incredibly intense in order to convey Lizzie’s anguish and murderous rage. Both Lizzie Borden and Hagar from Tudor’s Pillar of Fire were not roles I would have pictured myself in at the beginning of my career, but they’ve turned into two of my most emotionally challenging and fulfilling roles.

If you were asked to design your own ballet costume, what would you create ?

I would love to dance in one of the La Fille Mal Gardée chicken costumes or as some kind of creature in Carnival of the Animals. I’ve worn plenty of revealing and beautiful costumes (tutus, dresses, unitards, etc.) but it would be fun to just be ridiculous.  

What do you look for in a dance partner ?

A great partner inspires me with his strong presence, musicality, sense of humor, spontaneity, and imagination…but the most important thing is a natural sense of chemistry and collaboration between us.

What is your favourite quote ?

I have many favorite quotes, and I actually enjoy collecting them and making quote books for my friends. One of my favorite quotations is by Eleanor Roosevelt: “One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is best expressed in the choices one makes.”

Do you have a ‘signature step’ – one that comes naturally to you ?

I’ve always been very comfortable on pointe; it’s a bit embarrassing, but when I was in kindergarten I wore out the tips of my sneakers because I was walking around a lot on my toes. I also grew up with a natural coordination for turning to the right. Therefore, I think my signature step would be either chaines or fouettes.

A phrase I use far too often is … ?

“I’ll sleep for just five more minutes!”

What’s been your best on-stage moment so far ?

I have so many favorite on-stage performance moments, but perhaps my best on-stage moment was actually behind the curtain after I had just finished dancing Tchaikovsky pas for the ABT gala a year ago at the Met Opera House. That’s when Ethan Stiefel (my boyfriend for the past 14 years) got down on his knee and asked me to marry him!

Do you have a secret skill which no-one knows about ?

Only my close friends know that I enjoy belting Part of Your World from Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Gillian Murphy dancing Swan Lake in St  Petersburg with the Mariinsky Ballet   Photo by Neff courtesy of Gaynor Minden

Gillian Murphy dancing Swan Lake in St Petersburg with the Mariinsky Ballet Photograph :Neff courtesy of Gaynor Minden

In terms of your ballet career, where would you like to be in a year from now ?

I actually know my schedule for a year from now, and I’m very happy and looking forward to it. I hope to be free of injuries and making the most of the opportunities presented to me in New York, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

What is your exit strategy, for the time when you stop dancing, and how did you plan it ?

It’s hard for me to imagine not being a dancer, but it is a harsh reality of this business. I have been taking college courses in New York and online through a program connected with St. Mary’s College in California called LEAP, and I’m hoping that another subject will ignite my enthusiasm in the way that dance has done virtually my entire life. However, what I’m realizing more and more is that as much as I truly love learning new and different subjects, ultimately I feel most fulfilled professionally in the realm of dance. I hope that after another ten years of dancing that I can pass on my passion and experience in dance by helping coach the next generation.

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One Response to Cupcakes & Conversation with Gillian Murphy, Guest Artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet & Principal with American Ballet Theatre

  1. Ballet News September 13, 2012 at 5:46 am #

    Laura Jenkins said : Yay!