Graeme Murphy devised Rumours in 1978 as a three-part ode to the city of Sydney. Each part of this “trilogy” is related to the other by the source of its inspiration – Sydney in all of its colour, beauty and grittiness – and each part of the trilogy is quite distinct in flavor and style.
Rumours II (sub-titled Bare Facts and Fantasies) was created first and premiered as part of a dance festival called Ballet ’78, staged in the Opera Theatre (now Joan Sutherland Theatre) of the Sydney Opera House. Six months later the completed trilogy premiered in the Drama Theatre.
Rumours II depicts a day at Sydney’s Lady Jayne beach – a well-known nudist enclave at the foot of a cliff on Sydney harbour accessed by two precarious wooden ladders. Australian dance audiences were immediately captivated by the wit and irony employed in the work and also the tremendous style Graeme Murphy and his collaborators engaged to devise this as a dance piece for the festival. It caused quite a stir. Leading dance critics had been imported from London and New York – John Percival from the Times and Clive Barnes from the New York Post – to give their view both in print and in a public forum of the works on show. Incredibly, but probably quite predictably, they were overwhelmed by Rumours II’s sensuality, its daring and even its erudite dance language.
When the curtain went up on the familiar scene, albeit interpreted in clean lineal black and white monochrome by set and costume designer Alan Oldfield, the audience whooped in delight. Stories of this innocent but notorious harbourside destination were making the papers almost daily and as such the scene was immediately identifiable. It was a truly bold idea to make a dance work that so deftly captured the spirit of Sydney’s hedonistic lifestyle. What could be more Australian?
The characters drawn by Graeme Murphy in Rumours II were from all across the spectrum. Straight couples, gay couples, high fashion groupies, a fat girl, a shy girl, a voyeur, all had their moment in the sun. The music chosen by Graeme Murphy for the trilogy is by brilliant contemporary Australian composer Barry Conyngham and its orchestral astringency underscores the modernity of Rumours II while seemingly conjures the heat of the day as does John Rayment’s hot white lighting. The question being asked by Murphy is just how do you show the world who you are if you wear nothing at all – how do you demonstrate your glamour or your clout and how do you communicate your personal message to those around you? How can nudity be an outfit ? To underscore this point the dancers wore “costumed nudity” sewn into flesh leotards and briefs and this was without doubt one of the things that most alarmed and mystified the international visitors. Sydney was and is very proud of its physical being and this was a given. Moreover, with an economy of design, some succinct and brilliant choreography and a startling music score, Graeme Murphy showed that contemporary dance can tell any story.
With Rumours II established as the core of the work, Graeme Murphy went on to devise the rest of his trilogy. Rumours I (sub-titled Weekday Dreaming) is awash with the colourful moods of summer in Sydney and illustrates just why every Sydney-sider tends to long for the weekend. From the spectacle of sails on the harbour, to a tennis match played under a hot summer sky and notably to “night cricket”, at the time newly minted by Kerry Packer, Rumours I gives us a passing parade of longed for leisure pursuits. Once again, it was surprising to see such familiar imagery as the lights of the cricket field depicted on stage in a dance performance. In its premiere season, Rumours I drew murmurs of recognition and delight at every performance, making it a perfect start to the trilogy and setting the mood for the audience to ruminate on the beauty of the city.
Rumours III, however, is in stark contrast. A bold piece of dance theatre, Graeme Murphy and the dancers have created a moving picture of a community of the elderly with darkly drawn characters residing together in a nursing home and perhaps entering the last stages of life. An evocative city skyline dominates the background and in the foreground the forlorn inhabitants, depicted so convincingly by the dancers, wander about, connecting and disconnecting with each other and the outside world. The final moments of the work focus on an aging couple who live in the house next door. As danced by Graeme Murphy and Robert Olup, they can foresee the likely outcome of their lives together and sadly regret its inevitability. Rarely have issues of age, youth, love and loss been so beautifully depicted in dance. This moving insight into the human condition was rare in an artist not yet even 30 years old. Graeme Murphy returned to these themes frequently in his career most notably in works such as Homelands, Nearly Beloved, and in the Australian Ballet’s Nutcracker and Beyond Twelve.
Written by Janine Kyle