Graeme Murphy’s Berlin was premiered in November 1995 in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. The work was the result of an intense collaboration between Graeme Murphy, iconic performer and “rock star” Iva Davies and musician and composer Max Lambert. Iva Davies had just created a “covers” album called The Berlin Tapes containing celebrated songs, each lovingly selected, seeking to capture the atmosphere of an era of musical creativity that Iva still felt deeply connected to. Early in his career, Iva Davies had toured extensively in Europe with his band Icehouse, performing in or visiting clubs, absorbing the inspirations of a bohemian society and the groundbreaking artists of mid to late 20th Century music such as Lou Reed. The passion for this music can be heard in Iva’s vocals and in the arrangements for each of the songs. Interestingly, in the 2007 revival of Graeme Murphy’s Berlin for seasons in Sydney and Brisbane, Iva’s on-stage role in the production was taken by 21st Century new age artist iOTA, bringing the work a new audience and an enhanced reputation.
At the start of the period of creation and at their earliest meetings, Iva urged Graeme to listen first to the songs on The Berlin Tapes and also to consider some of the themes Iva felt would be right for a dance work. From so many standpoints, Graeme Murphy was very excited by the prospect of this production and called in set designer Andrew Carter, Costume Designer Jennifer Irwin and Lighting Designer John Rayment to commit to the project. Graeme had worked before with Max Lambert (Deadly Sins, An Evening) and also with Iva Davies on Boxes in 1985, so he knew the magic their creative pairing would be sure to generate. The more he allowed himself to absorb the music that Iva and Max presented, the more it seemed to lead Graeme down its own mysterious path. When the opportunity came, he began to workshop ideas in the studio with the dancers. Soon, what began to emerge was a series of simply breathtaking and evocative sections of movement – sometimes duos, trios, quartets then sometimes solos and group work, as though the music had its own imperative and Graeme was swept along by it. At that point, without specific narrative and without costumes or staging of any kind, the ghosts of the legendary city of Berlin seemed to come to life in Graeme Murphy’s hands.
But before rehearsals advanced too far, Graeme knew it was essential to absorb firsthand the atmosphere of the “new” city of Berlin. It had only been six years since the Wall had come down and the city was still evolving. Before long, Graeme travelled to Europe and to Berlin where he was able to absorb some of the impact of this monumental change on the people and on the geography of the city. He returned to the project in Sydney armed with potent images of rebirth and renewal. “The city” he said “was littered with scaffolds and new development was everywhere, but the history whispered from each street corner”.
Later it became more and more clear, as the work was coming closer to completion, that each of the collaborators had brought their own valuable perspective on the city of Berlin to the mix, giving the production a rich complexity and resulting in some of their best work. Iva Davies had agreed to be a character in Berlin and importantly to perform live on stage with the dancers along with other musicians gathered for the production, while music director Max Lambert would be at the centre on keyboard. Together, Iva and Max had composed music to link the vocal material and provide the production with a seamless quality. Within that concept and staging, the characters at the heart of Graeme Murphy’s gorgeous choreography would allow us to see an almost mythical city come to life.
Once in the theatre, the production took on the mantle of set and costumes, giving Graeme Murphy’s Berlin its “look”, giving us a glimpse into the dark corners of a city in ruins, peopled with mysterious and enigmatic characters. These final layers gave each dancer an extra edge and a deeper understanding of the work’s dramatic potential. Berlin as a compelling piece of theatre opened up before our eyes. The whispers of history became the images of Graeme Murphy’s production. As has long been the case in this choreographer’s work, the dancers excelled in creating indelible characters that resonated. Looking at the two versions of Graeme Murphy’s Berlin (1995 and 2007) it is fascinating to see the roles interpreted by different artists, including that of Iva Davies (later performed by iOTA) and especially by dancer Janet Vernon (later interpreted by Annabel Knight). New creators were added to the mix for this final revival seen only in Sydney and Brisbane. As a result, the new blood brought on board, especially iOTA, but including the Set Designer Gerard Manion and Lighting Designer Adrian Sterritt, revitalized the staging and interestingly gave Iva Davies his first chance to actually “see” Berlin.
Written by Janine Kyle