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Telling Percussionary Tales

Rita Felciano is a Bay Area dance writer

When the Sydney Dance Company toured the U.S. in 1997 with its percussive “Free Radicals,” it had been close to 10 years since Australia’s best-known modern-dance company had been seen in this country. Now, a mere 15 months later, the company is back for the hit’s second tour; it will play in Los Angeles on Friday and Saturday at Royce Hall.

Unlike many percussion-dance collaborations on the international circuit these days, “Free Radicals” is devoid of ear-splitting assaults. The 80-minute show, which the New York Times has called an “ingenious modern-dance production,” employs but three barely amplified musicians and fills in with dancers playing instruments, singing and humming. The percussionists move with the dancers and explore their bodies for sonorous possibilities, most prominently in a body-slapping number for two dancers and two musicians.

After a recent performance at the San Jose Performing Arts Center, artistic director Graeme Murphy talked about the genesis of “Free Radicals.” It was Valentine’s Day, and Murphy’s black sweatshirt sported a tiny red heart pinned to the company name. Just a few crow’s-feet betray that the choreographer, who has directed the ensemble since 1976, will hit the big five-oh next year.

As a dancer--he got his start with the Australian Ballet--Murphy understandably is intrigued with percussionists’ body language. He calls them “the most physical [of all] musicians.” In 1992 he successfully collaborated with Michael Askill--composer and director of Synergy, Australia’s foremost percussion group--on a piece called “Synergy With Synergy.” Four years later, Murphy took a more extreme approach. He moved three percussionists (including Askill) and the company’s 16 dancers into an empty studio. They had no agenda and 5 1/2 weeks to come up with a piece.

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“It was fabulous,” the choreographer said of the intense process. “As dancers, we had to learn a new mind-set, a new way of counting, in fives, fours and threes and not the eights we were used to. The musicians, on the other hand, had to learn to move.” Appropriately, the piece, made up of more than a dozen segments, opens with an elaborate riff on counting, including one during which dancer Xue-Jun Wang paints his body in Mandarin numerical equivalents.

As for the title, “Free Radicals,” Murphy admits to its resonance in biology. “At the time, I was worried about the aging process,” he says with a laugh. “I thought maybe some antioxidant cream, which I had stolen from my partner, might help fight [my own] free radicals.” On a more serious note, he explains that for him, choreography has to be free but also “prepared to be radical.”

Murphy has never been one for the middle road. When it was suggested to him early in his career that he take the directorship of a company in relatively isolated Perth, so that “I could make my mistakes there and no one would ever know about it,” he accepted an offer in Sydney instead, from Dance Company (NSW) (the name was changed in 1979). “If you have to make mistakes, and you will,” he says, “make them big, and with a splash.”

With Sydney Dance, he has established a reputation as a creator of narrative works that wholeheartedly embrace dance as a theatrical art. “My theatricality is inherent; I can’t help it,” he says. “I want audiences to feel that they have met a new friend, or that at least they know the company better. I also encourage my dancers, even when they are characters, to bring their own personality into what they are doing.” If that means Cupid flies on a skateboard and nymphs flit via roller skates, as they did in Murphy’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” so be it.

There is no story line in “Free Radicals,” but “emotional narratives,” as Murphy calls them, arise out of individual dancers’ personalities and strengths: Wang’s flamenco against other dancers’ tap; compact Bradley Chatfield whipping himself in a tornado diagonally across the stage; pert Wakako Asano dancing with firefly lights; or Sally Wicks’ flat-footed turns with a heel that looks glued to her other foot’s toes.

Even with a track record as solid as Murphy’s--more than 40 works in 23 years--funding in “these precarious times” is not secure. Sydney Dance’s budget of around $2 million is raised in approximately equal parts from government, earned income and corporate support. It’s enough to allow Murphy to employ his dancers year-round, something almost unheard of in this country. In addition to being able to tour regularly, nationally and internationally, the company plays the Sydney Opera House for a month (“We sell out every year,” he claims), a smaller hall also at the Opera House for another seven weeks and an additional theater in Sydney for five more.

“These Sydney performances are our bread and butter,” Murphy says. “Touring, even within Australia, has become very expensive.”

Unusual for a modern-dance company, about half of Sydney’s repertoire consists of full-length works. “Triple bills just bore me,” Murphy explains. “It’s like having a meal of hors d’oeuvres or going to the movies for shorts. Audiences like full-length works.”

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But taking on full-length projects also heightens the risks--a lot of eggs get placed in one basket. Witness the sad story of Murphy’s 1984 “After Venice” (based on Thomas Mann’s novel “Death in Venice”), which starred Paul Mercurio as young Tadzio. (Mercurio went on to fame via the hit 1992 Australian movie “Strictly Ballroom” and now runs his own company.)

Conceived as an AIDS piece (“though few people realized it, it was so early”), Murphy set it to Olivier Messiaen’s monumental “Turangalila” symphony. It toured successfully, including in the U.S., for about four years. Then a problem surfaced over the rights to use the music, which resulted in shelving of the work in 1988. It can never be mounted again.

Such is not the case with “Poppy,” a highly dramatic multimedia dance-theater piece based on the life and work of Jean Cocteau. In 1978, “Poppy” was Murphy’s first full-length piece, and the company still performs it. His latest work, the 1998 “Salome” (based on the Oscar Wilde play) may well enjoy similar longevity. It came about almost serendipitously. One night during a tour of Germany, Murphy was watching one of his dancers, Josef Brown. Brown wears his hair shoulder length. “He looked like John the Baptist, and it occurred to me that I just had to do a piece for him,” Murphy recalls.

Sounding delighted and still slightly shocked, he acknowledges that during its premiere run last spring, “Salome” sold more than half a million dollars’ worth of tickets. “We took 20,000 people through it in its first season.” Australian critic Patricia Laughlin called it “possibly the finest work I have seen by Murphy. . . , choreography which gives his many talented dancers the chance to display those talents.” He will reprise it this spring and hopes to tour it in 2000.

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In the meantime the choreographer is hard at work on his next project, “Air and Other Invisible Forces,” set again to music by Askill, and Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s “Mourned by the Wind.” “Dancers always strive to find internal forces for their work,” he says. “But sometimes emotions get thrown at you. So in this piece I want everything to come from outside the body.”

As for long-term goals--Murphy has also established a track record as an opera director and is interested in film--he sounds an uncharacteristic note of uncertainty. Much of it will depend on his longtime partner and the company’s associate artistic director, dancer Janet Verdon, whom he met in ballet school when he was 14. “She is the reason why I still choreograph; she has been my muse all these years. Maybe when she retires, I will too,” he speculates. Perhaps from choreographing, but not very likely from the stage.

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“FREE RADICALS,” Sydney Dance Company, Royce Hall, UCLA. Dates: Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Prices: $10-$30. Phone: (310) 825-2101.

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