Friend of Festival Ballet Theatre is back

Gillian Murphy appears as Giselle in Royal New Zealand's 2013 production of the romantic ballet "Giselle." Qi Huan, back, portrays Albrecht, Giselle's love interest who betrays her trust.
Gillian Murphy appears as Giselle in Royal New Zealand’s 2013 production of the romantic ballet “Giselle.” Qi Huan, back, portrays Albrecht, Giselle’s love interest who betrays her trust.
(Evan Li)

A decade ago, Salwa Rizkalla reached out to the management of a promising young dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, in hopes that she could snag her as a guest artist for her Fountain Valley-based troupe.

The answer turned out to be a yes — which resulted in an ongoing relationship.

Gillian Murphy, who will dance the title role in Festival Ballet Theatre’s upcoming production of “Giselle” at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, has been a regular guest with the company since she first appeared in 2005 as Kitri in “Don Quixote.”

Over the years, she’s also turned up regularly as a Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” and even held question-and-answer sessions offstage with the younger dancers.

“Gillian, at that time, was just a young dancer in the American Ballet Theatre,” Rizkalla said, remembering a decade back. “I loved her energy and her artistic ability. And then when I met her the first time and she came and guested with us, we just found even more wonderful things about her personality.

“She’s so calm and accommodating, and you feel like she’s almost one of us — humble and a hard worker and really connects very nicely with the dancers around her.”

Murphy has devoted plenty of hard work over the years to “Giselle,” even though she’s relatively new to the title role. With American Ballet Theatre, she had played the spirit queen Myrtha, who presides over a group of female ghosts who seek revenge for their unrequited love.

In 2012, with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Murphy essayed the title character, an innocent, fragile peasant girl who dies of a broken heart when she learns that the man she loves has deceived her.

“Giselle is the opposite [of Myrtha] in the sense that she’s all good and she’s more vulnerable,” Murphy said. “So they’re just different types of roles. Both of them are quite demanding.”

Reviewing a “Giselle” performance in February, Los Angeles Times critic Lewis Segal wrote that Murphy looked “comfortable” in the role and that her breakdown scene “may have been by-the-numbers, but in passages demanding speed, sustained technical control, absolute clarity of articulation and perfect placement, Murphy ruled.”

Born in England while her American father worked overseas, Murphy began taking ballet lessons at age 3 in Belgium and continued when the family relocated to South Carolina. After racking up competition laurels as a teenager, she joined American Ballet Theatre in 1996 and became a principal dancer in 2002.

At the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Saturday and Sunday, Murphy will join about 40 Festival Ballet Theatre dancers who range from high school to middle age. Fellow American Ballet Theatre principal Cory Stearns will play the role of Albrecht, Giselle’s duplicitous pursuer. The Fountain Valley company, which formed in 1988, last staged “Giselle” 10 years ago.

Murphy, a New York resident, expressed pleasure at returning to Orange County.

“I love being there,” she said. “The students are wonderful and very enthusiastic, and they have many great dancers. So it’s always a wonderful experience.”

If You Go

What: Festival Ballet Theatre presents “Giselle”

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $40 for adults, $37 for seniors, $35 for children

Information: (949) 854-4646 or