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By Michael Van Baker
Impressing with control and clarity in the PNB corps
Murphy caught critics’ eyes as the Peacock in Nutcracker.
Photo: Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB
Last year, Elizabeth Murphy rehearsed nine different roles for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Swan Lake. Though her favorite was the Spanish dance in Act III, with its repeated backbends and fan work, she danced each ardently. And in the Spanish, she gave a memorable performance, her footwork emphatic in its concluding flurry of steps, her fan underscoring her gestures with sharp, bold strokes.
The two years that Murphy, 24, has been in the PNB corps have been studded with similar moments. And PNB artistic director Peter Boal says he’s been mulling over the “when”—not the “if”—of her advancement in the company. Boal first tested her abilities when he cast her as Polyhymnia in Balanchine’s Apollo—a part that he says requires “incredible balance and control.” However, the biggest challenge he’s given her to date was Terpsichore, a role she shared with the company’s prima ballerina Carla Körbes. “I wanted her to know how far I thought she could go,” Boal says.
Dancing Balanchine for Peter Boal is a long way from where Murphy began, when as a 2-year-old she tagged along to her older sister’s dance class. Entranced, Murphy wanted to join in, too. “I was literally banging on the studio door!” she claims, laughing. The teacher decided it would be quieter to just let her take the class. By 7, she went to study with Judith Koeckhoven at the Academy of Ballet Arts in her hometown of Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Then at 14, she left to train at The Rock School in Pennsylvania. For a month or so, she remembers, she wondered if she could keep up (“I was pretty weak before, kind of like Bambi”). But the Rock also gave her a chance as a student to perform in Pennsylvania Ballet productions: “That was the first time I really got to see what professional life was like,” she says.
While at the Rock, she auditioned for PNB’s summer program. It was a disaster. “I did a développé side, the simplest thing, and just toppled over,” she recalls. Then she fell again. “I really knew it was bad when they weren’t even worried about me anymore. ‘Oh, that girl fell again.’ ” Shaking it off, she spent two summers at Chautauqua’s intensive under Balanchine ballerina Patricia McBride, which helped strengthen her technique and interest in dancing Balanchine.
Then came a choice: take an offer from Utah’s Ballet West II, or hold out for a place in the PNB School’s Professional Division. Murphy chose Ballet West II. Then at 18, she joined the main company, where she soon earned several featured roles, including leading the cadets’ regiment in Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes. But Murphy found herself still attracted to PNB’s mix of contemporary and Balanchine repertoire.
She decided to try again. “My whole history with PNB is them saying ‘No,’ and me saying ‘But I really want to dance here!’ ” she says. After an audition, she wrote a message to Boal saying just that. It did the trick.
Murphy has adapted to the style of the company, in part by watching Carla Körbes (“Oh, her port de bras!” exclaims Murphy), Lesley Rausch, and others. Ballet master Otto Neubert praises Murphy’s range and abilities. “Whether sparkling, charming, or fierce,” he says, “she brings the audience to her.” Last winter her Nutcracker Peacock caught the eye of veteran Seattle Weekly dance critic Sandra Kurtz, who praised her clarity and articulation.
“I’ve always loved dancing,” Murphy says, “but in terms of things coming naturally for me, I don’t think there’s much that did.” But that love gives her the drive for an endurance feat like David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin, and the emotional intensity required by Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven.
Outside the studio, Murphy does Pilates and yoga, and she likes to sew leotards for dancer friends. Her main focus remains her dancing, though. Boal thinks she’s ready for more: “She can do the pirouettes, she can jump high enough, she has the timing,” he says. One day, he says, she might be a Kitri in Alexei Ratmansky’s Don Quixote. One day, perhaps Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Juliet.
Michael van Baker writes about the arts for The SunBreak in Seattle.