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An acclaimed contemporary dance company keys on a piano-based tribute.

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Graeme Murphy recalls his earliest forays into choreography as childhood romps around his family's living room in rural Tasmania jumping on the furniture while his mother, Betty, played the piano.

Murphy credits those times 'round the piano for his lifelong love of music and dance. So when his mother died, in 2004, Murphy -- who's wrapping up 30 years as artistic director and choreographer at Sydney Dance Company -- wanted to pay tribute to the woman who "could rattle out anything from a show tune to a small concerto." His award-winning evening-length ballet Grand centers on the instrument that was responsible for so many fond memories.

The Sydney Dance Company's March 24 Pittsburgh Dance Council performance of Grand -- part of a nine-city U.S. tour -- will be Pittsburgh's first sight of the troupe as well as its last of Murphy as artistic director. Founded in 1969, the company is widely regarded as Australia's premier contemporary dance troupe. Mirroring Australian society and sensibilities, the company -- which has performed in more than 20 countries -- encompasses an eclectic mix of body types and nationalities and performs with a wide-open sense of space, energy and athleticism.

In the 80-minute (and intermissionless) Grand, Murphy takes full advantage of the 18 company members' individual strengths -- exploiting them, he says, "in the nicest way" to give the ballet a unique sense of power.

Having frequently choreographed to piano music, Murphy says that to weld centuries of piano repertoire into a full-length evening was the next step. But it wasn't easy.

"It was a nightmare culling the music and figuring out what to include and leave out so the ballet would not be nine hours long," said Murphy via telephone from Kansas, where the company was performing. "If I had hair I would have torn it out."

Murphy said he also needed to find a pianist who not only could play everything from Bach to Fats Waller, but who didn't mind being pushed about the stage, and having dancers lean and climb on the piano while he played it. Murphy found fellow Australian Scott Murphy, who helped choose the ballet's score and has played for every performance of the ballet since its premiere, in 2005.

"It's a big journey for the dancers and the audience alike," says Murphy. "By its end, I think audiences get to know the company very well."

The ballet's numerous sections are organized by categories of music: waltzes, jazz and work by impressionist composers including Debussy. The ballet uses music from the baroque era to the present. As seen on a DVD of excerpts from Grand, the sections run the gamut from elegant, sensuous and profound to light, lively and humorous. Included are several that play off the action of the piano keys and hammers; a mock dance competition; and an intricate pas de quarte, all indicative of Murphy's theatrical choreographic style.

Yet, says Murphy, everything in Grand was influenced by the piano: not just the choreography, but also Gerard Manion's set design and fashion designer Akira Isogawa's many contributions to what Murphy calls "a massive costume show."

Grand, like the company's current tour as a whole, is both a tribute and a farewell to both Betty Murphy and her accomplished son. And while Murphy and his wife, artistic associate Janet Vernon, have stepped down, they are far from retired: Murphy says that they will pursue other interests in dance and the arts.

"Dance," he says, "is about moving on."

Grand 8 p.m. Sat., March 24. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $19.50-40.50. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org

Piano barre: The Sydney Dance Company performs Grand. Photo by Jeff Busby.
  • Piano barre: The Sydney Dance Company performs Grand. Photo by Jeff Busby.

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