The Principal “Swan” of America

The Principal “Swan” of America

Gillian Murphy is an icon of the modern American ballet and a star of the world classical stage. We would like to tell you about her creative path, famous parts and the struggle against stereotypes in the profession.

On April 11, the ballerina turns 42, and 39 of them are associated with ballet. Murphy began taking ballet classes at the age of three in Belgium, where her father worked. According to Gillian's recollections, ballet helped a shy child open up: “The dance studio was the one place I felt completely free to put all of my feelings out there.” Later, the family returned to America, and the girl continued her training with the Columbia City Ballet. At the age of 11, Gillian performed the "black swan" pas de deux from Swan Lake at the festival of arts - it was her own choice. Doing 32 fouettes at this age was a very ambitious decision, but she did it.

According to Gillian's recollections, ballet helped a shy child open up: “The dance studio was the one place I felt completely free to put all of my feelings out there.”

At the age of 14, Murphy entered UNCSA - the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she was noticed by Melissa Hayden, a former prima ballerina of the George Balanchine company (New York City Ballet). Under the tutelage of her star mentor, Gillian danced almost all the principal roles in the school's productions, including The Nutcracker and Balanchine's ballets Baroque Concerto, Western Symphony, Tarantella and Theme and Variations.

At the age of 17, Murphy was accepted into the corps de ballet of the American Ballet Theater (ABT), in two years she was promoted to a soloist and three years later performed the part of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, which The New York Times wrote about enthusiastically. The year after this triumph, Gillian became ABT's prima.

Today, Murphy's track record includes dozens of leading roles, Giselle, Nikiya in La Bayadère, Cinderella, Juliet, Sylvia, Odette-Odile, Aurora in Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty and Clara in his Nutcracker are among them. The ballerina has starred in screen versions of Swan Lake and Le Corsaire by the American Ballet Theater, as well as in Giselle of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, of which she has been director and guest prima for three years.

She appeared in movies, for example, in Center Stage and its sequel, where her husband and longtime ABT partner Ethan Stiefel played one of the starring roles, and in one episode of Gossip Girl, also together with her husband. Murphy was a ballet consultant on the movie Black Swan.

Despite the fact that the ballerina has never studied in any of the ballet capitals, her talent and professionalism are recognized all over the world. Murphy has performed as a guest artist in Japan, Chile, Greece, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Ukraine and Russia. The Russian audience saw her at the Bolshoi Theater in the gala concert “All Stars of New York.  Diamonds of the American Ballet” and at the Mariinsky Theater as a guest performer of the part of Odette-Odile.

Gillian Murphy's dance style is distinguished by the highest technicality and dynamics - both the audience and the critics loved her for these. But the American ballet school is significantly different from the Russian one, and dancing at the Mariinsky Theater was a serious challenge for the ballerina. 

“In America, we don’t pay so much attention to the smoothness and musicality of the arms. It just so happened. When I tried to do something with my arms in St. Petersburg, I realized how much I don’t know about ballet,” the prima admitted in an interview with the Vremya Novostei newspaper while working at the Mariinsky.

Besides, Murphy's physique is quite different from that of classical ballet, and even in America she has been criticized many times for not being graceful enough. 

The ballerina herself often speaks in defense of the dancers having different figures, “Today, dancers don’t need to starve themselves, and as far as I know, they don’t. Ballet is one of the visual arts, so it's nice to see real people doing beautiful, strong and gentle movements.”

Devotion to ballet did not prevent Murphy from realizing her potential in other areas. She completed a special Crossover to Business program for professional artists and athletes at Harvard Business School, graduated from St. Mary's College in 2018 and announced pregnancy and maternity leave for the 2018-2019 seasons. In 2019, the ballerina had a son, Ax Nathaniel Stiefel.