On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in the blocks surrounding Lincoln Center, you can spot the ballet dancers walking down the street. Even in jeans and baseball caps, their impeccable postures and pointed-out toes give them away. Such sightings aren’t remarkable in New York City, home to a zillion aspiring dancers and the world-renowned American Ballet Theatre (ABT). What is remarkable, though, is to have one of ABT’s most promising dancers return, briefly, to Missoula, which is his home.
Eighteen-year-old Matthew Murphy, son of Missoula Ballet Arts Academy tap teacher Linda Murphy and UM Media Arts Program Director Mike Murphy, grew up in Missoula from ages 6 to 14, when he left to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts. He went to New York City at age 17 to join ABT’s Studio Company, a kind of “finishing” program to prepare dancers to join ABT; today Murphy is ABT’s youngest male member. This weekend, he returns to the Missoula stage for the first time since he was 13 to perform as the Cavalier in the Garden City Ballet’s 24th production of the Nutcracker.
Murphy brings with him a fellow dancer, 18-year-old Jacquelyn Reyes, to play the Sugar Plum Fairy.
“I guess we’re kind of like the king and queen of the Sugar Plum sweets,” says Murphy, looking to Reyes for confirmation. The two met years ago at an ABT summer program and have been fast friends and dance partners since.
“We have a kind of relationship where I can say to her, ‘oh, this step really isn’t going right,’ and she can say to me, ‘oh, lift me a different way,’ and it’s not offensive to either of us,” he says. “We have a playful enough relationship that we can laugh at each other.”
Among professional ballet dancers, whom Murphy describes as driven, passionate and sometimes compulsive, laughter sounds like a healthy ingredient. Garden City Ballet Board President Dawn Douglass calls ABT the Super Bowl of ballet. Reyes says that being on stage with the 89 other members of ABT is like being in the Olympics with only the gold medalists.
“It’s a very difficult transition,” Reyes says of entering the professional ballet world, “because to get to the point where you are in a professional company, you have to be the best wherever you’re from, and you’re always doing the biggest roles, and then you get into the company, and it’s great because it’s what you always wanted to do, but all of a sudden you’re starting over again.”
Murphy explains that in any company, the dancers are divided into principals (lead roles), soloists and corps de ballet, where “you’re almost like the scenery,” he says. Transitioning from ABT’s 12-dancer Studio Company to its 90-person main company, he says, can feel a little like going from principal to scenery.
In GCB’s Nutcracker, however, Murphy and Reyes will be undisputed principals. Garden City Ballet artistic director Pam Copley says that for each year’s Nutcracker, “we try to add something new in terms of costuming or choreography or guest artists, to keep it fresh. It’s the same story, but there’s always a new twist.”
As this year’s twists, Murphy and Reyes are the “crème de la crème,” says Copley, “not only because of the quality of their dancing, but also because Matthew has a tie to Missoula.”
And Murphy’s got more than that, according to Copley, who’s been teaching ballet for 25 years and says that Murphy is going to be a “superstar.”
“The first time he walked into class when he was 8 years old, I knew he was something very special, because there was an aura about him,” she says. “When you’ve been a teacher for 25 years, within about 10 to 15 minutes of a class you can pick out the kids that are really going to do something, and he was just one of them. He is the most musically talented and technically accomplished dancer I’ve ever worked with.”
The GCB production consists of 98 cast members, ranging in age from 6 to senior citizen, who have been rehearsing since mid-September. Murphy and Reyes began rehearsing together in New York in early November and spent last week rehearsing in Missoula.
Copley says that as a nonprofit civic ballet company not associated with any dance studio in town, Garden City Ballet held open auditions in September and, as always, cast some adults who have never danced before.
KECI’s Heidi Meili has been cast as the Maid; a couple of UM professors are filling the acting roles; and gymnasts from Bitterroot Gymnastics will dance in the role of the Russians. Collectively, the cast covers the spectrum from novice to pro. Recalling his first time on the Metropolitan Opera House stage in Lincoln Center, Murphy reflects on his own journey from Missoula’s stage to ABT:
“The first time I walked out on [the Metropolitan Opera House] stage, I just looked out at the audience and almost started shaking…You think of how much history has gone on there, and what it means for us to be dancing there…and it was kind of like, okay, this is real, this is happening, and we’re actually going to be dancing with these people who we’ve been idolizing since we were 5 years old.”
Garden City Ballet’s Nutcracker will be performed Dec. 17–19 in the Montana Theatre in UM’s PAR/TV Building. Friday and Saturday evening show times are 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., and a Sunday evening show at 6 p.m. Tickets are $16 for adults and $12 for children under 12 and are available at Rockin Rudy’s, Worden’s, and at Holiday Magic in the Southgate Mall.