Peter Sculthorpe: The sun, the earth, and Ned Kelly

Graeme Murphy was 18 when Robert Helpmann choreographed Sun Music for the Australian Ballet in 1968.

Helpmann’s work “was an attempt to be big and bold and I loved being part of it”, Murphy once told me. “It was first time I had ever been choreographed”.

With Peter Sculthorpe’s music and Kenneth Rowell’s design, Murphy thought Sun Music was a ballet of the moment in Australia, rather than a remnant of the past.

Talking of his early years in the company’s corps de ballet, Murphy recalled the rehearsals for the first movement in Sun Music.

“I did a somersault from a seated position and Bobby said ‘that was good, do what that boy did’. It gave me such a sense of power”.

Sun Music was the first of three ballets in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire that was danced to music by Sculthorpe who died earlier this month at the age of 85.

Before the ballet’s premiere, Sculthorpe had composed Sun Music for a concert performance at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1965, when John Hopkins conduced the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London

David Cairns, writing in The Financial Times, described the music as “a powerfully evocative piece for orchestra of strings, brass and percussion, which translates into a variety of extraordinary orchestral timbres and motifs… the feeling of the sun as a vast, glaring impersonal force in a country dominated by it”.

The second ballet danced to Sculthorpe’s music followed in May 1990 with the Australian Ballet’s premiere of My Name is Edward Kelly at the Sydney Opera House.

Choreographed by Timothy Gordon and designed by Kenneth Rowell, the ballet was danced to Sculthorpe’s Port Essington, String Quartet No. 8, Earth Cry.

In a program note Gordon wrote that “the ballet focuses on Ned [Kelly] and his personal vendetta against the constabulary who he felt had persecuted him and his family from early childhood; his retaliation led to his eventual arrest and trial on 28th October, 1880”.

The ballet’s cast included Marilyn Jones as Mrs Kelly and Steven Heathcote as Ned.

Six years later, the last of the three ballets danced to Sculthorpe’s music (Nourlangie) was Red Earth, choreographed by Stanton Welch.

In the program note for the Houston Ballet’s revival, Welch wrote: “Red Earth was created in 1996, when I was with the Australian Ballet. It was the first time they had done an all-Australian program. I wanted to create a dance about how people found a way of becoming ‘Australian.’ How do you learn to feel like you’re a native of a place — like you’d die for a country when you’re from somewhere else?

“I was so thrilled to get music by Peter Sculthorpe, who’s like the Aaron Copeland of Australia. I grew up listening to his Death of the Wombat, a narration to classical music. And I found his music for Red Earth in such a strange way.

“I was on a bus, touring with the Australian Ballet’s junior company. We stopped at a petrol station out in the middle of nowhere. They had a tiny shop with CDs, and Nourlangie was the only classical one. We had lots of bus time, and I spent the rest of it with the earphones on, looking at the bush in the outback. I felt like I’d won out, using Nourlangie before anyone else made a dance to it”.

A week after Sculthorpe’s death, Chris Latham, violinist and artistic director of the Canberra International Music Festival wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that Sculthorpe had been deeply inspired by D.H. Lawrence and in particular his poem, Sun in Me in which he wrote:

A sun will rise in me,
I shall slowly resurrect.
already the whiteness of false dawn is on my inner ocean
A sun in me.
And a sun in heaven.
And beyond that, the immense sun behind the sun,
the sun of immense distances, that fold themselves together
within the genitals of living space.
And further, the sun within the atom
which is god in the atom.