Murphy was born in England, where her father worked overseas. At the age of 3, she
began her ballet training in Belgium. Her family moved to Florence, South Carolina,
and some time later she began training with the Columbia City Ballet. She and her
mother would drive a three-hour, round-trip commute until they finally relocated to
Columbia to make training more convenient.
“I just always loved to move. In kindergarten, I was walking around on my toes in
my tennis shoes,” she says.
Murphy was a shy child, but dancing gave her a voice. “I loved the feeling of dancing,
and as a form of expression, too. The dance studio was the one place I felt completely
free to put all of my feelings out there.”
When she was 14, a story in Dance magazine sparked Murphy’s interest in UNCSA. “The
article featured a student who had won a Princess Grace Award. My mother and I were
impressed by that. It spoke very highly of the school that one of their dancers would
win that award.”
A few months later, she was a student in what she calls “a perfect, creative and nurturing
For me, North Carolina School of the Arts is an incredible place to learn.
Gillian Murphy on Dancers Speak
Murphy thrived under the tutelage of her instructors, which included the late Melissa
Hayden. “I was a little intimidated at first,” Murphy says. “Melissa was legendary
as a dancer and as a teacher. I knew that she could be tough and brutally honest,
but I prepared myself to not show her that I was intimidated.”
There was a connection from the get-go. “She liked that I was hungry to learn and
would not take corrections personally.”
It wasn’t long before Murphy was dancing principal roles in several of the school’s
ballet productions, including The Nutcracker and George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco,
Western Symphony, Tarantella and Theme and Variations.
Over time, Murphy and Hayden connected outside of the studio. “She would invite me
to her home, and we’d play Scrabble with her husband. She’d make the most amazing
Awards began to stack up as Murphy honed her talent. Finalist at the Jackson International
Ballet Competition. The Prix de Lausanne Espoir award, after performing the final
round at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. A National Foundation for Advancement in the
Arts Level I award. And in 1998, she was bestowed with the very honor that caught
her eye three years prior: the Princess Grace Foundation-USA grant. (The Princess
Grace Foundation would go on to award Murphy its highest honor, the Statue Award,
Gillian Murphy accepts the Princess Grace Statues Award, – its highest award – in
2009. In 1998, Murphy was awarded the Princess Grace Foundation Dance Fellowship Award.
Her success led to several exciting opportunities. Despite offers to train with many
renowned international ballet schools, Murphy decided to finish her schooling at UNCSA,
albeit a year early.
“It was enticing, but UNCSA is a gem of a school. I loved the community here, the
support from the faculty and my fellow students, the great academic program. I felt
strongly that UNCSA was the right place for me to be.”
Ultimately, American Ballet Theatre became her next destination. Georgina Parkinson,
a ballet mistress with ABT, had made a visit to campus to work with students. After
seeing Murphy perform, Parkinson told her she was “ABT material.” Just a few days
after joining, Murphy was touring in Rio de Janeiro.
Now, Murphy has appeared as a guest artist all over the world, including Japan, Chile,
Greece, Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and throughout the
United States. “It’s been an incredible journey, traveling around the world doing
what I love with incredible colleagues.”
UNCSA has a long history of students joining ABT, according to Murphy. She rattles
off several names of dancers who were there when she arrived and those who joined
later. But few were recruited at the young age of 17.
Her accomplishments over the last two decades are staggering, with a repertoire that includes more featured
and principal roles than can be counted as well as guest appearances at almost all
of the major theatres in the world.
Murphy has clearly given a lot to dance. In addition to a wealth of honors and worldwide
performance opportunities, what has dance given back to her?
“In this day and age, it is easy to lose track of being in the present moment. It
is also an eternal endeavor to find meaning in one’s life. Art provides both of these
things: a chance to find meaning in stories and in experience — and a way to be engaged
in the present moment through live performance.”
In 2014, UNCSA paid special recognition to Murphy for her many accomplishments when
the school established a scholarship in her name. Less than two years into the fundraising
effort, the Gillian Murphy Endowed Scholarship Fund has been fully endowed at $650,000. The fund enables the School of Dance to award in perpetuity an annual, merit-based
$25,000 scholarship to a talented student for up to four years.
“There is so much possibility for greatness at this school,” Murphy says. “The more
they recruit very talented artists, the better. It only helps UNCSA to keep developing
young artists who take the world stage by storm.”