Gillian Murphy thrives as principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre

Gillian Murphy (‘96) sits on the patio of The Pickle Jar food court, looking out over the green lawn of her alma mater. She was a student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) for just three years, but it is evident that those three years mean a great deal to her to this day.

“From my first moment on campus, I felt part of a community of young artists who were intent upon training and growing as artists and people. It was so special, at the age of 14, to be surrounded by peers who had that same passion for their art that I did.”

Her art was — and still is — ballet. As principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York, it is fair to say that she is one of the very best ballet dancers in the world. She is married to another illustrious dancer, Ethan Stiefel, a famed choreographer and director as well as the former dean of the School of Dance.

The ballet power couple returned to campus in November 2015 as guest artists in residence to add their expertise to the school’s annual production of "The Nutcracker" and Murphy returned again this March with fellow dancers from ABT for a special performance in support of the Gillian Murphy Endowed Scholarship Fund.

“Gillian is one of the most important American ballerinas in the dance world today,” says Susan Jaffe, Dean of the UNCSA School of Dance. “She is an amazing dancer, possessing power, beauty and artistry, and is thrilling to watch.”

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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 atmosphere.”

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 meals.”

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, in 2009.)

Gillian Murphy accepts Prince Grace Foundation 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.”