Singular Swan

American Ballet Theatre's Gillian Murphy

Gillian Murphy joined American Ballet Theatre in August 1996, at the age of 17; before the year was out she was dancing solo roles. Here, it was clear, was a major talent, a confident, prepossessing youngster with a sensitivity to music and nuance more often found in mature performers, and the imposing manner of a grand ballerina.

Murphy's strong sense of self surfaced early. At 12, she was performing with the Columbia City Ballet in South Carolina. She finished her training at the esteemed North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where she was spotted by an ABT scout in the spring of 1996. Would she join the company immediately? she was asked. No, she responded coolly; first she must finish school.

Her greatest influence, she says, has probably been Melissa Hayden, a sizzling former ballerina and principal with New York City Ballet, and her teacher in North Carolina. "We just connected," Murphy recalls. "I had my own way of moving and presenting myself. We worked with that, instead of against it."

Now a soloist, one step below top rank, Murphy will perform lead roles in a broad range of dances with ABT during its summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (May 13-July 6). She'll dance abstract ballets by George Balanchine that require speed and clarity. But in narrative works like Swan Lake and La Fille Mal Gardée, Sir Frederick Ashton's quintessentially English tale of life and love on a farm, she'll play a regal but lovelorn swan and a naughty peasant, respectively. "I do love to act," Murphy, now 22, says. "You can bring more of yourself, your uniqueness, to a dramatic role."