SHOW PEOPLE / Driving himself up the wall: Mark Murphy

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The Independent Culture
THERE are some in the dance world who are waiting for Mark Murphy to fail. They are envious of him because he is young - just 25 - and successful, a dancer and choreographer who has been running his own company for almost three years. 'It's an English thing,' Murphy believes, this desire to see those who fly high fall hard. Some say he has more money than sense - which is absurd because his company, V-Tol, has to scrounge for funds like every other contemporary-dance company in Britain. Others say he is arrogant, a bit full of himself, which amazes him: 'I'm actually a sensitive soul who doesn't shut out what people say about me. That would be arrogant.'

We are sitting in the music room at The Place dance centre in London, because the photographer approves of the curtains, which make a good backdrop. Far from being arrogant, Murphy seems rather shy. He is softly spoken, careful about what he says and guarded about his private life. He has a two-year-old daughter, but doesn't live with her mother. 'There's been a lot of pain,' is all he is prepared to say. His own parents split up when he was three, and he grew up in Peterborough believing complicated relationships and looking out for yourself at an early age were part of everyone's life.

These experiences have made him more vulnerable than his critics would guess. They've also made him angry, and a lot of that passion fuels his work. 'It's a safe channel for those feelings,' he says. His rough- and-tumble dance language has been described as brutal, even violent. His dancers scale walls, jump from high ledges, have doors slammed in their faces. They dive through the air and crash on to a bed or whatever else is handy: it's a case of do bump into the furniture, dear. Murphy says the props are a metaphor: 'Sometimes you're so full of feelings you want to climb the wall. We do climb walls.'

As we talk, he points out that if he had gone to a different school, he might never have become a dancer. At 15, he was doing little else besides playing rugby. The saving grace at his local comprehensive was a dynamic arts department that kindled his interest in cinema, taught him to paint and brought the Extemporary Dance Company, Laurie Booth and others to perform for the students. 'I think it's rubbish that people should be introduced slowly to dance. It was just presented to us to inspire us.'

And inspire him it did. With no dance training, he was accepted by the Laban dance centre in London. He thinks they recognised a spark in him. The first year was physically tough: he had never had a dance class in his life, and arrived not knowing which way to grip the barre. In time, however, he proved to be a dedicated and curious student, questioning conventions in a way that endeared him to staff, who took it upon themselves to nurture him.

After graduating, he wanted to perform his own work and got his first opportunity at the Edinburgh Festival, where he performed a duet with a fellow graduate, Sue Cox. Soon after that, he was invited to create a piece for a European dance project. Then . . . nothing. So what do you do if you want to dance and choreograph? You start you own company, of course. That's how

V-Tol began. 'I was so nave,' he says, implying that he never realised that others who have started their own companies - Lloyd Newson, Siobhan Davies, Jonathan Burrows - had all worked in other companies for years and had left because of restrictions on their creativity.

Nevertheless, he's delighted that V-Tol has struck a chord with audiences and seems a little surprised by its success. He uses the word nave again, this time to describe his latest work, 32 feet per second per second. It is a departure for Murphy because it incorporates film, not in snatches but as part of the narrative. It turned out to be far more technical than he expected. He shot the film himself and then had to edit it, finding himself in a 'Starship Enterprise' of an editing room, spending two nights just reading the manual before getting down to the cutting. In the end the piece matured quickly and has had good reviews. Film is one of his passions and, at the end of the tour in March, he's taking a year's sabbatical to go to film school. But he doesn't see himself moving out of dance: 'I'm fascinated by it, and believe there's a lot more it can do.'

He has come in for criticism for what some see as misogyny in 32 feet. Its focus is a dark and bruising male character who sexually abuses two women in hotel bedrooms. 'It doesn't mean I approve of that type of behaviour,' he says, 'but it does exist. The women in the company, Emma Cater and Lea Parkinson, are strong women, and they helped to devise the piece, drawing on their experiences.' Murphy still finds criticism wounding. He took a lot of advice in the early days, but it confused him. Now he has learnt to be his own man - nothing too arrogant about that.

'32 feet': Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (0284 769505), Tues & Wed; touring until end of March.

(Photograph omitted)