Life on the road

In 1992, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism offered Murphy an opportunity to break new ground: to set up and run Turkey’s first modern dance company.

Modern Dance Theater Istanbul performs ‘Travelogue’. (photo credit: TIMUR VARLIKLI)
Modern Dance Theater Istanbul performs ‘Travelogue’.
(photo credit: TIMUR VARLIKLI)
Traveling is not easy. It can be exhilarating, inspiring, even life-changing, but hitting the road is almost never worry-free. As a young girl, choreographer Beyhan Murphy remembers sitting in the car, a passenger on adventure after adventure. Her experience is not dissimilar from many other Turks, whose intrinsic need to travel is centuries old and captured in the writings of countless novelists and poets.
“We [Turks] travel a lot,” says Murphy. “It may have something to do with the transitional quality of life, the consciousness that nothing is permanent and that we are all passing through this life. Ever since I have known myself, I was in a car with the family, being driven to all sorts of places by my father.”
Murphy was born and raised in Turkey. She began dancing at the age of eight and continued through the end of high school. Upon graduating, Murphy relocated to London, where she pursued dance studies at the London School of Contemporary Dance. All told, she spent 17 years in London, collaborating with a long list of artists, including Yul Brynner.
In 1992, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism offered Murphy an opportunity to break new ground: to set up and run Turkey’s first modern dance company. As the director of Modern Dance Turkey, based in Ankara, Murphy placed Turkey on the modern dance map. One of the only women of power in her field, Murphy became a seminal figure in Turkish culture.
“Even though it is a male dominant society on the façade, there is a very strong matriarchal base in Turkish culture. So, it is not that difficult to exist here as a female artist,” she explains.
It was during her 10-year stint in Ankara that Murphy first conceived of Travelogue, a performance that brought together her wanderlust and local culture. Murphy will present her second Travelogue, choreographed for her second company, as part of the Suzanne Dellal Center’s Tel Aviv Dance Festival.
Today, Murphy is the chief choreographer of the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet.
“We were just working on the foundations of the company here in Istanbul. I had made Travelogue for the Ankara company years ago, which had become very successful and popular, so I thought this new company could begin with a second Travelogue. It would also be poignant, since I was their director and now I am the director for this company. Turks love to travel; we still carry the nomadic spirit within, and a dance company travels a lot, artists travel a lot…so it was fitting that we start our new life with a show such as this,” she says.
During her initial research period in Ankara, Murphy read texts by Turkish explorer Evliya Celebi.
“I was familiar with Celebi beforehand, even though Evliya Celebi’s writings are in Ottoman Turkish, which is almost like Shakespeare’s English, and young people cannot understand it. I have a special interest in history and can read Ottoman Turkish a bit, so it was not a big problem for me. His portrayals and descriptions are sometimes so exaggerated and fantastical that it gave me a good tool for the mysterious and the mystical,” she explains.
In the first Travelogue, Murphy blended Celebi’s influence with that of Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.
More than a decade later, she returned to Celebi, this time with a different author in hand.
“This time I decided to go for Elif Shafak, another successful contemporary writer, so there was more of a feminine input to the story. I chose from Elif’s work brief passages about inner searches and inner wonderings about modern man and juxtaposed them with Evliya Chelebi sections that I felt could work, and set out the spine of the show. The concepts grew, and choreography was the last thing, actually. We used the choreography to finish off with dance what had already emerged in dramaturgy,” she says.
Murphy’s personal travel log is extensive, so much so that she often forgoes personal trips.
“I travel all the time due to work. I would like to travel for leisure, but I am so tired from traveling that I want to spend my holiday in one place!” she says.
While on tour, Murphy keeps a keen eye on all details, knowing full well that travel alters the senses and decreases the acceptable margin for error.
“At home, during my performances, I tend to watch from the front of the house. But on tour, I tend to stay in the wings. It is a new stage, and we are there for only a few days. We aren’t used to the surroundings, so anything can go wrong. The dancers’ ‘human error’ factor increases when on tour,” she notes.
That said, Murphy cites travel as the best part of her job.
“I love being in collaboration with people, with the artists and dancers, making creations from nothing with the help of a good team. I love going far and wide with them,” she says.
‘Travelogue’ will be performed on August 18 and 19 at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv. For more information, visit