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Taking the plunge

Former RWB dancer is throwing herself into a new career

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Sarah Murphy-Dyson is plummeting off a bridge toward the dark water.

Her arms flail. The back of her head smacks a railing. She lolls forward like a ragdoll, struck unconscious while falling.

The head injury is a key moment in the movie Faces in the Crowd. Murphy-Dyson, a former top dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, is costumed identically to star Milla Jovovich, down to the earrings, shoulder-length hairstyle and bright lipstick.

The once-ethereal ballerina is now an occasional stunt double -- a performer who executes risky action scenes, take after take, in place of "the talent." After eight days' work on Faces in the Crowd, a psychological thriller shooting here until June 15, she's got the bruises, scrapes and lumps to show for it.

The bridge is actually a set built inside an East Kildonan warehouse. The railing is made of Styrofoam. Giant fans create the updraft that makes Murphy-Dyson's hair billow, and she's not really free-falling; she's strapped to a narrow platform called a parallelogram that's dropped by means of a counterweight. Digital green-screen effects will be used to fill in the water and the background.

The whisper-thin brunette, who lives in Toronto, was told she'd have to fall off the Esplanade Riel for this film. She forced herself to do a practice drop, free-falling backwards from a 30-foot tower onto an air bag.

It turned out the Red River was too swollen this week for the stunt to be done outdoors, so it was faked in the warehouse. But the 36-year-old has no regrets about having submitted to the terror of the three-storey plunge.

"It fits in with the way I'm living my life now," she says. "You have to just surrender to the moment."

The past year has amounted to a leap of faith for the arrestingly beautiful Victoria native. She's in mid-divorce from Johnny Wright, the handsome dancer with whom she seemed to have a fairy-tale marriage when both were soloists with RWB.

She's engaged to Toronto actor-director Wes Berger (who's also in mid-divorce from actor Precious Chong), whom she met just over a year ago at a pickle-commercial audition where they both failed to get the job. "He's my soul mate," she says.

And she has written a one-woman show called The Naked Ballerina, which she's set to perform July 2-10 in the Toronto Fringe Festival, directed by Berger. If it's a success, she says, she'd love to bring it to Winnipeg. She'll act, dance and sing in the 50-minute show, baring the sometimes-ugly truth behind the mask she wore as a dancer. "My life had become one long performance," she says in the press release. "Onstage, I knew who I was, but in the wings I was trapped in a web of secrets and lies."

We'll have to see the show to find out what her secret demons were. But for starters, Murphy-Dyson says no one realized how depressed she was in her teens. Ballet was the perfect milieu for a girl who sparkled on the outside and loathed herself on the inside. As a "people pleaser," she says, she pushed down all her feelings of anger, sadness and doubt.

To the fans who followed her through nine seasons with RWB, she was a radiant classical princess. In private, she admits, "there was a lot of self-destructive behaviour."

Now undergoing therapy, she describes Wright as "a great guy and a genuine heart," but says their 14-year marriage was to some extent "part of the myth."

During their RWB years, then in Toronto when both performed in the stage musical Dirty Dancing from 2007 to 2009, "we became a bit of a marketing tool," she says.

Wright, reached by email, is also engaged to a new partner, has nothing but kind things to say about his ex, and is about to take the starring role in the London, England, production of Dirty Dancing.

Murphy-Dyson, who retired from RWB at age 32, got started in stunt work after she excelled in a University of Winnipeg stage-combat course taught by Rick Skene, the city's top movie stunt co-ordinator. At five-foot-eight, she is able to double for tall actresses. "If they need somebody my height, they try to bring me out (to Winnipeg)," she says.

The work is punishing, but dancers are used to it. "Ballerinas are rugged, tough broads," she says. "This is just sporadic pain. Ballet is more constant pain.

"The only difference is, with stunts it's more about looking like you ARE getting hurt. I've had to really be aware of not pointing my feet when I'm falling, and not landing gracefully."

As the stunt double for Kate Beckinsale in the action thriller Whiteout, she had to fall through frozen ice, get chased by a killer wielding an ice pick, and be blown away by gale-force winds in a raging Antarctic blizzard.

Doubling for Jaime King -- in a blond wig -- in last fall's remake of the horror film Mother's Day, "I got to do a huge, amazing fight scene with Rebecca De Mornay in a kitchen. There were rolling pins, electric knives, frozen meat -- everything in the kitchen became part of the fight. It was really long, and we did it all in one take.

"For me, it's choreography -- with screaming and kicking and punching!" she says with a laugh.

In Faces in the Crowd, she did a scene on the actual Esplanade Riel where she was outside the railing and had to slip backwards, grab one of the bridge's wires and dangle over the river. A safety harness under her clothes was attached to a tiny wire that emerged from the fly of her pants.

"I had to throw myself backwards, blindly, and trust that (the wire) would take my full body weight and catch me," she says.

She views such feats as a metaphor for daring to express the authentic Sarah through her acting and writing.

"Really, what's the point of being here if we're not being true to ourselves?... It's hard. It's scary. To confront things about myself that I've been avoiding my whole life is very difficult. But it's incredibly liberating."

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Sarah sells stuff by the seashore

 

WHILE Sarah Murphy-Dyson pursues acting, writing and stunt work, she pays the bills mainly by appearing in national commercials. Here are a few of the TV ads you might catch her in:

An ad for Peek Freans' Blueberry Brown Sugar with Flax biscuits (shot in Cuba) in which she puts her bikini top on her husband's bare chest, so he has the outline of the top on his skin when he sunburns.

A Tylenol ad where she's doing Pilates.

A Pizza Hut commercial where she's a mom feeding her family Cheesy Bites Pizza and "being silly with the cheesy bites."

An ad for Stouffer's Bistro Melts in which she walks out of a bistro with a sandwich, but is then seen emerging from a freezer.

An ad where she's eating an Aero chocolate bar while riding in the passenger seat of a car.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2010 C1

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