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Longtime Dance Theatre of Harlem star Ashley Murphy reboots her career at The Washington Ballet.
Murphy rehearsing Septime Webre’s State of Wonder. Photos by Danuta Otfinowski.
As a reigning ballerina of Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ashley Murphy put in her time. A dancer of razor-sharp technique and plush musicality, she first joined the company before its 2004 disbanding—when Arthur Mitchell was in charge—and continued during its rebirth under Virginia Johnson. Murphy served as a bridge between the old and the new.
But the new, she discovered, could be a grind: Beyond financial constraints, she found herself dancing on less-than-ideal stages—an awkward rake here, an unsprung floor there—during tours that moved quickly from one city to the next. Even so, Murphy wasn’t searching for another job. It found her.
Now a member of The Washington Ballet, Murphy, 31, is expanding her horizons. When artistic director Septime Webre was looking for a new dancer, her name was recommended. He had seen her dance with DTH, and was a fan. “She’s got a certain fierceness in her barre work and a softness in her upper body,” he says. “I just love that combination of steely legwork and strong turns and technique and a really determined approach. She also has a beautiful look.”
When Murphy couldn’t attend the audition, Webre watched her take class at Steps on Broadway. She had brought along her boyfriend, Samuel Wilson, also a member of DTH, for moral support. Webre offered each a contract. “We didn’t want to leave DTH on a bad note,” Murphy says. “It was like our family. But it was just time, for me in particular, to try something new.”
As the most experienced member of DTH, she’d reached a plateau. “I wasn’t really growing anymore—they didn’t need to pay attention to me as much because they knew I would work on things on my own. I felt like I’d become everybody’s mom. That’s not the role I really want to have yet. I’m not that old.” She laughs. “I need to be in a setting where I’m more equal with other people.”
Being in a union company doesn’t hurt. But Murphy insists that her decision had less to do with money than new opportunities. “I want to do a full-length ballet one day and that’s not going to happen in the near future at DTH,” she explains. “I just felt like we were still transitioning. I want to be somewhere where I can just dance and not worry about all the other stuff.”
Last year, DTH decreased its dancers from 18 to 14, a move that coincided with the dismissal or departure of seven dancers, including Murphy and Wilson. As a touring company, Johnson notes, a smaller roster “can mean the difference between getting an engagement and not.”
Johnson calls it a temporary reduction, but realizes that it wasn’t an ideal situation for Murphy, who she said deserved a chance to spread her wings. “This has been a really good year for DTH, but it’s also a really challenging year,” says Johnson. “At Ashley’s time in her development as an artist, yes she does need to do different things. It was, of course, heartbreaking, but I think it’s what she should do. I also knew that it was an opportunity for people here at DTH to not only have Ashley in front of them.”
Still, Murphy was one of DTH’s greatest assets. Offstage, the Louisiana-born dancer is something of a southern belle. As Johnson fondly recalls, “She was always 2,000 percent coordinated—hair, outfit, earrings. It’s so gorgeous! She probably wakes up like that.”
As unruffled as she appears, Murphy, who started with The Washington Ballet in August, says that her new job was rough at the beginning. “The caliber of dancer here is so high, I felt like I was a little bit behind,” she admits. “You’re trying to impress a new boss and look good in front of other dancers and feeling like you’re being judged constantly because they’re wondering why you got hired. And I think it all just comes from insecurity. It’s gotten so much better.”
With boyfriend Samuel Wilson (in gray tank) and Daniel Roberge.
For one, she and Wilson, who love living in Washington, DC—their apartment is a 10-minute bike ride from work—have found a strong circle of friends. Performing is what drives Murphy, and for her, life began to improve after the company presented its first program of the season. “A lot of people here perform in the studio, during rehearsal,” she says. “They go 100 percent—smile and makeup and everything—and coming from DTH, I wasn’t really used to that.” She laughs. “I think when we got onstage, they were like, Wow, I’ve never seen you do that before.” As she adjusts her technique to conform to Webre’s taste, she is constantly working on her arms, which are a little too Balanchine, and her extension. “He loves a high leg,” she adds with a laugh.
Her confidence, she now realizes, has long been an issue. While at DTH, she constantly found reasons not to audition for other companies. “There was something I felt I was lacking to even be considered in another company,” she says. “When I got the offer from Septime, I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ When you stay somewhere for so long you feel like, This is where I belong.”
But Webre is sure Murphy belongs at The Washington Ballet, where his aim, for years, has been to develop a more diverse company. In December, she danced the Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, and this month, she’ll perform as a demi-soloist in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, as well as in a role in Webre’s Carmina Burana. But while Murphy’s African-American status is an obvious asset, Webre—who is actually leaving his post with the company when his contract is up this June—is first and foremost enamored by her onstage persona, which contrasts with her normally quiet demeanor.
Diversity is a complicated word for Murphy. At DTH, she says, it was eye-opening to be in a relationship with Wilson, the only white male in the company where he didn’t have a chance of being cast in works documenting the African-American experience. “It’s almost the opposite of what we go through in companies that are primarily white,” she says. “I think when people are trying to do this diversity thing now, we have to figure out a way to include everyone. It’s not trying to make a black company or a white company. Didn’t we fight about this years ago? That’s segregation.”
At the same time, integration in the ballet world can’t just be limited to dancers. “There need to be more African-American teachers and accompanists and artistic directors and ballet masters in companies that aren’t DTH,” Murphy adds. “When those things start to happen, you will have more dancers. Everything will fall into place.”
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.
Onstage, Clifton Brown is a force of nature. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer joined the celebrated company at 19, in 1999. In 2011, he left to dance with Jessica Lang Dance and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before returning to Ailey last year. Brown has been trying his hand at choreography on the side, but this week his first larger work—a commission from The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent—premieres on a program of new works by choreographers who still perform.
Brown will take a day or two away from the Ailey company's rigorous tour schedule to see TWB dancers perform his Menagerie, danced to Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major, at Washington, D.C.'s Harman Center for the Arts. We caught up with him last week in Chicago.
Once Adriana Pierce caught the choreography bug as a teenager, dancemaking came naturally. More difficult was navigating the tricky situations that would arise when choreographing on classmates and friends. "If a rehearsal didn't go well, I'd worry that people didn't respect me or didn't like my work," says Pierce, who went on to participate in the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop twice, at 17 and 18. "I had a lot to learn: how not to take things personally, how to express what I wanted, when to push and when to back off."
Choreographing on your peers can feel intimidating. How can you be a leader in your own rehearsals when you're dancing at the same level the rest of the time? How can you critique your cast without hurting feelings? Avoiding pitfalls takes commitment and care, but the payoff is worth it.
Ever since we heard that Michaela DePrince's memoir, Taking Flight, was going to be a movie, we've been on the edge of our seats waiting for more info. Almost three years later, it's been worth the wait—we just learned that the Queen of Pop herself will be directing DePrince's biopic.
"Michaela's journey resonated with me deeply as both an artist and an activist who understands adversity," Madonna said in a statement. "We have a unique opportunity to shed light on Sierra Leone and let Michaela be the voice for all the orphaned children she grew up beside."