Career

Starting Over

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.” 

Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

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Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."

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January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.

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Advice for Dancers
A dance career can send you on a roller coaster of emotions, but evaluating reality can help give you perspective. Thinkstock.

I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.

—Terry, Philadelphia, PA

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