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."