Murphy rehearsing Septime Webre's State of Wonder. Photos by Danuta Otfinowski.

Starting Over

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."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021