Q&A: Ashley Murphy talks about her career at Dance Theatre of Harlem

Ashley Murphy talks about her time at Dance Theatre of Harlem—before and after the hiatus



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Who was in charge of Dancing Through Barriers?
It was Laveen Naidu [who is now the executive director of DTH]. He was my first boss. It’s hilarious. We have both moved up, so to speak. He oversaw the Dancing Through Barriers ensemble and the professional training program when I came, along with Tyrone Brooks. It was very strict. Everybody had to know everything. It didn’t matter what it was, and if you didn’t know it, he would put you onstage and say, “Figure it out.” Dress code, no exceptions. Hair in a bun, no exceptions.

Did that make you feel like you were a child? Did you rebel?
Back then, that’s all I knew. Some people had issues with it, but I was like, at least I can wear a spaghetti-strap leotard now. I don’t have to wear long-sleeve? Are you serious? This is good for me. [Laughs] The only thing that was different for me was the brown tights. I had never seen that before.

Did you like it? 
It took some getting used to. I hadn’t figured out how to paint the pointe shoes to match the tights. Back then we were still using shoe spray; we evolved to using foundation. Shoe spray makes them hard and the ribbons don’t tie properly because they’re stiff. Sometimes I would still try to sneak in my pink tights. They were like… [Shakes her head no]

What did pink tights represent? Was it hard to let them go?

Yes. I got used to it and now that I’m a little bit older, I miss them. I wear them a lot in class now. I can more easily see what I’m doing in the mirror. I understand the logic behind flesh-colored tights, but for pieces like Black Swan [pas de deux], I wish I could wear pink tights. I know it might not fit the aesthetic of what they want or the line, but if you’re wearing pink tights and pointe shoes, I think it’s okay. If I had bare skin and pink shoes, that might look a little crazy, but if you’re completing the line from the waist down, it’s okay. I don’t feel so bad in Gloria, which is more neoclassical, but now we’re incorporating Pas de Dix into our repertoire. I think it would be nice if we wore pink tights for the tutu ballets. We all have nice legs and feet. We’d look as nice as any other company.

So it was strict. Did you learn a lot? 
One of the biggest things I learned was how to do pas de deux work, because up in Shreveport we didn’t have any guys. Miss Carol would bring in the football team from her son’s school to do some small partnering work, but it’s not like having formal training. I was so nervous. They were like, “Stop saying you’re sorry and learn what you can.” Now it’s one of my favorite things to do. I love to partner. Sometimes it’s more of a sense of comfort knowing that somebody’s in it with you. Some of our recent ballets like [John Alleyne’s] Far but Close, are very long and it’s easy to get tired and wrapped up in the fact that you are tired, but you look to the person next to you and you’re like, We can do it! Just keep going. Fifteen more minutes. You can fight along with somebody else. [Laughs]

How long were you in that program before you were asked to join the main company?
For one year. Mr. Mitchell invited us to watch rehearsals, so I would always sit in the doorway and watch. I was like, This is what I’m aspiring to—I want to see what they’re doing! My first really cool experience was when the company was going to Germany; they needed two girls to do the monsters in Firebird, so they picked me and another girl. We got to go to Germany for free and do one section of one ballet that was maybe five minutes long. We stayed at the Ritz-Carlton. I was like, Are you serious? And all I have to do is be a monster? That was before we actually got into the company. I said, “We should go to some of the other rehearsals and just stand in the back and learn stuff.” I wasn’t doing it for attention, but they noticed it, and when we had our evaluations at the end of the year they said, “The ballet masters noticed that you were learning choreography in their rehearsals. Why did you do that?” I just said that I wanted to dance. That’s when they asked if I wanted to go into the company. They were looking for quite a few girls that year, because they were starting to do [George Balanchine’s] Serenade. It was mind-boggling. I made it, so now what?

Who did you look up to?
I looked up to a lot of people for different reasons. I loved watching Caroline Rocher dance. She was so sensual. She was so sweet, she would always help us with things and never treated us like, Oh, they’re just the apprentices—nothing like that. It would be the total opposite for other people. They would not be so nice, like, “You belong over there because you’re an apprentice.”

I had no concept of a barre spot. I would sit in the middle of the room until class was ready to start, and then I would see where there wasn’t anybody standing and stand there. I also loved to watch Tai Jimenez. She was so beautiful and sweet, always very helpful and gracious. And Alicia Graf. Just so many wonderful role models.

You bridge two worlds at DTH—you were here before the company disbanded in 2004 and are part of the new company now. What happened when it collapsed?
We’d just gotten back from a two-month tour of the U.K. and had been in Greece on the beach just living it up and performing to sold-out houses. I was like, How could this possibly be happening? It’s like you’re driving, and all of a sudden the world just drops off. I can’t turn around—this is a one-way—and I can’t keep going forward because there’s nowhere to go. It was devastating. I felt like I had just started to make it; it was my first year with the company and I had actually done a principal role as an apprentice in Greece.

What did you perform? 
I did the second movement in [Garland’s] Return. A principal had gotten injured. So I’d done all these amazing things and now, nothing? What do I do? This is my one chance: If I go home, I’m not coming back. My parents said I had one chance. I started auditioning, but it was August/September and it’s not audition season.

Where were you auditioning?
Miss Carol would send me here and there; she knows Sylvia Waters [who directed Ailey II]. She was like, “Go to Ailey and take class” and actually set it up so I could take class for free at Ailey. I took class every day there for months. So I would take class, but that’s not being a dancer. I want to perform.

Were you interested in Ailey? 

I have always been torn. Ailey is a great company, and I have extensive modern training. But I like my pointe shoes. Maybe later when I get older I’ll want to do more modern stuff, but I want to do ballet while I can. It’s such a challenge that it keeps me interested. When there’s that one step that you just can’t get and you finally do, it’s like, This is what I’ve been working for! It’s always that reward that you get when you accomplish something that you didn’t think you could do before. My teacher knows so many people who have been through Ailey. My modern teacher went to Ailey. There were so many connections there and they were like, “I don’t know why you don’t use these connections—it would be so easy for you. Just go and do it!” But I don’t want it to be easy. I want to do something else. And I want to do what’s not so popular. Sometimes you can’t just do easy. Even though it’s easy, are you happy doing it? Miss Carol didn’t really know anything about DTH before I became a member of the company and did the summer program. It wasn’t something we learned about. We always had Ailey posters in the studio, but we never had a DTH poster—until now. There are more little black ballerinas that come to the studio that know what DTH is and they can see that there is a difference between Alvin Ailey and DTH in that they have options. You don’t just have to go to Ailey, you don’t just have to go to DTH. You can go to Houston Ballet. You can go anywhere you want as long as you work hard and do your best and are given the opportunity.

Do you think it’s changing? 
I think it is changing. Maybe not fast enough, but I think slowly but surely; everything doesn’t happen at the drop of a hat. If everything was that easy, what would you work for and strive for? If civil rights wasn’t worth fighting for, there wouldn’t have been a need for Martin Luther King. Or there wouldn’t have bee a need for Arthur Mitchell to be in New York City Ballet. Somebody has to do something in order for people to follow. You might not be the first to do something, but you can help guide people into something that they didn’t even know they could do.

What did you do when you found out the company was closing?
I tried to get a regular job. I tried to be a waitress and work retail just so I could stay in the city and take class, but it was just becoming too expensive. I couldn’t pay my rent. My mom was like, “You just have to come home.” I could go to school and teach at my studio at home and at least not be purging money. I did that for a year. I went to LSU at Shreveport, which was not bad at all. I learned a lot and it was fun to be a normal person, but I still taught at my teacher’s studio and performed with them at Regional Dance America as a guest dancer. When the school and the ensemble reopened, Mr. Mitchell called my mom and said, “We really want her to come back. I know I don’t have a company to offer her right now, but I think she should keep training and dancing. We’re going to bring this company back.”

What did she say? 
She was skeptical at first, but she was like, “You’re not happy here. You can’t stay here.” They let me go back and I picked up where I left off: working hard and trying to improve, and they gave me a teaching job. I went to D.C. every weekend to teach in the residency they had there. That was a very tiring and hectic time. I also had another job at a spa. I had no days off.

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