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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You probably weren’t getting paid much to be in the ensemble.
No. I think our stipend was $400 before taxes. A week. I couldn’t live off of $300 a week. That’s impossible in New York. I was working three jobs. I was like, I’m going to make it work. I did that for two years and it was great because I loved teaching.

How did you cope with all the promises about how the company was coming back?
At a point I stopped thinking about the company. I was like, I don’t want to hear about it anymore. I’m just going to live now. Just dance and be happy. It’s too much of an emotional roller coaster. I’m like, When the company comes back, it’ll come back. Now it’s back. Great. We can move forward from there. But if you keep taking me up and taking me down, it’s exhausting.

How did you have the persistence to stay? It lasted a while. And I would go to rehearsals and there was you—and everybody else. The skill level was all over the place.
Yeah. [Laughs] For me, that was a lot of self-motivation. Also I felt like I was letting other people down if I wasn’t doing my best. If I couldn’t be a role model or give some other people some pep, I wasn’t doing my job. I feel my job is not just being a dancer. As much as we would like to just have a title, there are very few jobs in which you do just one thing. I’m a dancer, but I’m also a teacher; I’m a mentor, I’m a friend. No person wears just one hat. Talking to my family helped a lot. And having Mr. Mitchell; he could always put me in my place. “What are you doing? Get back up there. Do it again.” He would not let you give up. I like for people to be encouraging, but still be…

Rigorous?
Yeah. That’s the only way I know how, and I think it reflects the kind of teacher I am too.

So the company comes back and it’s different, and how did you deal with that?
I’m still coping. It’s really different and challenging in a lot of different ways. One of the biggest differences is the change in the artistic director. That’s a huge difference. They work in totally different ways. Mr. Mitchell was like, “I want this, this and this.” Got it. I’m going to do those things. [Artistic director] Virginia Johnson might say, “I think you should try this. If it doesn’t work, try that.” But how do I decide what to try? It’s a totally different way of thinking and working. You might not get to the final answer today, tomorrow or next week, but eventually something will click and you’ll be like, Oh—that’s what she meant. She’s not going to give you the answers to the test. [Laughs]

She wants you to think for yourself.

Exactly. Coming from Mr. Mitchell, who told you exactly what he wanted you to do, and changing to someone who’s like, “Think for yourself and figure it out, and I’ll let you know if it’s good or bad,” it’s a totally different way of working.

How has that changed your dancing?
I take more risks now. I probably try things that don’t look great or like ballet at all. It’s given me some freedom. I can breathe a little easier knowing—not that I’m allowed to make mistakes, but allowed to try things that might not necessarily work to begin with, but if you keep trying them, they may come to work later. Or then you try something completely different. But you have to come to the place where you’re comfortable trying new things. With the touring company we have—and with the rep that we have—we have to be able to travel with it. Of course, we get tired of doing the same stuff all the time, but that’s where you get to use your creativity. I’ve done Return since 2004. How do I bring something innovative to it and keep myself interested? It’s a balance in trying to keep yourself motivated and portray to the audience what you want them to see. And today it may be totally different from what it is tomorrow. That doesn’t mean the quality is any less or that you have any less care in what you’re doing.

Does Robert Garland work with you on his ballets? Is he around often? 

Yeah. He comes to rehearsals when we’re in the city, which is not very often. He rehearses his ballets. I don’t just talk to him about choreography. Sometimes, I’m like, “I’m having a hard day,” and he’s like, “Me, too.” We take a second to decompress. So it’s really great to have somebody like that around DTH.

It’s too bad that DTH isn’t dancing any Balanchine this year. Is that a bummer? 
It is a bummer, because I think we could do Agon again. That was our first time doing it, and our company is a lot stronger now; we’ve been doing it more, so we’re more cohesive. I think we need to redeem ourselves a little bit. I learned the part that I danced the day before. I was just counting the entire time. I couldn’t even enjoy doing it. We are bringing Glinka back after the season. It’s just difficult to do that and something else. We don’t have enough people.

What do you think about the programs? There’s more of a contemporary-ballet thread in there.
I would like to do a lot more Balanchine, and I think the reason we don’t is because we have so few dancers and they don’t want to use every dancer in any one ballet because there are always injuries. We’ve been performing not at full capacity for about three months now. We’ve had three people injured and have been touring with a small amount of people, so I understand why they wouldn’t want to do a large-scale Balanchine ballet that everybody would have to dance in all the time, but we could find something. I would love to do Apollo. That’s four people. I think they need to think more about some smaller Balanchine ballets that don’t require sets. I think the first thing they think of with Balanchine is Agon or Concerto Barocco.

Don’ t you have enough for Barocco?
We do. But it comes back to the level of dancing. You need eight girls, and if all eight girls aren’t up to par, and you only have ten to begin with, you’re in trouble. And when it comes to programming, who’s going to do the next piece if everybody’s in this one?

What about Allegro Brillante?

That’s the one. I have been talking about that with one of the other dancers in the company. We would love to do that.

He said that it was “everything I know about classical ballet in 13 minutes.” Wouldn’t it be a great teaching tool?
Exactly. It would be great just to bring up the level of dancing. People don’t necessarily have to be able to perform something, but you can always learn from learning. You might not be able to perform Glinka, but you can learn it. It’s going to make you stronger, no matter what. And it’s going to even make your contemporary look better. Everybody should be in a Glinka rehearsal. You’re only going to get stronger. “My [entrechat] sixes aren’t good.” Well, go do Glinka. ’Cause they’ll get better. [Laughs] That’s why I’m afraid of ever becoming a ballet mistress or having my own school.

You’d be great at that. Do you mean that you’d be too strict?
I’ve seen how my teacher is now. When we were growing up, she was so strict. Now she’s the opposite, because the parents are saying she’s too strict so a lot of the discipline has deteriorated, and I feel I’ve seen that at a lot of schools—even DTH as a matter of fact. From the time that I came in 2002 to now, it’s so much less strict. I was like, but what happened? I thought that was the point of ballet: to teach discipline. Not necessarily strictness, but to give you self-worth and self-discipline so you don’t always have to have somebody looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. That you can do that for yourself. Once that’s gone, where is ballet going to go? If you have to have somebody pushing you all the time, where is it going to go? You can’t just have somebody patting you on the back all the time. It’s not going to work. If you look at the dancers that started it all, they didn’t have anybody just, “Good job! You’re so great.” You know? What’s going to happen? That’s why I’m skeptical about ever owning my own studio, because I feel like I would be such a stickler for discipline and doing things the way I feel they should be done to maximize the way that you look when you get onstage. I can’t compromise on that.

Well, I think you should have a studio.
[Laughs] When I go home and teach, Miss Carol is like, “Can you talk to them about discipline?” I tell her, “I can, but that’s what you have to do.” You can’t wait for somebody to come in and be like, I’m a professional dancer because I have self-discipline. I can do that, but it’s not going to help in the long run if they’re not getting it every day. She’s like, “They get here on time when they know you’re teaching and they don’t have earrings in, and they’re in the dress code, because they know that you’ll put them out of your class!” Yeah. I will. This is ballet class. You don’t wear black tights. This is a school.


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