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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Do you teach at DTH? 
I don’t, because we’re never here. I would love to teach in the summer, but they usually have that lined up before we even ask. They do a mentor-type thing, and I do that sometimes where we take some kids into a studio during the summer and talk to them about being a professional ballet dancer, and what it takes and obstacles that we had.

One of the things I love about your dancing is your musicality. How natural is it?

I’m actually really lucky, because along with all the other extracurricular things I did as a kid, I took piano and voice lessons. Even though I despised the piano—I did not like to practice, I did not like to keep my nails short—I’m really grateful for it now. I know a meter; I can count music. I think it’s a little bit of a natural ability, but it was also nurtured by the fact that I got to learn about music growing up. I love the idea of having your body be the music. I think of that while I’m dancing. Not necessarily “this count goes on this step,” but what would my leg sound like if I were doing a rond de jambe or a jeté? What instrument would that be? 

What do you think about while dancing Robert’s Gloria?

In the very first part, I’m trying to be as quiet as possible so that the sound of bourrées doesn’t affect what you hear in the music. There’s a quiet stillness even in movement.

It’s like you’re floating.

Right. And I love that feeling. People ask me, “How do you do that? It looks so hard.” Actually it’s very difficult, but if I take away the physical aspect and change it to the spiritual notes in the singer's voice, I forget what I’m doing. I always forget that I’m bourrée-ing there. I’m just looking up and listening to her voice and then before I know it, I’ve transitioned into doing the dance.

You almost leave your body?
Exactly. So it’s not that I have a certain feeling, but I always think of that when I’m doing Gloria. I don’t even know if this ballet would have existed if he didn’t feel we were worthy enough to create it on, so what can I do to bring something to it that maybe he didn’t even think of? Mr. Garland leaves a lot of open-ended interpretation. He’ll give you what his idea is, but that doesn’t mean that that’s how you have to think about it. Even in other pieces like New Bach, he doesn’t expect you to do it like the last person; it’s great to have the freedom to put yourself into the ballet and see what you get out of it, and with Gloria it’s great because I feel I start off the ballet as a different person than I am at the end. At the beginning, everybody’s rejoicing, but everyone goes in one way and I go in the other. At the end of the third movement where they all finish dancing and I bourrée across the stage, it’s symbolic of we’re just all passing through. It’s great to be able to think about it outside of the box and not just, what is this step? What is the bigger meaning of what we’re doing?

Do you still enjoy dancing?
I love dancing. If you don’t enjoy it, why do it? It’s too taxing. It makes you a little crazy. [Laughs] I think it’s reserved for those who really love to do it, because otherwise, why?

DTH is a small company. You have a strenuous touring schedule where you’re in a city one day and another the next. How has that made the company strong?

All the outside elements are so taxing that you just have to stay together. We never get used to a stage. We never get used to a floor. We might not have barres one day and you have to hold onto a chair for warm-up before you do Black Swan. I might be like, “I’m a little off my leg today because I took barre on a chair. Please help me! Hold me up!” He’s like, “I got you.” Or it’s freezing in this theater. Let’s go do some relevés before we have to go onstage because it’s cold. Anything you can do to help somebody, because you were in the same situation and if you’re not, you might be the next day. Especially now with all the injuries going on. We’ve been switching parts like nothing. Last night I ended up doing another ballet because one of the other dancer’s foot has been sprained for three weeks, and she’s still been having to dance. She was like, “I don’t think I can do Return.” I was like, “I’ll do it, it’s fine.” Also, our turnaround times are very short. We performed in Memphis, got back to the hotel around midnight, and our call the next morning was at 4am. So it’s stuff like that. 

Does Virginia still tour with you?

Yes. Not that I would wish that on anybody, but she understands. She’s in the same boat with us. She’s like, “Yeah, I didn’t get any sleep either.” With our tour schedule, minor problems become big problems because you don’t get to rest. It’s like, I kind of twisted my ankle, but it was fine though now it’s starting to hurt because I’ve been dancing on it for a week. That’s not me—but that’s the kind of thing that’s going on. We don’t tour with any physical therapists. We have a list of therapists we can see in different cities, but we don’t have time.

When you are in town, where do you train?
The professional training program still has classes at DTH that we can take for free, or I go to Steps.

What teachers do you like there?
Nancy Bielski and also Fabrice [Herrault]. It’s just so expensive and when we don’t work, we don’t get paid. It’s $20 for a class, or should I just go to DTH and take with the school for free? Usually I do three days at DTH and two days at Steps to supplement. We’re trying to work out something with Steps or Ailey where we can get more of a discounted class on our weeks off because it’s just too expensive. This month we’re not touring; the per diem really supplements our income. Since this month we’re not touring at all; I have to save my money to pay rent. That per diem comes in handy. We have two dogs. I have to pay dog walkers and dog sitters. It’s crazy, but we make it work.

Who do you live with? 

With Sam [Wilson, a DTH member]. 

Do you think about how much longer you’ll dance?

I do, which is why I sometimes get a little upset when it comes to how invested other people are. I want to do more dancing. I want to expand my repertoire before I stop dancing in like ten years probably. I’m about to be 30. I probably have maybe ten years left? I don’t want to be held back because of other people. As I was talking about earlier, the difference in levels. I would love to do Concerto Barocco. I would love to do a lot of things, but if we have to wait for everybody to catch up, I don’t know if it will ever happen.

Did you ever audition for New York City Ballet?
I never did. I always heard so many things, like they don’t hire people unless they went to SAB, or they don’t do this. They don’t do that. It’s just hard to feel comfortable being like, “Can I come and take class?” It’s funny because I went to the Vail Festival last summer with all the City Ballet and some ABT people, and they were like, “You could totally fit in at City Ballet!” I was like, “Really?” And they were like, “Totally. You can do everything that we can do.” We train the same. But it’s hard to get that idea in your head when you’ve heard so many other things. It’s like somebody telling you that you can’t swim and then they throw you in the pool and you’re like, “Oh, I can swim! I did it and I didn’t even know.”

But why did you not think you could? 
Like I said, there are so many things that people tell you, like they only hire people if you went through SAB or you only do this or that. It’s a little bit discouraging in a way because you’re like, Why try? Why waste my time? And also the dance world is so small. How do I go about doing something without looking bad. I get skeptical about going to auditions, even though I do. It’s like, “Why are you here? What’s going on at DTH?”

But you still audition?

Yeah. Even if it’s just for experience. I don’t like to be complacent in anything. At least it’s a class. If nothing else, I got a class. 

Where have you auditioned?

Oregon Ballet Theatre, Lines, Ailey. Whatever. Even if I’m not looking for a job, it’s good to see what other kinds of dancers there are out there. It’s good to have different kinds of classes. It’s good to take class in a different setting. All of those things are important. You can’t stand at the same place at the barre for ten years and expect not to become complacent. That’s the biggest part: always striving to do more and to keep getting better until you can’t. [Laughs] I think you can always get better.
Dance Theatre of Harlem is at Rose Theater (at Frederick P. Rose Hall) Apr 23–27.

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