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

Ashley Murphy performs with Dance Theatre of Harlem

Ashley Murphy performs with Dance Theatre of Harlem Photo: Rachel Neville

Ashley Murphy bridges Dance Theatre of Harlem history: The company took an eight-year hiatus after her first year; upon its 2012 rebirth, Murphy reemerged as the troupe's aesthetic and spiritual core. Now, as she gets ready to perform at the Rose Theater (at Frederick P. Rose Hall)—the program includes Robert Garland's Gloria, in which she shines—Murphy talks about why she stuck with DTH.

Ashley Murphy is the best part about the revamped Dance Theatre of Harlem: Musical and delicate as a feather but with a presence that fills a stage, she has a way of making classical ballets contemporary and contemporary ballets elegant. While the company won’t be performing any works by George Balanchine this season—Murphy is bummed about it too—she will shine in the ballets of resident choreographer Robert Garland. In his Gloria, set to Francis Poulenc, she plays a guiding spirit. “He said that he’d had the music for 15 years and didn’t know what to do with it until the company came back,” she says, referring to DTH’s rebirth in 2012 after an eight-year hiatus. “That’s like saving up all this money for something that you didn’t know you were going to buy. It’s worth so much knowing that we opened his artistic piggy bank.”

You started dancing when you were three. Why?
My mom. I used to make pillow forts on her couch and flip off the couch, and she was like, “We need to channel this energy into something a little bit more productive and creative.” She put me in a class that was 30 minutes of ballet, creative dance and tap. A few years later, she put me in gymnastics, which I loved. We were required to take an hour of ballet before our gym every day, so I got even more into it.

So you were seriously into gymnastics. What was your schedule?
Yeah. We did an hour of ballet and then three hours of gym and an hour of cooldown.

Was this in Shreveport, Louisiana?

Yes. I started with Carol Anglin in ballet; for a while when I was doing gymnastics I was just taking [ballet class] at the gym. I also performed with a modern-dance company called Inter City Row [Modern Dance Company] under Luther Cox. I got a lot of great training from him as well.

What was that group all about?
I remember going on Saturday mornings. It was at the Shreveport Regional Arts Council. They had a place where people could take dance classes and theater and art and that kind of stuff—they are really big into providing arts education for kids. They also do arts festivals. When I was growing up, we used to perform at the Red River Revel Arts Festival.

How did you become so interested in ballet?

It’s funny, because it was always something I liked and had fun doing it, and people said I was good at it, but it wasn’t like I said, “I want to be a dancer when I grow up.” I was always like, I’m going to be a doctor, I’m going to be a pediatrician. I don’t think it really sunk in until I graduated from high school and came to New York to Dance Theatre of Harlem’s summer program. Ballet was something I was doing to keep in shape over the summer before I went to college, and then DTH asked me to stay. I was like, What do you mean, stay? This was just for fun. It wasn’t like I was going to live in New York and be a ballet dancer. We didn’t have performing-arts schools in Shreveport; for me, it was like, you go to school and then you do your extracurricular things, but the most important thing is your education. I was 17. That was the first time I was like, What do you mean, be a professional dancer?

Describe your ballet training with Carol Anglin. What was her focus?
We were a part of Regional Dance America. She encouraged us to do competitions. We did Joe Tremaine’s. She said it was great for us to have that kind of experience even if it wasn’t the kind of dance that we liked to do. Now I do see what she meant. It’s very important to be able to turn yourself on when it’s time to get onstage. It’s not so much about putting on a show, but finding what it is inside yourself that you need to bring out in order to engage with the audience. That was really important to learn at a young age.

Competitions get such a bad rap, but that’s true.
They do. But there is some valuable learning that comes from that kind of stuff. They give a lot of scholarships too. It’s great what they do, even though they call it flash and trash. I don’t think that; I think it’s very valuable.

I guess it depends who your teacher is too.
Exactly. We saw the two ends of the spectrum. We’d go to Joe Tremaine and then to Regional Dance America, where it’s all about ballet. That’s how a lot of people got scholarships to ABT and Joffrey and even Alvin Ailey. The spectrum is so broad. Where do I fit in? The people from my studio went both ways. I have a friend who lives in the city now who does a lot of freelance work with musical artists. It was really important for her to have had that experience, and for me, the Regional Dance America stuff was where I got most of my education. It’s important to be exposed to everything.

Let me get this straight: You were supposed to go to college?

I did go to college. For two weeks! [Laughs]

And you had gone to DTH the summer before? 
Yes. I didn’t even know who [DTH cofounder] Arthur Mitchell was. DTH came to perform in Shreveport my senior year in high school, and my teacher, Miss Carol, knew Augustus van Heerden, who was a ballet master at the time. She said, “I know Gus! Maybe I can get you to take company class!” I was very shy. I did not like being put in situations where I was the only one; I always felt more comfortable being in a group. She said, “No, you’re going to do it,” and I was like, “Okay.” So I put on my little pink tights and my black long-sleeved leotard, because that’s all we were allowed to wear. Hair in a bun. No jewelry. I go in there and these people are in all these warm-ups and trash-bag pants and all kinds of stuff. They were like, “It’s really refreshing to see a young student who is still in her pink tights.” They asked me if I would be interested in coming for the six-week program in the summer, and I said, “I guess, but my mom’s not going to pay for that, because she’s getting me ready to go to college.” They were like, “What if we give you a scholarship? As long as you find somewhere to stay, we can give you a full scholarship to the summer program.” My mom was like, “If you really want to do it, you’re going to have to help me.” I went and worked in her pharmacy to help pay for my housing and luckily we had a church member who had a daughter that lived in Brooklyn, so I got to stay with her. They actually trusted me to get on the train and go from Brooklyn to Harlem. It was a great opportunity. I’m glad I didn’t let it pass. My life could have been totally different.

What did you think of the summer program? 
It was great. They held an audition for the Dancing Through Barriers ensemble. I did the audition because I knew Miss Carol was going to be like, “Why didn’t you audition?” She made us audition for everything. Even if you knew that you couldn’t tap, she’d be like, “Go to the tap audition.” So I went, and they asked me to stay. I was like, “This was for fun, and I just auditioned because I knew I’d get in trouble if I didn’t.” They were like, “Talk to your parents and let them know that you really should be here.” I went home, and they were like, “No.

What do your parents do? 
My mom’s a pharmacist and my dad is a businessman. They’re very straightforward. I grew up in a very strict household—but fair. When I came back from New York, there was one week before I went to college.

Where were you going?
Dillard University in New Orleans. I had paid my tuition—everything. I wanted to find a place to take dance while I was there, and the issue was that my parents didn’t want me to have a car so there was no way to get to class and back every day even if I wanted to. I was like, I can’t not dance. I knew I was going to college, but I didn’t know I couldn’t dance. I’ve been doing this since I was three. So I even took my pointe shoes with me, and I would do relevés at night before I went to bed in my dorm room. People were like [Whispers], “She’s crazy.” I was just trying to stay in shape. I had always gone to school and then gone to dance. I got there and thought, This is not going to work. I called my mom and said, “I really like it here and I’m learning a lot, but I’m just not happy.” She was like, “It’ll get better, it’ll be fine—just stay focused on your schoolwork. You’re going to find new friends and all kinds of stuff to do and you’re only an hour away from Gretchen.” My best friend that I grew up dancing with was in Baton Rouge. I was like, “But that’s not enough. That’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to maybe go to Baton Rouge on the weekend to do what? If I’m in New Orleans, I might as well stay here.” [Laughs]

What did you do?
I called every day. The program at DTH didn't start until September, and it was only August so I had a couple of weeks to figure it out. I called my grandma and my pastor and said, “Can you talk to them, please?” My dad has a lot of frat brothers that I call my uncles, and I was like, “Can you talk to him, please?” Everyone I could think of, I would call. These were all people who had seen me dance growing up. Finally my parents were like, “If you go to New York, you get one chance. If you mess it up, you’re coming back.” I’ve been here for 11 years.

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