ALIVE Q&A: Dance Theatre of Harlem's Ashley Murphy, On Returning to STL After A 10-Year Hiatus
When it comes to that genre of dance known for tutus and pointe shoes, ballerina Ashley Murphy knows what you’re thinking, and there’s a high probability she’ll set you straight: “Ballet isn’t boring,” she says. “That’s the first thing that everybody thinks when they’re going to the ballet. They’re thinking, ‘I’m going to be bored for the next two hours.’ But ballet isn’t boring. It’s what you put into it and what you take out of it.”
Murphy’s company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, can show ballet skeptics the light. They’re a group that has the distinguished title of being “the first black classical ballet company” but are, above all, a globally renowned company whose performances of classical and neoclassical ballet, as well as contemporary dance, resonate with and inspire audiences around the world.
After an lengthy hiatus, DTH comes to Touhill for two nights beginning tomorrow, Nov. 7, to show St. Louis audiences the talent of their revived company for the first time in a decade. ALIVE sat down with Murphy, who’s been called the “core” of the ensemble, to talk ballet, surviving layoffs and bacon.
ALIVE: What’s your favorite part of traveling with a company?
Murphy: I just love to tour and to go to different cities and to share the art of dance with everyone we come into contact with. I think it’s really important to bring the Dance Theatre of Harlem to St. Louis to show audiences how we’ve evolved over the past 10 years. That’s the great thing about returning to a city: We get to show the community wherever we are how we’ve evolved.
ALIVE: The last time DTH was in St. Louis was 10 years ago, before the company went on hiatus. How did you spend your time when the company wasn’t together?
Murphy: The company went on hiatus, but I was still trying to stay in shape and doing auditions. The dance teacher I trained with in Shreveport [Louisiana, where she grew up] made some calls and let me take classes at [The] Ailey [School, in NYC] for free.
ALIVE: And then when the city got too expensive to stay, you went back to Shreveport, you performed at Regional Dance America, you worked, until DTH called you back—without a company to offer you.
Murphy: At the time, the co-founder [Arthur] Mitchell was still there, and he and I always had a really close relationship, because he really saw the potential in me and really wanted me to continue my training and not give up just because the company was on hiatus. He was always very honest and always told me what I needed to do to improve, even if it hurt my feelings. I always grew up with that tough love at home, so it allowed me to thrive.
ALIVE: And you emerged, as Time Out says, as DTH’s “spiritual and aesthetic core.” What has the relaunch done for DTH?
Murphy: I consider myself a big sister to everyone. I’m the person everyone comes to when they’re having a bad day. I kind of know what to do to cheer up each individual. If a person likes bacon, I’ll slip them a little piece of bacon before rehearsal.
Murphy: Me and my friend Janelle, who dances with us, are the bacon buddies. We share bacon recipes.
ALIVE: What do you think the new company brings that is different from the old one? What has remained consistent?
Murphy: I think one thing that’s remained consistent is that DTH has proven to the world that African-Americans can do classical ballet as well as other styles of dance. It’s still surprising to people, which is still surprising to me that people haven’t seen African-American dancers en pointe, and it’s still baffling that people confuse DTH with Alvin Ailey [Dance Theater]. It’s something we’re still trying to educate people about.
I worked with Arthur Mitchell for nine years, I believe, so when Virginia [Johnson] stepped in, it was a new way of thinking and learning and doing everything, so you kind of have to go to back to the beginning and find out what she wants from you, what she’s looking for on the stage and off the stage and in the rehearsal. She really wants you to explore something—she doesn’t want to put you in a box of exactly what she wants. When you work one way for so long, it takes awhile to adjust.
ALIVE: What do you want the St. Louis audience to know about DTH’s upcoming performance?
Murphy: Come out and see the company, and I’m very confident that after seeing the company, they will want to come back every year because they’re so inspired.
Everyone will find something that’s their favorite thing when they come to DTH. And even if you don’t find a favorite thing—which I’m sure you will—at least you will go away learning something you didn’t know before. And usually that thing is that you like ballet.
Dance Theatre of Harlem performs at Touhill Nov. 7 at 8pm and Nov. 8 at 2pm and 8pm. For more information, visit Dance St. Louis’ website.