When Ashley Murphy of Dance Theatre of Harlem explains to people back in her hometown of Shreveport, La. that she’s a ballerina by profession, she says they either “understand it or misunderstand it.” No, she tells the unbelieving, getting paid to dance doesn’t mean working only in Broadway or burlesque.
“When I left 11 years ago, the only things that people were going to school to be were doctors and lawyers and the quote-unquote regular jobs that people do,” she says with a laugh, recalling all those “What’s your real job?” queries.
One of 18 dancers in the revitalized and ethnically diverse DTH, Murphy will put her hard-earned virtuosity on full display when the company appears at NJPAC on Friday, Jan. 17 as part of the annual tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a profoundly touching way, DTH was co-founded in 1969 by New York City Ballet nobility – Arthur Mitchell, the pioneering African-American dancer and dancemaker – and the late choreographer Karel Shook, as an artistic response to King’s assassination.
Forced to shutter in 2004, the company was relaunched in 2012 (DTH’s school never closed during the hiatus) under the artistic leadership of Virginia Johnson – former prima ballerina of DTH – and resident choreographer Robert Garland, also a DTH alum.
The program is practically tailored for Murphy’s chameleon instincts for inhabiting wide-ranging dance styles: Balanchine’s neoclassical Agon; Garland’s spiritual Gloria, and past-carry-forward, a celebratory homage to the Harlem Renaissance by the husband-and-wife choreographic team of Thaddeus Davis and Tanya Wideman-Davis.
“It’s visually stunning,” remarks Murphy of Gloria, set to the music of Poulenc. In the mysterious role of a guiding spirit that seems to embody prayer, she threads her way through the other dancers who are oblivious to her presence; her centerpiece solo doesn’t occur until the fifth movement but promises to be worth the wait.
The sure-fire Agon tests the ensemble’s skills of attack and includes a showcase turn at partnering for a male dancer – at the time the Balanchine-Stravinsky work was created, that dancer was Arthur Mitchell, frequently paired with Diana Adams. “It’s an honor to be able to dance that piece because I came to Dance Theatre of Harlem when Arthur Mitchell was still there,” says Murphy. “The pas de deux was originally set on him and I feel that it’s kind of an ode to him.”
The arrival of the Davises in the rehearsal studio for past-carry-forward brings to mind the great creative collaboration of spouses Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, with the choreographers “kind of finishing each other’s sentences when it came to dance,” says Murphy. This journey toward the genesis of the Harlem Renaissance traces the migration of Southerners to New York, employing music by Golden Age jazzman Willie “The Lion” Smith, among others.
“It’s a portrayal of how the history of Harlem came to be and why we as Dance Theatre of Harlem are important as well,” Murphy explains, who gets to cut loose – a bit – in the dancehall and party scenes.
Murphy is exquisitely long-limbed – the better to enable her dreamy extensions – but she first gave those sturdy legs a workout by bouncing around on the living-room furniture. Her parents redirected her energy into gymnastics, which included ballet lessons. Knee surgery sidelined her as a gymnast, so she turned her attention to dance.
The first ballet she attended, coincidentally, was a DTH mixed bill highlighted by The Firebird at the Strand Theatre in Shreveport. Although she was only 3 at the time, she was mesmerized by the costuming. When she began classes at the Carol Anglin Dance Center, she staked a spot at the barre under a photo of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Patricia Barker and that became her workspace until she moved on at the age of 17. (She cites Barker as an inspiration, along with Gelsey Kirkland, Virginia Johnson and Aesha Ash.)
Murphy performed with Louisiana Dance Theatre and took summer intensives in New York at the schools of the Joffrey and Alvin Ailey companies. “It gave me a lot more focus and I had to get myself together when I was out of my comfort zone,” she says of her first forays into Manhattan, where she now lives.
The dancer’s alliance with DTH allowed her to tour overseas – pre-hiatus – and since reuniting with the company she has had roles set on her by choreographers Garland and Christopher L. Huggins (In the Mirror of Her Mind). Her silky yet powerful presence onstage drew the attention of the Clive Barnes Foundation, which nominated her in 2012 for one of its awards, given in recognition of young and emerging actors and dancers.
Murphy has been described as “a lovely lyrical dancer” by dance scribe Tobi Tobias, who added in a review of In the Mirror of Her Mind, “By the time the ballet concludes and she stretches her arms into an airy infinity, you want to lay the entire Antony Tudor repertory at her feet.” Her role in that work was also noticed favorably by The New York Times in a 2012 performance at the Joyce Theater, where she also essayed Balanchine’s Glinka Pas de Trois and Donald Byrd’s Contested Space.
Because the company is small in number and packaged for efficiency, Murphy notes, the DTH dancers tend to be tight as family. She is enthusiastic in her descriptions of the partnering styles of colleagues such as Da’Von Doane, Jehbreal Muhammad Jackson and Samuel Wilson.
“We’re very encouraging with each other,” she says. “When somebody’s about to go on stage and you know they don’t feel as well as they should, you just try to pump them up and give them some of your energy, do whatever you can to help your fellow man. … if they’re not dancing, you’ll be dancing. You want to do what you can to help everybody else.”
Jan. 10, 2014