New Studio Company Member Rachel Rohrich and senior company dancer Ashley Murphy-Wilson sat down (virtually) to chat about everything ballet including the road becoming a professional and advice for budding young dancers. Then, the tables turned and Ashley interviewed Rachel! Read the exchange below and let us know if you have any lingering questions in the comments!
Rachel Rohrich (RR): First off, what was your experience like as a student? Where are you from, when did you start dancing, how did you get into ballet, where did you train, etc?
Ashley Murphy-Wilson (AMW): I grew up in Shreveport in northwest Louisiana. After my mother took me to see the Dance Theatre of Harlem at the age of three, I knew I wanted to be a ballerina! I began dance classes shortly after with pre-ballet and tap with Carol Anglin in the basement of First Methodist Church. I also trained with a modern dance teacher (Luther Cox) for several years to expand upon my technique.
RR: What was your experience finding your first job as a professional? What company was this with? How did you know it was the right place for you?
AMW: My first job seemingly fell into my lap. Dance Theatre of Harlem returned to Shreveport in my senior year of high school. My teacher happened to know the ballet master of the company at the time and asked if I could take the warm-up class before the show. Overwhelmed by the presence of so many beautiful Black ballerinas and strong male dancers, I was awestruck! I took the class to the best of my ability while also observing how the professionals, each with their own unique approach, prepared themselves for the performance. After the class, the ballet master offered me a scholarship to attend the summer intensive in New York City! That summer I spent six weeks absorbing the new information like a sponge. Toward the end of the intensive, there was an audition for the second company, which I didn’t plan to attend because I was already enrolled in college, but the director encouraged me to do it anyway for the experience. At the end of the audition, I was one of the six dancers accepted into the second company for the next season! I spent one year in the second company before Arthur Mitchell chose me to be in the main company. The rest is history!!
RR: From your experience, what was the major difference between life as a student and life as a professional dancer? Were there any challenges for you with these differences? What aspect of professional/company life was difficult to acclimate to (if so)?
AMW: I consider myself lucky because I was able to acclimate well to company life. At Dance Theatre of Harlem, we had what we called “families.” This meant that when you joined the company, a family would “adopt” you. You would have a mother, father, and even sisters and brothers. As an apprentice, I was adopted by a father and mother (Andrea Long). I had a sister in Paunika Jones and several other siblings. This made the transition into company life so much easier. We all looked out for each other like a real family, especially because we toured the majority of the year. Whenever a challenge arose, there was someone there to offer advice or assistance. So whenever I would second guess myself or become unfocused, there was someone to “tell me about myself.” Tough love is something I always thrived on to be my best. To this day I still consider these dancers my family and often still rely on them when the going gets tough.
RR: Was there any part about student life/training you missed once you transitioned to company life?
AMW: If there is anything I miss about being a student, it would be that as a student all you have to worry about is your dancing. However, once you become a professional, you are held accountable for yourself and your career. Often this means learning to speak up and advocate for yourself. As a somewhat shy person, these were skills that I had to learn and must consciously and continuously work on.
RR: What would be your advice to your younger self as you started company life? And, to young dancers just now starting off in a company/studio company?
AMW: Some advice I would offer to my younger self and to those just starting their journeys as professionals would include avoiding comparisons to others and playing to your own strengths.
As dancers, we often get caught in the vicious cycle of comparing ourselves to other dancers. This can prove to be a very unhealthy habit. Instead, I would suggest being “our best selves” and, in that, exploring our own strengths. We have to remember that every dancer has strengths and weaknesses and that it takes these differences to make a company that is representative of the principles of the art form. What one dancer lacks, another can make up. I believe these ideals are what is needed in a corps de ballet rather than attempting to make carbon copies of dancers with identical body types and similar affectations.
RR: What would be your advice to students right now who are trying to find a job and improve during this strange time in the world (quarantine, training at home, etc)?
AMW: My advice to students who are trying to find a job and improve during this strange time would be to celebrate the small victories, take it one day at a time, try different techniques, and find new hobbies.
We have all struggled to stay in shape by taking class in our living rooms and kitchens. Let’s take a moment to celebrate that victory, because Lord knows it is tempting to just sit and watch Netflix all day! Each day re-evaluate your health (mentally and physically) and if you need a break… TAKE A BREAK!! Use this time to do research on the companies for which you would like to audition.
This time is also the perfect opportunity to try new techniques. Try a hip hop, jazz, tap, or contemporary class. There are so many virtual options available right now…TAKE ADVANTAGE!! New techniques will help you to become a more well-rounded dancer.
Finally, I would say to find new interests and hobbies. Learn to bake, try new recipes, or find a craft that teaches a new skill.
Questions from Ashley to Rachel:
AMW: What are your expectations going into The Washington Ballet Studio Company as a first-year professional?
RR: To be honest, I’m not really sure what to expect, especially starting out during a pandemic! Of course, I expect a lot of hard work and responsibility with this new position, as with anything related to ballet. I think that my years with TWSB in the professional division and as a trainee have prepared me well for this next step. I got to learn how company rehearsals work, how to manage the independence of living on my own, and how to keep myself accountable for my actions.
AMW: Are you nervous about anything in particular?
RR: Something that I’m both nervous and excited about is the new freedom that comes with being with a company. When you are in a school, you are constantly held under a watchful eye – getting corrected all the time, given a strict schedule, etc. In a company, you have much more freedom – from the way you take class to how you spend your break time. While I cherish my freedom, I am more aware that I am now the only one responsible for myself and my improvement. This is daunting coming from “school culture,” however I am excited for the challenge.
Also, as you said, now, there are other factors to consider other than just my dancing, such as the future of my career. I am also a naturally shy person, so speaking up for myself doesn’t come easy. I look forward to continuing to cultivate this skill as I think it’s a vital skill for any profession, especially in the arts.
AMW: What excites you most about joining the company?
RR: Performing!!! Performing is absolutely my favorite part of this art form. Not only is it exhilarating to be on stage, but it is such a special feeling to know you might be bringing joy to strangers in the audiences. The first time I performed with the company was in the 2018.19 season of The Nutcracker followed by The Sleeping Beauty. I will never forget what it was like to dance to live orchestra music for the first time – it gave me chills!
I’m also looking forward to getting to know my fellow dancers better! TWSB has brought me many lifelong friendships and I’m confident that the company will too.
AMW: What are your dream roles to dance?
RR: This one is so hard… I love so many ballets! However, if I had to choose, I would say that my dream roles are Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and Kitri in Don Quixote. The score of Swan Lakeis a masterpiece on its own, and when paired with the tragic storyline and complex duality of the White and Black Swans, a rich, layered ballet emerges. Dancing Swan Lake would definitely be a career highlight and dream come true. On the other hand, I also dream of dancing Kitri in Don Quixote, a very different role than Odette/Odile! I love the ferocity and energy of Don Quixote and the care-free nature of Kitri. In 2017, TWSB performed a condensed version of Don Q and it was the most fun I’ve ever had on stage!
While I dream of dancing these large principal roles, I also find so much value and joy in dancing corps roles, such as Swans in Swan Lake or Snow in The Nutcracker. There is something so special about dancing with a large group of dancers, breathing and moving as one body.
AMW: Is there anything you are NOT looking forward to?
RR: There really is nothing I am not looking forward to returning to the studio as a member of the Studio Company…. Except for the blisters! 😉
AMW: During the pandemic how have you maintained your focus as a new professional? How have you stayed motivated?
RR: During this time, the fact that I would be returning to TWB as a member of the Studio Company was definitely a driving force of my focus. Something I miss the most is performing on stage – it is truly such a special and sacred feeling that you cannot derive from anything else. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was difficult to find hope that one day returning to the studio and stage would be possible; training sometimes felt meaningless. Even though we still do not have a definite “stop” to this pandemic, I continually use this “end date” as a motivator. We will be back, we will be dancing together again, and we will be able to share art on stage, whenever that may be.
I’ve also found a lot of inspiration in watching archival performance videos! When I found my motivation wavering, I would watch a ballet on YouTube or on DVD to remind myself of what is at the end of all of this. I especially found motivation by watching old performances of Julie Kent and Xiomara Reyes, two dancers I deeply admire and respect.