Pure Artistry
Dancer & choreographer Ray Mercer exemplifies why Broadway Cares
by George M. Johnson

Photo by Dirty Sugar Photography
Photo by Dirty Sugar Photography

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom Dancing with the Stars to So You Think You Can Dance, the art of poetry in motion has stormed back into our households on a weekly regular basis, where millions can tune in to see everything from twerking to the foxtrot. While most of the current generation is just getting acclimated to the long history of dance and the performing arts as an artistic expression of culture, choreographer and dancer Ray Mercer has long known its beauty and power. For the legendary performer, dance is more than a job—it is a way of life.

Ray Mercer, originally a native of Omaha, Nebraska, currently works on Broadway as a part of the cast of The Lion King. Starting his dance training at the age of seventeen, Ray studied at the University of New Orleans, as well as in Chicago and New York. His extensive résumé includes working with legends like Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Garth Fagan, and Louis Johnson, just to name a few.

Ray’s talents have taken him across the globe to teach master classes in dance and he has been featured in publications like The New York Times and Chicago Sun-Times for his work. His accolades prove that he is one of the best at what he does. Among his many honors, he has received Joffrey Ballet’s Choreographers of Color Award and Broadway’s Gypsy of the Year Award a record six times from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, including a run of four in a row from 2011–2014. He recently created “Pure Motion: An Evening of Dances by Ray Mercer,” a dance performance that helped raise funds for Broadway Cares, which provides services to individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses as well as grants to other similar organizations.

When researching Ray, I turned to YouTube to get a glimpse into the world of dance through his artistic vision. Ray’s pieces are vibrant and spellbinding, and they consist of power, grace and the transformative approach of spreading a socially conscious message through the art of dance. Video after video had me mesmerized as I watched dancer after dancer poetically convey imagery that scorched my soul while making my heart pound.

Just like the quickness of a movement in dance, Ray is hard to catch up with, between working on Broadway and simultaneously creating his own shows with full choreography created by him. I had the pleasure of taking a few moments of his time to get some insight on the legend known as Ray Mercer.

George M. Johnson: How long have you been involved in dance and what inspired you to get started?
Ray Mercer: I have been dancing since the age of seventeen. I started off as a competitive gymnast and transitioned into dance during my high school/college years. I took my first formal ballet class, and instantly fell in love with dance.

Name the worst thing and the funniest thing that has ever happened to you during a performance?
I am a Giraffe in The Lion King and during the opening number I fell onstage in my fourteen-feet-high stilts. Due to the restrictions of the costume the stage crew had to come on and drag me off by my legs, in front of 1,700 people! That was probably my worst and funniest all at once.

What has been the experience working on The Lion King for more than a decade, and how has that helped craft the way you create your own performances?
I am in my fourteenth year at The Lion King, and it has been one of the most fulfilling, challenging, and rewarding experiences of my life. It is the best thing that has happened to me, career-wise. I am constantly exposed to brilliant artists, lighting designers, wardrobe, musicians, actors, carpenters, and stage crew. It has taught me so much about the business. And to be a part of a show that has longevity and one of the longest and most successful shows in history is truly a blessing and an honor.

It has also allowed me to have access to some of the best dancers who are at the top of their game….This has allowed me to create freely and really has provided me with an amazing level of exposure. I am truly grateful.

What inspired you to create “Pure Motion” and collaborate with Broadway Cares in the fight against HIV and AIDS?
I have been presenting work for Broadway Cares’ Gypsy of the Year since 2005, and I have won the competition more than any other choreographer in their twenty-six-year history. So, they approached me about presenting all my winning works and two premiere works in an evening of dance. We went into pre-production in the summer and started rehearsals with the dancers in January [to prepare for the February 29–March 1 run of performances].

Do you have any personal connection to HIV that inspired you to do this project?
My biggest connection with HIV is Broadway Cares; I have worked with them for over fourteen years and not only have they given me a platform to create, but at the same time I feel like I am helping millions of people, not only in my community but all over the world.

Photo by Dirty Sugar Photography
Photo by Dirty Sugar Photography

How was the event? Any takeaways or thoughts?
“Pure Motion” was one of the highlights of my career. I was honored to have so many talented artists that were so dedicated to this project. It was one of those instances where hard work and dedication pays off. It was truly a magical moment! I am so glad that we were able to do it for a great cause.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope that my legacy will be one of pure artistry. That they will recognize my work for the way that it touches the human spirit. I am constantly challenging myself to produce good work that inspires and entertains!

If there was a piece of advice you could tell your younger self, what would it be and why?
I would tell myself to trust your instincts; they are there for a reason. And in life there are no short cuts; great things only happen through dedication and very hard work. Why? Because it is the key to success.

Ray Mercer is a perfect example of how art can imitate life. When you are dedicated to your craft you can also use that same motivation to change and impact the lives of others. Ray’s hard work and dedication throughout the years has not only helped provide a platform for him, but helped hundreds of others in the fight against the disease.

Catch up with Ray Mercer by logging on to: www.raymercerdance.com.

George M. Johnson writes the monthly column Our Story, Our Time for A&U.