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BWW Interview: Ray Mercer Puts All The Right Moves Into PURE MOTION for Broadway Cares

Award-winning choreographer Ray Mercer will present Pure Motion, an evening of his dances produced by and benefiting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The evening will feature two performances at 7 pm and 8:30 pm on Monday, February 29, 2016, at The Ailey Citigroup Theatre in New York City.

Mercer, winner of Joffrey Ballet's Choreographers of Color Award, has set his dynamic and thought-provoking works on companies such as Ailey II, Philadanco, and the New Jersey Ballet. He's worked with Aretha Franklin, Garth Fagan and Rod Stewart, and is entering his 14th year as a cast member of Disney's The Lion King. Mercer also has the distinction of winning the " Best Onstage Presentation" award seven times at Broadway Cares' annual Gypsy of the Year and Easter Bonnet Competition.

I spoke with Ray about his upcoming evening of dances.

Before we get to Pure Motion, can you tell me what it's been like to be a cast member of The Lion King for thirteen years?

I probably get asked this question more than any another question. It's been amazing because I'm so inspired by the show and the people. I really enjoy going to work and love working with the people in the production. It's wonderful to be performing in a show that's been on Broadway for so long and playing to sold out crowds. It truly doesn't feel like a job and thirteen years go by just like that. I've been having a great time with The Lion King and Disney has been very good to me.

Can you tell me how Pure Motion came about?

I've had a long-standing twelve-year relationship with both Broadway Cares (BC/EFA) and Dancers Responding to AIDS (DRA). I have won more "Gypsy of the Year" onstage presentations than any other choreographer in their 25-year history. This year I was approached by BC/EFA to present an evening of my choreographic works, specifically the pieces that have won "Gypsy of the Year" since 2005. I'll also be presenting two original works in the program.

Congratulations on winning that award seven times.

Thank you! I must say that it has been a huge honor to be acknowledged by my colleagues. All I wanted to do was to create good work that inspires people, but to get that acknowledgment and be honored by the Broadway community is such a huge blessing. I am extremely grateful.

Donna Vaughn and Jaysin McCulllom. Photo: Monica Simoes

How have rehearsals been going?

Rehearsals have been fantastic. The dancers have come in with such an amazing work ethic and I consider myself lucky to have them. They're all such talented dancers who are from the Broadway community as well as several who've danced with some incredible dance companies.

Your work has been called provocative, intense, passionate, and dynamic among other things. How did your style come about? What inspires you?

I've always been inspired by things that touch the human spirit. Things that make people feel emotions such as love, fear, anger, etc. I also like to create pieces that deal with social issues. I love to make people talk and I always want the audience to leave feeling something. The world around me inspires me as it's filled with so much energy and so many stories to be told. People, conversations, and books I've read also contribute to my story telling.

You've had such a wonderful pool of technical dancers to work with when you've done numbers utilizing the cast of The Lion King. How did you select the dancers for Pure Motion?

I say this all the time. I am probably one of the luckiest choreographers on earth. Not many choreographers can say that they have access to some of the best dancers, musicians, carpenters, lighting designers, actors, stage managers and costume designers. And yes, they are all in house at The Lion King. Not many dance makers have all of that at their fingertips.

I am fortunate to have cast mates that are amazing technical dancers who are willing to lend their time and talent. I've also developed a reputation in the dance community and have worked with some ridiculously talented dancers in the past. I just called on my resources and asked them to be a part of this project. The dancers always want to support BCEFA, so it's really a win-win situation for me.

L. Boyd, D.Rogan, J.Pruitt. Photo: Eduardo Patino, NYC

I know that you're premiering two new pieces for this show. Can you tell me a little about them?

Morgan James, a vocalist that I absolutely love, inspired the first one. I ran across a rendition of "Roxanne" by the Police, so I decided to use her version and create an all female piece. The second was inspired by relationships and I used an original piece of music composed by my fellow cast mate, Bonji Duma. He is an amazing composer. I am very excited about both works.

What would you like audiences to take away from the social commentary you evoke in your work?

I really think that as a choreographer I have the responsibility not only to entertain, but also to bring awareness. I would hope along with an evening of entertainment that I also bring light to some social issues. I want to take the audience on a roller coaster ride and want them to be on the edge of their seats the entire time. I try to create works that I would like to see.

What's your experience been like working with BC/EFA and DRA?

I can't thank BC/EFA and DRA for all of their support. Over the past 13 years they have watched me grow as a choreographer and have played a huge part in my choreographic career. What makes this even more special is that it is for such an amazing cause that helps so many people. It truly is art for a cause. Knowing that lending my time and creativity to these organizations that help so many, makes this evening of dance so incredibly special.

I'd like to give a big shout out and thank you to Tom Viola ( BC/EFA), who was instrumental in pushing this project forward. I'd also like to thank Scott Tucker and Michal Graziano ( BC/EFA) and Denise Roberts Hurlin and Christopher Davis ( DRA) for being an integral part of my development as a choreographer.

Ailey II in Ray Mercer's Something Tangible. Photo: Eduardo Patino, NYC

Is there anything else you would like to share about your work in Pure Motion?

I try to push the envelope with my dances. They're very visceral and physical. I hope the audience enjoys the energy and excitement of the evening but they also leave with a message. One of the most important things to remember is that all of the proceeds are going to an amazing cause that's been around for almost 26 years.

Thank you so much, Ray. I look forward to seeing your show on February 29th.

Ray Mercer. Photo by Dennis Johnston.

_______________________

The cast for PURE MOTION includes Donna Vaughn (Lion King), Lamar Baylor (Lion King), Kellen Stancil (Lion King), Pia Hamilton (Lion King), Lindsey Jackson (Lion King), Jaysin McCullom (Lion King), Camille Workman (Radio City Christmas Spectacular and former Lion King), Courtney Ortiz, Aubree Brown (former AileyII), Lauren Perry (former Complexion Contemporary Ballet), Savannah Joy Cobbs, Solomon Duma (former AileyII and Evidence Dance Theater), Tre Smith (Camille Brown Dancers), Josh Green (Wicked), Jeffrey Sousa (American In Paris), Randy Castillo, Jakob Karr (So You Think You Can Dance), and Jon Olsted ( former Netherlands Dance Theater).

Company Mgr/Producer: Jamal Lee Harris (Lion King), Original Spoken Word: L. Steven Taylor (Lion King/Mufasa), Vocalist: Morgan James

Tickets range from $40-$250. VIP ticket buyers for the second performance will enjoy a private reception with Mercer and the cast immediately after the 8:30 pm performance. Get tickets now.

Disney Theatrical Productions, The New York Times and United Airlines generously sponsor Pure Motion.

Check out Mercer's award-winning number from the 26th annual Gypsy of the Year.

Cover photo by Jon Dee.


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