Interview: Ray Mercer's Circle of Dance

By: Apr. 17, 2014

Ray Mercer's extraordinary dance schedule doesn't end when he puts away his giraffe stilts after an arduous ensemble performance at Disney's The Lion King. For the past 10 weeks, he added to his daily schedule by commuting to Washington, where he choreographed a recently-premiered modern dance for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

And when he's not taking an Amtrak train south, he can be found choreographing eight other commissions nationwide. That is, when he's not performing as a hyena or other African animals eight shows a week in the Disney behemoth.

"I've been with the show for 12 years now," after touring for two, "and have learned how to prepare so I'm not injured," said Mercer, the longest-serving male member of the show. "It's a strenuous show, and I think probably the biggest thing is mentality." Mercer dances the parts of dozens of animals in the production, usually in extraordinary costumes and puppetry. "Of course it's also an extremely physical challenge, and I practice yoga and prepare mentally so I have the stamina for every performance," he said.

Mercer's regimen includes grueling gym workouts to deal with the sheer enormity of the costume changes. "I go to the gym regularly and that helps tremendously in preparing for each show. I have an off and on switch; as soon as I come off stage, I shut down so I can rejuvenate and prepare once again."

Mercer has 15 costume changes during each performance. "I'm on what we call the giraffe track and walk on stilts on stage. Doing a lot of gymnastics helps and so does tumbling, and I'm also the fight captain. I maintain and keep the integrity of the fight scenes," he said. "Dancing will always be a passion no matter how many costume changes I need to make.'

The challenges of dancing in The Lion King are evergreen, he said. "The dancing in the show is extremely physical, especially when it comes to the tumbling. Tumbling can be the most difficult challenge at any given time. Of course, the stilt walking can be tricky and difficult, and I've got that down to a science," he said with a laugh.

"In the 12 years I've been in The Lion King, I've only fallen twice. Nothing serious. And I'm so glad to be in the giraffe track-it's one of the first animals to walk across the stage. It's so impactful and people love that," he said.

During the first act of the two-act musical, Mercer is on stage nearly all of the time. "I'm in pretty much all of the scenes," he said. "I'm very active throughout the entire show, which actually helps makes it go faster." The nearly three-hour show has been on Broadway since 1997, and has been seen by 50 million people worldwide. It continues to sell out each performance.

"I still can't wrap my head around the fact that we're still performing for sold-out audiences every night. I've see people wrapped around the sidewalk waiting to get in the show; it's really an incredible thing." The show continues to attract a multi-generational, multi-cultural ticket holder. "It's always been a mixed crowd-young people, older folk, celebrities, you name it. What always gets to me during the show is when you see or hear grown men crying. Then there are people who have come multiple times and bring their parents and children," he said. "It's just amazing."

Somehow Mercer has managed to successfully juggle both his physically demanding performances with his assorted choreography commissions.

"Last year alone I had 11 commissions," he said. "Disney has taken really good care of me," he laughed. "I wouldn't be the choreographer I am today if it wasn't for The Lion King."

In addition to his LION KING responsibilities, Mercer has found time to participate in Broadway's Gypsy of the Year, which raises money for AIDS charities, and Broadway Cares, which also raises funds for HIV/AIDS awareness through competitive performances from the Broadway community.

"I've won Broadway Cares seven times for my choreography," he said. "I get to work with my peers and it's been phenomenal."

Mercer began his dance training at age 17 and studied at the University of New Orleans, in Chicago and in New York. He was a guest artist for the Boston Ballet and has worked with Rod Stewart, Aretha Franklin and Garth Fagan.

Mercer was awarded the Joffrey Ballet's Choreographers of Color Award in 2012, and has been the resident choreographer for Alvin Ailey's BFA program. His impressive credentials extend to his choreographing ballets for many companies and universities, among them the New Jersey Ballet, the Pensacola Ballet and the Dallas Black Dance Theater. He is also the resident choreographer of Howard University's dance program.

One of his most recent and challenging commissions has been through the National Museum of African Arts' partnership with the Sultanate of Oman. Mercer's work, melding modern dance with Afro-Arabian music, which was part of the museum's series "Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa."

"It's been incredible working on this piece," Mercer said. "It's a little daunting, and I've been extremely sensitive to the Arab culture to create this work."

The project, funded by a $1.8 million gift from the Sultanate of Oman (the largest gift in the Smithsonian's history), will produce performing and visual arts, lecture series and exhibitions. Mercer's dance piece interprets elements of East Africans and Omani cultures. He worked with archivists at Howard University to craft a folk tale that encompasses the big questions surrounding love, marriage, ritual and celebration.

Mercer ties the piece together with a personal sensibility. A narrator introduces each dance and the audience is taken on a journey, he said. "I had an amazing writer who created a wonderful folk tale. I had to step outside of myself and it's been a lot of fun," he said. "I've had an incredible set designer and dancers-there are some amazingly talented dancers in D.C. who are really great artists."

Mercer commuted from Manhattan to Washington as soon as he got off work, he said of his rehearsal process. "Because of The Lion King, my day was extended," he recalled. "I do eight shows a week, so on Monday morning I would take a 6 a.m. train and arrive about 9:30. We'd rehearse for 14 hours and take the last train back at 3 a.m. and ready for work on Tuesday's evening's show. I was doing that for 10 weeks," he said of the grind.

"THE LION KING family has been incredibly supportive. I am blessed to be surrounded by so many talented people and be part of the biggest show in history."

The Lion King is at the Minskoff Theatre 200 West 45th Street.

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