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Extend, Contract And Release

Nycole Ray may be our most compelling female dancer, and she's got a home at Dallas Black Dance Theatre

by Jerome Weeks 5 Oct 2016
Nycole Ray

Dance works have been commissioned with her in mind. She's been one of Dallas Black Dance Theatre's signature performers -- with her long limbs, her presence, her grace -- and these days, she's the artistic director of DBDT's second company, Encore! The late choreographer Bruce Wood created perhaps his most memorable solo for her. And Nycole Ray never even planned to stay in Dallas.

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Video: Dane Walters

Nycole Ray is so striking a dancer – the long limbs, the regal posture, the big expressive eyes – she’s inevitably asked, why aren’t you dancing with Alvin Ailey? With Paul Taylor? Or Bill T. Jones?

But the question is really the one many of our best North Texas artists face: You’re so good. Why aren’t you in New York?

Dallas Black Dance Theatre presents DanceAfrica at the City Performance Hall Friday and Saturday evenings, plus the DanceAfrica Festival Saturday at Annette Strauss Square.

“Honestly, for myself,” Ray says, “I don’t wish to live in a shoebox in New York and pay a lot of money for it.” She bursts out laughing. “Who wants to be cold? What dancer wants to be cold? That hurts. No, I love the heat, love it. So  — Dallas, Dallas is for me.”

That’s not what Ray was planning in 1998, however. She’d graduated from the California Institute of Fine Arts, had studied in London and was performing with the Lula Washington Contemporary Company in LA. Then a friend called and told her Dallas Black Dance Theatre needed temporary extras for ‘Porgy and Bess.’ With choreographer Hope Clarke, the company was creating an ambitious adaptation of the Gershwin classic set to Miles Davis’ famous 1959 jazz album.

Ray came down, auditioned, heard nothing definite, went back home. Two weeks later, Ann Williams, the founder of Dallas Black Dance, called.

“I’d been hoping to be an extra maybe for a summer, maybe for a couple tours,” Ray recalls. “And instead, she asked me if I’d join the company. I was so elated, I drove from LA to Dallas in two days by myself – what a wonderful adventure that was” — she cackles – “and went right into rehearsal when I got out of the car.”

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Nycole Ray (center) in “Simone.” Photo: Andy Phillipson.

Ray has been with Dallas Black Dance ever since — eighteen years, almost half the entire life of the 40-year-old dance company. She’s been one of their signature performers. A presence onstage, a power, a grace.

“She is a remarkable performer,” says Charles Santos, the director of TITAS, the dance presenter. He books some of the finest contemporary troupes in the country, so he knows from dancers. Ray, he says, “is not only a dancer, she’s a performing artist. She understands movement, she understands passion, she understands being an actress onstage. She encompasses all of performing when she’s onstage, which is one of the things I really like about her. She’s completely, totally, in the moment.”

“Well,” says Ray about those dramatic abilities, “when you’re in a company called Dallas Black Dance Theatre, there’s some theater involved.”

For all her talent and impact onstage, Ray’s always felt she had to catch up, learn everything she could about dance because she started studying it late. Thirteen — that’s late for a professional. But she took to it instantly — even if, as she laughingly admits, she faked her way through tap dancing for three years.

“I admit it!,” she says, covering her face with her hands. “I could never get the steps. I could look like I was doing them” — until her instructor finally had everyone else stop and demanded Ray show her the routine, show her some shuffle steps and time steps. “‘You’re not really making a sound, are you?’ she said to me. ‘No,’ I said” — Ray says it as meek and ashamed as a four-year-old with dad’s broken cellphone.

But Ray was always the tall, lanky kid — she ran track, too — and in dance, she found emotional and physical release. Ray was raised in Detroit by a single mother, a social worker. Detroit was tough. When mom came home wrung out, home life could be tough, too.

“We grew up in that era when whatever a parent said, you did and that was it. There were no ‘buts.’ So having to grow up holding in emotion a lot — and I was an emotional kid — having to hold that in, performance for me was being able to let that out.

“It was therapy for me. Still is.”

In 2010, Ann Williams commissioned the late Bruce Wood to choreograph a solo for Ray. It would become her signature work. It was Ray’s idea to make the solo about an everywoman: a housewife, a mother, sitting at the table where she prepares food, serves dinner, pays bills, tries to balance all the demands — and feels overwhelmed.

 

But the day before the last rehearsal, Wood called Ray, told her he had an idea, she should just roll with him when he got there.

“And I said, ‘OK, Bruce, whatever you want, I’ll do it. No problem.’ So he comes in, and he puts this powder all over the table. And he says, ‘I want you to do everything with this powder on the table.’ And I thought, ‘This is going to be magnificent.'”

It was. It is. It looks as if the woman has laid out flour to make bread – but now she flings it in the air, rolls and slides in it, punches through the clouds. The dance is furious, frantic, despairing and elegant.

Says Santos: “I don’t know any artist in this city who could do it anywhere near as good as she does. She is strong yet feminine in it. I love working with her. I’ve invited her to be in our Gala, and our Gala is all about bringing guest artists from outside. Only on rare occasions do we present someone from here, but I actually want to commission a piece for her.”

Ray still performs ‘The Edge of My Life … So Far,’ as the solo’s called. She’ll perform it in February for Dallas Black Dance. By the way — as Ray practically cackles when asked — “everyone wants to know what that powder is.” It turns out, over the year following the premiere, Ray and Wood experimented with it. They had to find the right mix to make it work.

“You need flour,” Ray explains, “because it’s heavy.” It’ll sink, it’ll stick to her clothing. But the mix also needs baby powder — “because baby powder is light, it’ll float in the air.”

There’s another, more personal secret in that solo. Every time Ray sits down to eat at home, she’s facing the table from “The Edge of My Life.” It’s an heirloom from her husband Charles’ family, but now, it’s their dining room table. (It had to be buttressed for the dance performance.)

So I ask Ray the obvious question: Is any of that solo about your mother?

A deep breath.

“I’d say so. I’d say so,” she says. “Well. Watching her balance all of that by herself with her children in the economic state we were in? Yeah. I’d say so. That had a lot to do with my mom.”

 

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‘Above & Below,’ choreographed by Nycole Ray.

These days, Ray and her husband have a son, nearly two years old. And since 2009, Ray’s been artistic director of Dallas Black Dance’s second company, Encore! That means she rehearses the dancers, works with visiting choreographers, does a bit of everything, including stage-managing the DanceAfrica performances this weekend. And she’s choreographed around a dozen works herself. After Ann Williams, Ray credits Bruce Wood — the late founder of the Bruce Wood Dance Project — as perhaps the biggest influence on her as a dancer, choreographer and director. Ray even choreographed a piece, ‘Above & Below,’ which premiered in the spring and was inspired by Wood and his influence on her.

“I loved it when he’d yell at me, I don’t know why,” she says with a laugh. “Well, I do know why. That meant he was paying attention to me amongst a sea of beautiful dancers. He was a very good friend, a mentor. He reassured me of who I was, as a dancer, as a woman — at a time when things were a little grey for me. He was a creative genius, his style so diverse. But working with him, one-on-one, he was quite the hard-ass. He could curse you out and then come around and tell you something that felt you were being hugged — and not just something that made you feel good, he was giving you wisdom, keeping you focused.”

But what Ray loves most about her current position at Dallas Black Dance Theatre is teaching the young dancers. She originally studied dance as education, she points out, so this is like a return to a foundational impulse.

“I love seeing them grow. I love watching them evolve. That’s got to be my favorite. Even though they’re adults, they’re my other children.”

Teaching them how to be dancers, passing along the wisdom she’s learned from mentors like Williams and Wood — Ray calls that “sharing my pearls.”

When did you first call yourself a professional dancer?

Hmmmm. Well, when I first said ‘I am a professional’ was probably after I graduated from college and was a member of Dayton Contemporary’s second company [in Ohio]. It was there that I learned to really be a performer, learned about professionalism. That was when it really hit me, like, “OK, I see now what the work is, how to work with a company, how to work with different personalities how to be a leader, how to follow.”

And I learned all of those things there, not necessarily in school.

Do you have any rituals you have to do before you perform — or you have to do before a rehearsal?

I do. I lay out my makeup so it’s organized. I know exactly what’s gonna go where, when and how. There’s a method and an order that’s very calming. And I have my headphones on. I listen to a variety of different things; it depends on what my first piece is. If it’s something high energy, I may have just a nice beat going on. If it’s something a little more thought-provoking and I have to get into a particular mindset, the music’ll be something a little more calming and soothing.

And I’m always sitting on a heating pad while all of this is going on — because we will have had company class already,  and so to stay warm, I sit on a heating pad, just to keep my thighs and my hamstrings and everything warm. And then when I’m done with all of that, I play the music of the first piece in my headphones. And I pretty much go through it mentally, and I imagine myself doing it. It’s not just going through the steps physically in my head. It is me actually coming out of my body and looking at myself doing it as an audience member, so to speak, so that I can see where I want a particular quality to be. What is my motivation and my expression at that time for a particular movement? And why do I do what I do and how does that translate to the audience?

Because for me, everything in a dance has a purpose. It has a meaning, there’s a reason one step goes into the other and how do you transition from one thing to another — emotionally and physically? And so, I’m also listening to the music for counts and sounds and change and inflections and things like that.

So I do all that beforehand.

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Ray in rehearsal with Claude Alexander and Hana Delong.

You were born and raised in Detroit, studied and worked in LA. What has living and working in North Texas for 18 years now meant to you as an artist? What has it given you? What has it prevented?

Well, first, I’d like to talk about the city of Dallas because I feel that it is a wonderful balance of two different things: There’s this country feel that I absolutely love — just a little country feel. And then, there’s the city itself, that city feel I love as well. It’s not too much; it’s just enough. And the two of those things put together for me create this wonderful balance, and I absolutely love it.

But with the growth of the city, with the new AT&T Performing Arts Center and the art that is coming into the city with the arts groups receiving more funding and more recognition, it is just wonderful. Dallas is becoming this wonderful mecca for art.

So I love that about the city and with that, staying here has been a wonderful catalyst for my career. We’re sort of in the middle, I can go to the East, I can go to the West and still get a fill of those cities and that side of the states, but I can still come back to Dallas.

What have you given up to be a professional dancer?

Well, I’d say time with family. I’ve been married for fourteen and a half years. We definitely haven’t spent as much time together as we would’ve liked, but my husband is very supportive of me. [He] was at every performance, I mean big or small, always there.

Now we have an almost two-year-old now, we’re very blessed for that. I’m just so thankful, and he’s just an amazing little boy. His name is Essex. And so I’m really trying to find that balance now, having a child along with all the other things. So ‘The Edge of My Life … So Far’ [the solo piece the late Bruce Wood choreographed for her] is really just beginning, now with a child. But I’d say time with my family, definitely.

What made you become a choreographer? People think it’s a natural evolution from dancer to choreographer but the vast majority of dancers never even try it.

Not at all. I mean, some dancers have the sensibility for it and a lot of ‘em don’t. I don’t know, it’s just being creative and open and having thoughts and ideas and not being afraid to try to put them out there. Some things work and some things don’t. You get better as you keep trying.

And then you look for good feedback about your work and be open for feedback about your work and be OK if something doesn’t really go well. The solo ‘Edge of My Life’? We have so much material on tape. I’d say eighty percent of what we tried we didn’t even use. You toss it to the side. I learned that from Bruce.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

 

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